An anachronic conversation: Cy Twombly and classical art

Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.

Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.

Cy Twombly's Venus (1975) in Athens
Cy Twombly’s Venus (1975) on display with Anadyomene (1981) and a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite. Photo Paris Tavitian, © Museum of Cycladic Art.

Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.

Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.

In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.

The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.

The Francois Vase
The François Vase, in its usual setting in Florence. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 4209.

But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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