In those loving postcards once sent from the Bodleian, the philosopher Jacques Derrida notes it is necessary we demonstrate a letter always, and therefore ought not ever arrive at its destination, ‘it is not a misfortune, that’s life, living life’…
I sit in bed writing this, a couple of weeks on from the visit. It is raining outside and looks cold. I put this jumble of jottings down, as much as possible a kind of private viewing of the Cy Twombly exhibition at Tate Modern. In particular, I draw attention to the penultimate room:
This room brings together Twombly’s two versions of the Quattro Stagioni, or Four Seasons, which were painted when he was approaching his mid-sixties. They loosely follow a tradition in which each season also represents a different stage in life: spring is young and vital, summer sensual, autumn idle, while winter sees death encroaching. (Tate Modern)
The paintings are large canvases, over 3 x 2 metres. The two sets show a draft version and then a final version (amazing to see the initial ‘sketch’ on such a large scale). It is fascinating to see how the fluid, even random movement of paint is in fact carefully thought through. The eariler versions show a very conscious design, yet are not nearly as a vital as the final set. The Seasons offer a centerpoint to the exhibition, which is subtitled as ‘Cycles and Seasons’. I looked up in turn at these massive canvases. The Summer has now passed and Autumn is here and soon it will be Winter when everything must hibernate, before Spring comes round again when it all begins (or at least began)…
Quattro Stagioni, I: Primavera (1993-5)
“I dedicate” has no meaning other than the actual gesture by which I present what I have made (my work) to someone I love or admire. This is just what Twombly does: bearing only the dedication’s inscription, the canvas “vanishes”: all that is given is the action of giving … These are limit-canvases, not in that they involve no painting … but because the way the notion of oeuvre is suppressed – but not the painter’s relation to somone he loves (Roland Barthes)
In anticipation of the Cy Twombly exhibition I always had in mind to write something. His work fits with…
Quattro Stagioni, II: Estate (1993-5)
…my interests to take semiotics apart, to explore a certain ‘adventure’ of a so-called sub-semiotic.
Before anything else, there occur … paper, canvas, pencil, crayon, oil paint. Twombly imposes his materials not as something which will serve some purpose but as an absolute substance (Roland Barthes)
But like the marks upon the canvas, the ‘facts’ as Barthes suggests, I can’t get past the fact I was with ‘you’ as I walked over Millennium Bridge and saw the advertisement upon the former power station façade, shouting out the coming exhibition. Going away with only an umbrella that day, there was hope for a return visit.
Quattro Stagioni, III: Autunno (1993-5)
Twombly’s art consists in making things seen – not the things he represents … but those he manipulates. […] We might think that in order to express the pencil’s character it would have to be pressed hard, emphasized … Twombly thinks the opposite: by withholding the pressure of substance, by letting it come to rest quite causally, so that its texture is somewhat scattered, matter will reveal its essence … this is pencil. …we might say that the being of things is not their heaviness but in their lightness (Roland Barthes)
Given I had arrived into London alone I had tentatively invited my Dad to meet me at the exhibition, but as I suggested it his voice trailed off on the phone …I could only think of that moment in Proust’s The Guermantes Way when the narrator is awaiting a telephone call from his grandmother. In this case the whole apparatus of the telephone is of course much less embedded in everyday life; the call must be taken at the local post office. Being reminded of the novelty of the phone helps remind us of the strangeness and preciousness of another’s voice:
The dear one, the voice of the dear one speaking, are with us. But how far away they are! …I could feel more acutely how illusory the effect of such intimate proximity was, and at what a distance we can be from those we love at a moment when it seems we have only to stretch out our hand to retain them. A real presence, the voice that seems so close – but is in fact miles away! But it is also a foreglimpse of an eternal separation! Many times, as I listened in this way without seeing the woman who spoke to me from so far, I have felt that the voice was crying out to me from depths from which it would never emerge again, and I have experienced the anxiety which was one day to take hold of me when a voice would return like this (alone and no longer part of a body which I was never to see again) to murmur in my ear words I would dearly like to have kissed as they passed from lips forever turned to dust (Proust)
Quattro Stagioni, IV: Inverno (1993-5)
‘Modern’ art, he had said (other than works such as Salvador Dali’s and Picasso’s), was not really his thing – not when it resembled the painting of a child!
…words occur readily enough (“drawing”, “graphism”, “scratching”, “clumsy”, “childish”), immediately followed by an embarrassment of language… (Roland Barthes)
But there is a radical honesty in the ‘childish’ marks and it says (to me) the frisson between people should never be constrained:
To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation of release … and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse (Cy Twombly)
Twombly’s art … does not want to take anything; it hangs together, it floats, it drifts between desire… (Roland Barthes)
In amongst that drift, in that crisis, I will always know what I want. You don’t need to hide things much to end up burying it all so soon… that is why I relished the opportunity to stand before the marks and swirls of Cy Twombly. Like dreamscapes of automatic writing, which are not tethered by the constraints of language and society, the vitality of these painting stood over, no less loomed over, the sadness of/and retreat…