Monday, 22 September 2008

Cy Twombly is Painting Loss (Part 2)

Twombly wasn't really painting loss in Hero and Leandro, or was he? What he did was taking a poem based on Greek mythology and wove a different narrative for it. It was one of loss and sorrow. But nonetheless a far removed one all the same.

Yet, a couple of rooms before Hero and Leandro - and about ten years earlier - he was painting some of his own loss in Nini's Paintings. A series of five huge, 300x260cm tall, canvasses, in response to the sudden death of his gallerist's wife, Nini Pirandello, in 1971.

Cy Twombly, Nini's Painting, 1971, 261x300cm
Oil-based house paint, oil paint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas
Kunstmuseum Basel

They are all there is in the room, apart from a bench. They are all part of the same. Tall, wide, repetitive: scrawl upon scrawl upon scrawl on beige canvas. Unlike many of his other series, these five are so similar - it is difficult to discern which preceded the others. There is no numbering, no development. They are all simply Nini's Paintings. And that is important: it doesn't matter. It's melancholic sadness that repeats itself, over and over and over again. Not just across the canvasses, but in layer upon layer.

Much of the commentary on Twombly's work process remarked on such layering right throughout his work - the white housepaint that is used so frequently to undo what was before, e.g. also in the Poems to the Sea, or the centrality of the whites in Hero and Leandro, notably in Hero's drowning. It's gone and still it is there. Joane Eardley's work process was also driven by such layering: of paint, of dirt, of collage - in fact, any collagist actively builds this into her work process: to build up history, narratives, stories through such layering.

In many ways it's probably too neat an image - one of the things I like about collage or mixed media is the fusing of different layers, how they become something new, one, many, rather than staying separate.

Well, and that kind of goes back to mourning. The catalogue's opening paragraph on Nini's Paintings refers to Freud's 1915 essay on Mourning and Melancholia*. How, with any loss, mourning goes through all the previous ones to finally arrive at the most recent. [Well, and his argument is that melancholia occurs if that isn't happening right].

So, there is a layering, recalling, rewriting and perhaps fusing of past experiences. Working the way through the various rounds, experiences of loss... scrawling a name, different names over pages, over and over, whitening them out, adding new ones on top. And at some point the painting is done. Well, done in the sense that it can remain as what it is. And one can look at it.

It's funny. I read most of this when I was back home. But I remember the sheer physicality of those paintings in that room. Me sitting on that bench in the corner, they all around. It was about acknowledging the presence of something important.

Paintings I like? No, they are not pretty nor nice. They are important.

* - Hm, I tried to find a full text version of the text, but didn't; here's a summary of some sort:

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