We witness process and movement in Twombly’s grand, gestural Peony Blossom Paintings. Using acrylic, wax, crayon and pencil on wood panel, Twombly composes what could be called “painterly” works, if Nature itself might be called “painterly”—sweeping expressive color and texture in living and dying forms, compost, change. In The Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens relates the artistic philosophy of Leo Stein—art critic and brother of Gertrude Stein—asserting, “He (Stein) improvised a definition of art: that it is nature seen in the light of its significance, and recognizing that this significance was one of forms, he added ‘formal’ to ‘significance’” (Hall 276).
Peony Blossom Paintings, a work in six series—three of which are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago—explode the image of the flower; the massive scale of the blossoms—expressionist, textured brushstrokes within the “painterly planets” of the blossoms—suggest both homage and a supreme telescoping gesture. The sense of reverence contained within the act of observing closely the exuberance of life as it shines forth in the green and white painting, asserts decadence in the bright yellow and red painting, and moves towards decay in the autumnally colored painting. Twombly’s process highlights these notions of layers of creation and destruction—metaphorically and physically in his layering process—Twombly explains:
“I work in waves, because I’m impatient. Because due to a certain physicality, or lack of breath from standing, so I work in… an impatient way. It has to be done and I take liberties I wouldn’t have taken before. Like in these flower paintings… if I didn’t like what I was doing, I just did a thing round it without even looking to cover it out. I got all kinds of wonderful effects that I never achieved before. They all have beautiful passages, such large passages not like those early passages. I don’t know what excited me with the Blossoms. Sometimes it’s simplistic. If it’s too hot I do some cool paintings. Lots of time I like to enjoy myself” (Rondeau 28).
In this way, the viewer visually witnesses a record of Twombly’s layered process. Similarly, the forms themselves feel regenerative; some blooms seem to rain life into and reincarnate blossoms lower on the field of the paintings. Twombly’s choice of haikus, verses scrawled upon the wood panel in his earthy calligraphy, speak also to these notions of regeneration and homage; the two poets referenced in the series are Basho and Kikaku—Kikaku was Basho’s disciple—and the movement from Basho’s haiku to Kikaku’s haiku perhaps illumines a sort of creative cycle.
From the heart
Of the peony
A drunken bee
* * *
AH! The peonies
Took off his
* * *
Kikaku’s haiku is noted on each of the three paintings; in the green and white painting and in the bright yellow and red painting, the verse is written on the right side of the work; in the painting with deeper red and gold hues, the verse is written on the top left of the field, perhaps suggesting a shift, a conclusion, the passing of the flowers. Takarai Kikaku, an illustrious Japanese haiku poet alive during the Edo period, confronted complex subject matter with grace inherited from Basho;Basho asserted, “My style favors solitude and is delicate; Kikaku’s favors flashiness and is delicate. The delicacy marks him as belonging to my school” (Keene 125). His haiku “Before the Dawn” embodies his effect of sharpening beauty and violence to create a visual spark:
Before the Dawn
I have added the darkness—
The plum blossoms.
The peonies in the haiku referencing the samurai Kusunoki Masashige and the plum blossoms in “Before the Dawn” are like major chords which spring forth from a darker symphony—they highlight pacific tones set amongst a fertile, mysterious darkness. Yet the peonies themselves take off their own “armor” as the series progresses, as the vibrant petals fade and surrender to death. The sense of a sort of monument to Life shining in the eyes of Death, maintains creative tension within Kikaku’s oeuvre. This poignant haiku showcases motifs of duplicity and the inner, psychological landscape:
Kagura dance at night
the performer's breath white
inside his mask
Poet Joshua Corey describes the startling presence of the related works in the series: “After the coolness of that painting [the green and white peony painting] the red and yellow peonies on the next wall are a shock, blazing out with exuberant vulgarity: ketchup and mustard, horrorshow streaks of blood” (http://joshcorey.blogspot.com/2009_08_01_archive.html).
As an aside, Twombly’s motifs of history, love and violence converged in the “loving” act of vandalism by Rindy Sam, who kissed Twombly’s work Phaedrus, and left a mark for all time; in her words: "All I did was a kiss. It's a gesture of love, when I kissed, I wasn't thinking, I thought that the artist would've understood... This gesture was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art". (Sam was arrested and later charged with a monetary fine and community service) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6910377.stm).
The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts andto analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art scholars and art appraisers. It is interesting to note that as Cy Twombly brings the written word to his paintings as “allusive signs of a vast, branching culture,” visual artists such as William Hogarth used “colours instead of language,” and identified the visual arts as “only a much more complicated kind of writing” (Leeman 98, Cowley 1, Lindsay 7).
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Cowley, Robert L. S. Hogarth’s Marriage A-La-Mode. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Hall, James B. and Ulanov, Barry. Modern Culture and the Arts. New York: McGraw Hill Book
Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Leeman, Richard. Cy Twombly. Paris: Flammarion, 2005.
Lindsay, Jack. Hogarth: His Art and His World. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977.
Rondeau, James. Cy twombly: The Natural World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.