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Friday, September 4, 2009

Cy Twombly and Takarai Kikaku: Fruitful Convergence of Forms

The exhibition Cy Twombly: The Natural World, Selected Works 2000-2007, curated by James Rondeau, is currently in progress in the brilliant Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 11th, 2009. Twombly’s “gestural abstraction” and fastidious symbolism were born out of diverse influences—from his cohorts at Black Mountain College—Motherwell, Rauschenberg, and Cage, to his extensive travels through Spain, Italy, France, and North Africa, to the French New Realists and the automatic writing practices of the Surrealists. Art critic Richard Leeman addresses the ways in which Twombly’s work interfaces with literature: “Fragments of poems can in fact determine or influence the direction of a work and strike up a dialogue with it during its execution” (Leeman 96).Twombly’s recent Peony Blossom Paintings brings the poetic brushstrokes of Twombly, and the painterly verse of Basho and Kikaku into a deep harmony, perhaps doubling the resonance of the “cosmic center” from which poetry and painting emerge; Wallace Stevens:“There is a universal poetry that is reflected in everything. This remark approaches the idea of Baudelaire that there exists an unascertained and fundamental aesthetic, or order, of which poetry and paintings are manifestations…” (Hall 274).

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
For which
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

For presentation
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

When we first enter the gallery space containing The Peony Blossom Paintings, white spring peonies on an early spring green shine out like the violent radiance of light cast off the blade of a sword. “The peony quivers,” showing its aliveness, and Twombly’s own quivering hand.

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” (

The garish, rather bawdy relationships in this Twombly composition juxtaposed with the rather pacific green and white peony painting bring to mind notions of “violence and grace” or “love and violence”, as identified by Richard Leeman. To gaze at beauty is to take off one’s armor, to become susceptible to love and death—the samurai Kusunoki Masashige did indeed abandon his armor to pay tribute to the peony, becoming vulnerable to death and decay. Operating on the levels of both whimsy and dramatic spectacle, the floral arrangement, suspended in a sort of space, relates to the suspension of formal configurations and protective forms, such as the armor in the haiku. Twombly creates a “culture or an imagined universe” through the visual symbols and “’mosaic of quotations’” (Leeman 98).

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) (

The two untitled paintings in the peonies series which utilize shades of yellow and red confront one another from opposite walls of the gallery space; Twombly uses color as shadow (in maroons and gold) to metaphorically address the decline of beauty.
In this painting, the blooms are smaller and deeper, and the splatters and drips of paint seem to envelop the shriveled blooms using prolific background color, while the red streaks seem to suggest a sort of bloodshed. Through color, we are shown the passage of time; overcome by their younger jubilance, the peonies are overcome by time. If the young flowers perpetually tremble and quiver, the mature blossoms seem to continually decay and bring their dark heads earthward. Rondeau identifies the complexity of Twombly’s flora, which are “Invested with suggestions of mortality, violence, and sexuality” (Rondeau 34).

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).

Jessica Savitz
MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 814-8510

Should you desire to view any works of art featured in the online MIR Gallery, or if you would like to inquire about our appraisal services for your fine art, please do email: or call (312) 814-8510.


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
Company, 1972.

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.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.