I can think of no other recent painter whose work has been so intricately and delicately linked to poetry than Cy Twombly, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Incised directly into the paint in pencil are snippets of Keats and Rilke and Eliot, his ‘gauche scrawl’ (as Barthes called it) often compared to graffiti; but his ‘scrawl’ is more considered than that – like notes, like the artist reciting beautiful words that come back to him while painting, and then whispering them to us, his gestures meeting those of the great poets he loved. He said that painting was a ‘fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’ – the way these phrases float up to the viewer from the turbulent surfaces of his canvases. He was an artist who looked to the old world of Europe rather than the new world of America – surrounded for most of his adult life by the ruins of Rome, their grand inscriptions fragmented, worn away.
Those small snippets of poetry are like coded messages, a chart of the artist’s moods and desires, often mixed with scatological sketches of cocks and cunts (there the comparison to graffiti seems apt – his canvas like a blank wall waiting to be defiled). Twombly was drafted into the US army in the early 50s and assigned to the department of cryptography. At the same time he experimented with drawing blind, at night, to try and ‘unlearn’ what he had been taught. The paintings are there for us to work out – he gives clues, but no answers. We have to meet him in the dark.
I wrote a poem in response to the ‘Inverno’ canvas of his great ‘Quattro Stagioni cycle. It is for me is the most poignant, the most secretive of his seasons; sparse words obliterated by a storm of black and yellow veiled in bright white – like snow, like the sky wiped clean by coldness. Nicholas Cullinan describes it as a ‘mist of sorrow’. I wanted my poem to tell a story in fragments, ‘in a language no one understands’. The link to the poem at Tate Etc. is here: