"I’m not a pure; I’m not an abstractionist completely. There has to be a history behind the thought." 1
Cy Twombly, Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963.
Nine paintings, oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 204 x 134 cm each.
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Often lumped in with the Abstract Expressionist movement, the oeuvre of Cy Twombly (b. Lexington,Virginia, 1928; d. Rome, 2011) –with its signature style of graffiti-like scratches, scribbles, and frenetic line– in fact represents a rejection of the movement’s tenets. While the Abstract Expressionists made paintings that were monumental, almost polished, Twombly’s work, though large scale, is more fragile, and looser in its construction. Against his trademark white, cream, or black backgrounds, his distinctive marks are notable by how little of the canvas they usually fill, in contrast with the allover compositions of Jackson Pollock (b. Cody, Wyoming, 1912; d. East Hampton, New York, 1956). His long stints in Italy and his permanent move to Rome in 1957 led him down a different path than that of many American artists of his time. The gestural freedom of Abstract Expressionism was counterbalanced by and tethered to his fascination with European history, landscape, and classic mythology and literature.
In 1962 and 1963, Twombly’s paintings assumed a much more somber and anxious tone, as he took up a panoply of historical assassinations as his point of departure–a shift perhaps reflective of the darkening mood of the early 1960s, which witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The monumental series of abstract paintings Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963) serves as a summation of this agonized and singular phase in his career. Twombly takes as his subject the life and death of Aurelius Commodus (161–192 AD), son of Marco Aurelio and emperor of Rome, whose psychological instability has been blamed for the beginning of the decline of the Empire. Commodus’s reign was marked by political and economic instability. He became increasingly eccentric as his reign progressed: he believed himself to be the reincarnation of Hercules and would take part in gladiatorial combats. His sanity eventually declined, and he was assassinated. His death was followed by civil war in Rome.
The painting series is based on the cruelty, insanity, and eventual murder of Commodus. Conflict, opposition, and tension dominate the paintings’ compositions. Two whorls of matter hold the central focus of each piece, ranging in mood from serene, cloud-like structures to bleeding wounds, and culminating in a fiery apotheosis in the final panel. Blood-red paint seeps into each canvas, and the cycle gradually degenerates into a twisted mass of drips, smears, and splatters, evoking the violence and bloodshed of Commodus’s reign. Twombly chose a uniform gray background for all the canvases. Again, they build in intensity as the cold, gray backgrounds become increasingly interrupted by spatters of paint. The gray background acts as a negative space to counterbalance the bloody whirls and scabs of congealed impasto. Over this neutral backdrop, the line that runs along the middle of the paintings serves as a guiding mark to subdivide the composition. Many of the paintings also feature numerical sequences, often articulating the grids, graphs, and geometric axes that form the paintings’ skeletons. Despite the paintings’ intrinsic aesthetics of chaos and instability, a tightly controlled armature governs their composition.
1. Carmen Giménez, ed. Cy Twombly (Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2008), p. 54.
Ask students to look carefully at these paintings and describe them. Create a list of related adjectives for students to choose from (e.g., angry, calm, slow, or excited), but also encourage students to include their own adjectives on their list.
Ask students to consider the artwork title and who Commodus was: a Roman Emperor known for his psychological instability. The artist has said that he would like his paintings to capture a mood. What kind of mood do students think these paintings capture? What do the colors make them think of?
Ask students to imagine how Twombly might have painted this work. What kinds of tools might he have used? Was it a quick process or a slow one? What kinds of gestures did he use? Have students show one another these gestures. To what can students compare the marks in the painting?
Twombly said, “I work very fast. I sit for two or three hours and then in fifteen minutes I can do a painting.”  How do students think that this way of work affects the final result?
This artist considers each painting of a series to be part of a “sequence” rather than an “individual, isolated” image: “It’s like you can’t get everything in one painting. I don’t know why I do that–maybe they’re pages in a book.”  He compared the paintings of his series to the pages in a book. If the paintings were pages in a book, what story would they tell? What can you see in the paintings that make you say that?
2. Ibid. p. 52
3. Ibid. p. 58
– Twombly liked to listen to music, but he prefered “sentimental or emotional music”  to jazz, which he found to be too intellectual. Have students look at these paintings and discuss what kinds of music they might inspire. What kinds of instruments would make the music? Which adjectives could describe the tempo? Look together for music that could serve as a soundtrack for the paintings.
– Twombly said that his paintings tend to be inspired by outside influences: “I like something to jumpstart me–usually a place or a literary reference or an event that took place, to start me off. To give me a clarity or energy.” Poetry, in particular, often served as his starting point. He said, “I like poets because I can find a condensed phrase.”  Among his favorites were the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) and the Nobel Prize–winning modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). For this activity, students will make paintings based on phrases of poetry. They can choose their phrases or you can choose the phrases for them. When they have completed their poetry-inspired works, have the class try to match the phrases with the resulting paintings.
– In the mid-1950s, while working as a cryptographer in the US Army, Twombly developed his signature style of graffiti-like scratches, scribbles, and lines. Many critics have compared his works to graffiti, but Twombly himself was not quick to accept this assessment. He said, “graffiti is usually a protest, or has a reason for being naughty or aggressive,”  and stated that his work is neither. Do students think Twombly’s work has anything in common with graffiti? What makes it different? Organize a debate in clas about graffiti and its possible artistic value.
1. Carmen Giménez, ed. Cy Twombly (Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2008), p. 53.
2. Ibid., p. 54.
3. Ibid., p. 59.
Series: a number of objects or events arranged or coming one after the other in succession.
Abstract Expressionism: (New York, 1940s) a movement that stressed the spontaneous expression of emotion without reference to any representation of physical reality.
Resources on the web
History of Rome:
Cullinan, Nicholas. “Cy Twombly.” In Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection. Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Madrid: TF Editores, 2009.
Giménez, Carmen, ed. Cy Twombly. Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2008.