A poet in paint
Author Mary Jacobus begins her book Reading Cy Twombly with a description of the poetry collection the artist left behind when he died: works by Sappho, Theocritus, Ovid, and Virgil, along with more modern writers such as Ezra Pound, George Sefaris, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Their names and their words — even whole passages of text — became a part of his paintings, scrawled in his irregular hand onto canvas and transformed from words to become word-images. “Writing, whether on canvas or paper, raises intriguing questions about the relation of the physical act of inscription or mark-making to the graphic gestures of drawing and painting, as well as to the material surface of the support,” Jacobus writes. “Twombly’s characteristic modes of mark-making include brush, crayon, pencil, and fingers — scratching, incising, smearing, and smudging.” In the book, published last fall by Princeton University Press, Jacobus takes the position that Twombly (1928-2011), a reader and lover of poetry, was shaped by it throughout his career, and it offered him what Jacobus calls a “solution to the dilemmas facing twentieth-century modern art.”
In the book, erudite and descriptive passages show how poetry became central to Twombly. Jacobus illuminates the import of one medium on another, going beyond drawing an affinity between art and poetry to reveal Twombly as an artist engaged in deep study who sought not just correspondences between the mediums, but unity.
In the first chapter, Jacobus looks back to a formative trip to Italy and North Africa that Twombly took with artist Robert Rauschenberg in the early 1950s. In North Africa, Twombly was drawn to fetish and ritual implements, which, along with the Moroccan landscape, inspired the forms in his paintings from the period, to which he gave foreign-sounding names. His paintings from this time show rough-drawn shapes, heavily outlined in black, which were gestural and suggestive rather than representational. His treatment of forms in these early works set the stage for his approach to poetry. “Beautiful lines of poetry replace alien names,” Jacobus writes, “instead of fetish objects, a palimpsest of quotations, date stamped with obscurely personal and cultural associations. Instead of the fetish, words.”
The second chapter, “Psychogram and Parnassus: How (Not) to Read a Twombly,” further elucidates a continuing use of words in a visual lexicon which could be, at times, indecipherable, wiped out, smudged, and painted over. The implication is that actually reading the words in a Twombly in order to “get” the painting is not the way to read a Twombly. It wasn’t the meaning of the words he used that explained his paintings, but an evocation, an emotion, or a feeling, perhaps first gleaned in words but then transmogrified. Twombly relocated these scripts from the formal structure of a poem to the wild, spontaneous, and dynamic realm of painting. He found, in the rhythm and flow of language, an analogy in the artistic process. Rather than riddles to be deciphered, his text works become like points in a river, where meanings and interpretations are fluid. “Twombly’s composition becomes a kind of ‘open form,’ inviting the viewer to participate in a temporal experience like that of modern music — a continuum in which any start or stopping-point can be chosen at random, and the act of listening itself creates meaning,” she writes. The chapter focuses on a group of Twombly’s paintings made in Rome in the 1960s, where he encountered the Vatican frescoes of Raphael, naming some of his own paintings for these celebrated Renaissance works. In some of these compositions, words appear, and not always from poetry. In his Birth of Venus from 1962, for instance, his signature, the date, and the place name (Rome), form a part of the work, scribble-like and stylistically the same as the canvas’s other drawn marks, but given prominent placement. Compare the text to the painting’s linear pencil and crayon marks, with which they have the most in common, and the treatment is the same. Visually, the only thing separating them is our own ability to interpret some marks as words and others as meaningless scrawl.
One chapter is devoted to the vagueness of Twombly’s use of language, which Jacobus shows is in service to his sense of abstraction. She begins the chapter discussing his painting Herodiade (1960), which contains allusions to French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s verse drama of the same name, as well as the poem’s opening lines. The painting, she points out, also bears the trace of Twombly’s own fingerprints. She writes that “Twombly’s Herodiade aims to paint, not the poetry but the effect it produces: the artist’s crimson finger marks drawn across the canvas.” She provides further analysis of Twombly’s works Poems to the Sea and
Letter of Resignation, continuing to note comparisons between Twombly’s painting and Mallarmé’s verse. She cites French theorist Roland Barthes, who equated Twombly’s deconstruction of writing to Mallarmé’s deconstruction of the poetic form, a “deliberate disjunction,” she writes of Mallarmé, “at which he aimed in his poetry.”
In later chapters, we see the impact of haiku on Twombly and its use in his work. His Blossoms series, inspired by peonies, include lines of haiku and recall the use of blossoms on Japanese screens. The peony has associations in the East with transience, selflessness, and is a symbol of the aesthetic beauty of nature. But Jacobus mentions its classical roots, too, speculating on Twombly’s use of the peony as Dionysian. “In the language of flowers, the Apollonian subject — dreamer, shaper, artist — falls under the influence, like the drunken bee of Twombly’s liquid paint-world.” The paintings from this period (circa 2007), a late one for the artist, are lush, vibrant, and messy in the way he lets the paint drip as though the flowers were bleeding white, green, and blood red. Jacobus writes that the peony paintings are like a haiku, which typically focuses on a single natural image. “They weren’t about peonies,” she quotes him as saying, “they’re just about blooming.” That sounds like something you can say of a haiku and the conclusion suggested, if not emphatically stated, is that a painting can, in fact, be a haiku. The portrait she creates of Twombly confirms the position, stated in her opening pages, that Twombly was indeed a poet in paint.
“Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint” by Mary Jacobus is published by Princeton University Press.