CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
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The Elegant Eye: Works from an Exceptional International Collection
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)

Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II)

CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II)
signed with the artist's initials, inscribed and dated 'C T. 04 Gaeta' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and crayon on wood panel, in artist's wood frame
104 5⁄8 x 79 in. (265.6 x 200.1 cm.)
Executed in 2004.
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume 5 1996-2007, Munich, 2009, pp. 125-127 (illustrated).
N. Pavlouskova, Cy Twombly Late Paintings 2003-2011, New York, 2015, pp. 16 and 38 (illustrated).
Moscow, Red October Factory (Gagosian Gallery exh.), For what you are about to receive, September-October 2008, p. 149 (illustrated).


Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale


Plunging into the whirlpool of madness, Dionysus always comes up again, ascending from the underworld to the heavens. Malcolm Bull

With its vermillion loops and swirls dancing before an ivory ground more than eight feet high, Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) is an explosive work from the first iteration of Cy Twombly’s late, great Bacchus cycle. It is one of six Bacchus paintings completed on wood panel in the artist’s studio in Gaeta, Italy, in 2004. He would go on to develop the series in two subsequent groups painted on canvas in 2005 and 2008: the three largest of the final group are now in the permanent collection of Tate, London. Here, the resistant wooden support amplifies the liquid drama of his brushwork, which pools, bleeds and rains red tracks down the surface. Twombly’s vivid, energetic gestures—remarkable for an artist in his seventies—capture the spirit of the deity who gives the series his name: Bacchus, or Dionysus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, revelry, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Painted against the backdrop of unfolding conflict in Iraq, Twombly’s Bacchus works conjure a sense of violence and excess, while also embodying a vital, defiant and disinhibited life-force. Where some others in the group refer to Bacchus Mainomenos—the god in raging, violent frenzy—the present painting is inscribed Bacchus Psilax. Psilax denotes Bacchus’s “winged” aspect, invoking the Dionysian surrender-of-self to uplift, freedom and flight. The work is a transcendent climax to Twombly’s career-long engagement with mythic themes, and a paean to the exhilaration of the creative act.

By the time Twombly painted the present work, Bacchus had been a presence in his art, in one form or another, for some four decades. His festive, orgiastic Ferragosto paintings of 1961, painted soon after he had settled in Rome, were bacchanals of color and flesh. The virile god was the subject of his phallic Dionysus collage of 1975. His Bacchanalia works (1977, Museum Brandhorst, Munich) placed a study for Nicolas Poussin’s 1636 party scene The Triumph of Pan amid the cycle of changing seasons. His Bacchus triptych of 1981 was adorned with a bunch of grapes. Real-world violence, too, had colored Twombly’s works before: the 1963 masterpiece Nine Discourses on Commodus (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao), inspired by the Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus’ descent into madness, has been seen as a response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his Bacchus paintings of the new millennium, Twombly achieved an epic synthesis of these ideas. Distilled to ribbons of red, the works are as concise as they are visceral: conflating wine and blood, celebration and carnage, they, like the god, are many things at once.

You Bakkhai,
you women of Thebes,
your beautiful victory finishes in tears,
your glorious game ends in lamentation,
your lovely hand streams with blood
as it lifts your own son!
Euripides, Bakkhai, trans. Anne Carson

Bursting and blooming in sanguine sweeps and coils, the present painting might track the upward flight-path of spirit in rapture, or a cataclysm of debauched violence. In Greco-Roman myth, the maenads or Bacchantes who followed Bacchus’ cult were women endowed with extraordinary strength: they would celebrate Bacchic rites by sacrificing animals and uprooting trees, drinking wine and consuming raw flesh. In Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, first performed in 405 BC, Bacchus punishes King Pentheus of Thebes, who claims that he is not a son of Zeus, by sending the city’s women into an ecstatic mania. These Bacchae—his own mother and aunts among them—tear Pentheus limb from limb. “He is a young god”, writes Anne Carson in the introduction to her translation of the play. “Mythologically obscure, always just arriving at some new place to disrupt the status quo, wearing the start of a smile … Dionysos does not explain or regret anything. He is pleased if he can cause you to perform, despite your plan, despite your politics, despite your neuroses, despite even your Dionysian theories of self, something quite previous, the desire before the desire, the lick of beginning to know you don’t know. If life is a stage, that is the show” (A. Carson, Bakkhai, New York 2020, n.p.).

While the Bacchus works might be seen to warn against the madness and hubris of war, they are also alive with an exalted sense of vigor and dynamism. They are among the most fluid and theatrical works of Twombly’s career. Their apparent bloodiness is equally redolent of the “wine-dark sea” of Homer’s Iliad: in the poem, Bacchus himself flees into the sea after his cult is driven out of Thracia by King Lycurgus. Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, a town on the coast between Rome and Naples, overlooks the same mythic waters. The artist linked red wine, too, with a loosening of imaginative flow. “I might have some wine”, he told David Sylvester, “to stimulate a free passage of thought” (C. Twombly, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2001, p. 177). In the realms of gods and men alike, the Dionysian impulse can be both destructive and creative. This doubleness is evoked in Twombly’s wheeling brushstrokes, which move from highs to lows, ecstasy to agony, in cyclical motion.

Take it flatly, a plane. On it, how can a man throw his shadow, make this the illumination of his experience, how put his weight exactly—there? Charles Olson
In his 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche set out a dialectic between Dionysian and Apollonian canons. He saw the former as encompassing forces of wild passion, unrestrained emotion and chaos, and the latter, relating to the rational god Apollo—another son of Zeus—as appealing to order, purity and logic. This idea has been influential on modern thinking about art, with the Dionysian mode becoming a shorthand for rule-breaking, excess and sensory abandon. In 1957, Twombly explained his own process in distinctly Dionysian terms. “To paint”, he said, “involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states … Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization” (C. Twombly “Signs”, L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2, August – September 1957, p. 32).

The line is the feeling. Cy Twombly

This sensational, experiential line—and in particular the looping form seen in the Bacchus paintings—is a constant in Twombly’s work. He had first trained his eye to let go of his hand in the 1950s, while, working as a cryptographer for the United States army, he would draw in the dark at night. Seemingly calligraphic, his line broke free from its sign value to become something more free and immediate. “It’s like a nervous system”, he later said. “It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning” (C. Twombly, quoted in D. Sylvester, ibid., p. 179). The present painting’s line ranges among feelings like an exploratory tendril: from broad veins and marbled pools to fine filigrees of vertical dripping, a pulsating life force electrifies its every movement.

Twombly’s line spiraled from Dionysian to Apollonian and back again across his career. Following the whirling, carnal conflagrations of his early-1960s canvases, which invoked not only the summer Ferragosto celebrations in Rome but also the passions of mythical figures such as Leda, Venus, Cupid and Galatea, he retreated to a more Apollonian style in his “blackboard” works later that decade. Their lasso-like white loops recalled the Palmer handwriting drills taught to children in American schools during Twombly’s youth, as well as the “Deluge” drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, and their cool aesthetic offered a riposte to critics who had derided his paintings as floridly “European.” In the early 1980s, Twombly visited the Afghan province of Nuristan, where he was impressed by the ancestral traditions of the Kalash people, whose ritual dances involve the attainment of a trance-like state. His Suma drawings of this period saw the Dionysian impulse rise again: they are rushing, scribbled vortexes, evoking a merger of physical and spiritual release. Their bright red hues anticipate those in the present work.

Twombly painted his Bacchus works using large brushes fixed to long handles, in a manner that Nicholas Cullinan has compared to Matisse’s creation of the vast wall-paintings in his chapel at Vence. When the 2005 group was shown in his Tate retrospective of 2008—the sight of which spurred him to create his final instalment of Bacchus paintings that year, including the three he later donated to the museum—the artist spoke to Sir Nicholas Serota of his pleasure in creating the series. “It was just very physical,” he said; “it’s a process. I tried to do one since then but it didn’t work. It was the sensation of the moment, you can’t warm it over, unless you want mannerism.” The works’ baroque splendor, however, was marshalled with intense concentration: like Jackson Pollock, who carefully directed the drips and splashes of his paintings, Twombly deployed his Dionysian exuberance with an Apollonian clarity of vision. “On Bacchus,” he said, “it’s complete control” (C. Twombly in conversation with N. Serota, “History Beyond the Thought”, in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. Tate, London 2008, pp. 47-48, 49).

The rise and fall of Twombly’s line is a reminder that nothing stays the same. In one light, the present painting might be seen to recall the unravelling “widening gyre” of W. B. Yeats’ 1919 poem “The Second Coming”, where “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. Twombly always had an eye on events outside his studio. In another light, it is a spirited movement of punch-drunk pleasure: the dance of an old painter intoxicated with the powers of a young god, his brush charged with the stuff of life itself. Both sides of Bacchus are entwined in Twombly’s inimitable line. As in all of his greatest works, its invocations of the past are twinned with the immediate, visceral force of the artist’s hand, departing and returning through time and space in an eternal flight of imagination.

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