The week before I started the course I visited Tate Liverpool and looked at everything that I could see free of charge. I wandered around aimlessly and liked certain pieces but not others but realised that I lacked the language to describe and the ability to interpret what I saw. I've never studied history of art or art criticism and I came away feeling that I could have got more out of the experience.
When my course materials arrived, it so happened that I was going back through Liverpool so I decided to go back to the Tate and visit the exhibition- 'Turner, Monet, Twombly - Later Paintings'. Before I went I read through the OCA booklet ' Looking at Other Artists'. I decided to look at the exhibition and then choose one or two images to annotate.
The exhibition was divided into sections in which works by each artist dealing with similar themes were juxtaposed to allow comparison of their different ways of tackling the subject matter.
I had never heard of Cy Twombly nor seen his work before the exhibition but I was immediately drawn to it. The large- scale colourful pieces were arresting. Getting up close I could see that the paint had been applied thickly, sometimes by squeezing it directly onto the board and then mixing it with the fingers. I could see the artist's finger marks and in some cases bits of paintbrush embedded in the paint. I imagined the artist working quickly and the sensual experience of applying the paint in this way. In some cases liquid paint had been allowed to run down the board or canvas without any attempt to control it. I got the impression that the artist wanted us to look at the medium and allowed the paint itself to become central to the effect of his work rather than being secondary to the image produced. I chose to annotate one of Twombly's paintings.
Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe), 1985
This is a large painting 202x245cm and the artist has used a limited palette with crimson and dark green dominating the lower left corner and greys and whites across the central diagonal becoming lighter up into the upper right corner. There is a strong diagonal feeling to the painting and this along with the paint application makes it seem dynamic. In the lower left hand corner the paint is thickly applied and finger marks can be seen as well as small rivers and drips of paint which have been allowed to flow down the canvas. White paint has been allowed to run down over the red. In the central portion, almost horizontal irregular marks of thick white paint have been applied over a background of a variety of greys. Moving towards the upper right corner, the paint application is flatter with fewer runs of liquid and overall a lighter tone of grey. There is a lot of movement in this painting with emphasis on the lower left and central portions of the canvas with the upper right corner being quieter.
I thought I would try to interpret this 'cold' without knowing anything about Twombly, Hero and Leandro or Marlowe. I got a feeling of sensuality (from the paint application) and maybe even violence from the painting and my first thought was that maybe it represented a clash between two very different personalities. Perhaps the crimson represented someone filled with passion and anger and the central agitation was to do with conflict with a quieter personality in the upper right. My second thought was that it might represent an act of violence with the reds representing blood in a more literal way.
On the opposite wall to this painting was a painting by Turner entitled 'The Parting of Hero and Leander' painted in 1837.
This painting also has a diagonal aspect to the composition and on the right side of the painting there is an almost circular arrangement of clouds and rocks drawing the eye in to the reflected light on a stormy sea at the centre. Turning back to the Twombly, I realised that the white marks in the centre could be read as waves or reflected light on the sea. It was possible that Twombly was directly referencing the earlier work by Turner.
The blurb below the Turner outlined the myth of Hero and Leander. "Leander is engulfed by the sea as he swims across the Hellespont to visit the beautiful Hero. " So there is a violent death in the painting and perhaps the crimson represents the blood of Leandro. The upper right corner representing his loss under the water.
Since returning home I have read the exhibition catalogue which sheds more light on the interpretation of the painting and it's reference to Christopher Marlowe's poem. " Twombly alludes to the roses strewn about Hero's floor, the gift of her virginity, represented by the runs of bloody paint that mingle with Leandro's sexual discharge, and her tears, a 'stream of liquid pearl, which down her face/ Made milk white paths' that eventually form the colour of the pearly sea". Turner, Monet, Twombly - Later Paintings. Jeremy Lewinson. Tate Publishing 2012 pp 84.
I enjoyed this exercise, and although my interpretation of the painting was not exactly what the artist intended I did get the feelings of sensuality and violence that were intended by the artist. In that respect I do think that the painting is successful in that an an uneducated person can respond to it and yet the narrative aspect of the painting is not obvious and the viewer is forced to ask questions and think about the interpretation.
Another question raised, is why Twombly, working in the late 20th century would choose such a subject. In Turner's day, Greek and Roman mythology would be familiar to the educated classes who viewed his works. In the late 20th century less emphasis is placed on this in education so Twombly could not have expected that viewers (such as myself) would necessarily know about the mythological subjects he chose. That, it seems is part of the point. " Twombly's mythical paintings are about loss: loss of memory, loss of learning, loss of culture" " What Twombly presents is the fragment of the myth, just as what he saw around his home in Italy were the archaeological fragments of Roman, Greek or Etruscan civilisations long gone". Turner, Monet, Twombly - Later Paintings. Jeremy Lewinson. Tate Publishing. 2012 pp. 19. Strangely, this aspect also resonates with me as I live about and hour's drive from Gaeta which is a place where Twombly did a lot of his work. It is true that there are many archeological fragments in this area. Within a 10 mile radius of our house there is a roman amphitheatre which is completely overgrown in a farmer's field and two roman bridges, one of which has been completely ruined by a well meaning but unsympathetic attempt at restoration. In addition, looking at his painting, although enjoyable, did give me an acute sense of some of the big gaps in my education!