In: Mythology

Okay, there’s a lot of red… some nice white strokes, a hint of yellow, and… now they’ve all blended into orange and pink dripping endlessly down the canvas. And then there’s the black lines and swirls. Are they supposed to be scratches? What’s written in that corner? It’s all so big, I can’t quite make out the top…

I’m not sure I know what I’m looking at but, I can feel it. And that’s what makes the works of American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) so significant. His energy can be as subtle as the breath of a mark on a cream-colored canvas, or as animated as the manic blood red loops of Bacchus (2005). No matter the intensity of his energy, one element remains coherent —the unpredictability of where his emotions will take him.

The Centre Pompidou presents an in-depth retrospective of the artist’s long career, beginning in the 1950s and right up until his death in 2011. The show revolves around three major cycles —Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), Fifty Days at Iliam (1978), and Coronation of Sesostris (2000). The exhibition, organized chronologically, includes some 140 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs featuring well-known works such as Blooming (2001-08), as well as others never previously exhibited in France.

Vue de la série Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963 Guggenheim Bilbao Museo, Bilbao © Cy Twombly Foundation

The journey begins with a step into the bare landscape of cream washes, imperfect whites, and clumsy scribbles. The first gallery encompasses Twombly’s early works from the 1950s. During this period he was still in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia and he also began his travels to Europe and North Africa accompanied by his friend Robert Rauschenberg. Often characterized as graffiti (a label which Twombly rejected), his erratic, aggressive lines fill the entire surface, almost as if someone was trying to claw their way out from behind the canvas.

Moving further into this strange new world we discover Twombly’s life-long muse —the Mediterranean. The artist was fascinated by it since his first visits to Rome in the ’50s, and this fascination intensified during the periods that he lived in Italy. The iconography, metaphors, and myths of ancient civilizations left a strong mark on his works. From Egyptians to Greeks, Romans, and Persians, Twombly acts as an archaeologist, layering references from the classical past while drawing connections to contemporary figures and painting practices such as abstraction and minimalism.

‘Coronation of Sesostris, Part VI’, 2000. Acrylique, bâton de peinture, crayon à la cire, mine de plomb sur toile Pinault Collection © Cy Twombly Foundation, courtesy Pinault Collection.

The subject matter of Twombly’s oeuvre suggests a vast literary knowledge and a deep understanding of the human psyche. He reinvigorates the ancient myths and histories of Achilles, Eros, Venus, Apollo, Mars, and Commodus with an instinctual understanding of not only their narratives but also their spirits, their dramas and traumas. We can feel the rage of Commodus, the cruel Roman tyrant, as he unleashes terror and chaos in Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). With each successive canvas the battle between white (innocence and victims) and red (power and oppression) grows more aggressive. Textured paint is thrown back and forth until at last a fresh reddish-orange glistens with victory.

Perhaps the most intriguing and complex element of Twombly’s artistic approach is his use of language. He creates visual poetry by merging the principles of abstract expressionism and the lyricism of words. Coming off as difficult and rather unclear, his script is largely incomprehensible. A mishmash of singular words or illegible phrases float throughout his compositions neglecting any true syntax or logic. The words are activated and energized by the dynamic forms, expressive lines, and bold colors that accompany them. The ten-part series Coronation of Sesostris (2000) perfectly demonstrates how Twombly blends language and image so that each complements and fulfills the other. Referencing Egyptian sun god Ra,  Egyptian king Sesostris I, ancient Greek poets Sappho and Alcman, and contemporary poet Patricia Waters, the series shows the artist’s unrelenting dedication to narrative and ancient civilizations.

Twombly is a modern poet. His work can most easily be understood as an emotional and intellectual reaction to an understanding of the past, expressed through the language of color, form, and writing. It possesses an archaic energy that surpasses traditional and one-dimensional representations of history and instead strives to express a universal essence. His work is as sensual and sensitive as it is intellectual and independent. Cy Twombly, a true maverick, interpreting humanity across time and space.

“Cy Twombly” is on view at the Centre Pompidou until April 24, 2017.

Bernardí Roig (Palma de Mallorca, 1965) is one of the most important exponents of the current Spanish art scene. I discovered his work in 2013, while visiting the Spanish National Sculpture Museum. Roig’s disturbing white men were placed among Renaissance and Baroque saints and virgins, surprising visitors with their unexpected presence. It was not the first time that the artist had shown his works among those in museums dedicated to other artistic periods. He has even exhibited them inside iconic religious buildings, such as the Cathedral of Burgos.

A sculpture by Bernardí Roig at the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid. Photo Gerardo López López.

A sculpture by Bernardí Roig at the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid. Photo: Gerardo López López.

This enigmatic intrusion into one of my favourite museums was unforgettable. Therefore, I was very excited to encounter Roig’s works again this summer. In this case the location was Sala Alcalá 31, a very singular exhibition room in the heart of Madrid. This wide, vaulted space built in the 1930s, allows artists and curators to create very interesting and often bold displays. Its unconventional architectural structure, which resembles that of a church, has hosted memorable exhibitions. For instance, Brian Eno presented his 77 Million Paintings there in 2014.

Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid. Foto: Pedro Martínez de Albornoz

Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid. Photo: Pedro Martínez de Albornoz

In the case of Roig’s recent solo show, Mind Your Head [Cuidado con la cabeza], light was a crucial element. It created the perfect setting for the sculptures, installations, photographs, objects, videos, and drawings on show. All of them were made during the last two decades, and touched upon many aspects of Roig’s artistic vision.

The mysterious atmosphere of the rooms was striking. It was mainly due to the harsh lighting coming from the fluorescent tubes of some of the artworks. In addition, the building’s theatrical character and the overwhelming presence of white also contributed to create the impression of walking into a sinister alternative reality. Or a place taken from someone’s troubled imagination.

'Fauno in love', 2014. Photo: Guillermo Gumiel.

‘Fauno in love’, 2014. Photo: Guillermo Gumiel.

The first artwork that I encountered was ‘Fauno in love’. It introduced one of the main themes of the exhibition: the limits between human and animal. The idea of the metamorphosis is one of Roig’s recurrent themes, and he has explored it in many of his works. An example can be found in ‘Diana and Actaeon’, a twisted rendition of the classical myth featured in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

'Diana y Acteón', 2005. Image courtesy of Galería Max Estrella.

‘Diana and Actaeon’, 2005. Image courtesy of Galería Max Estrella.

One of my favorite pieces was an installation inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s short story Der Italiener. A life-sized sculpture of a dead ox hanging from the ceiling was its main component. In Roig’s interpretation of this subject, which Rembrandt depicted centuries ago, the animal’s insides are transformed into artificial light. Nearby, a tv monitor showing a clip from an 1971 experimental film based on Bernhard’s work completed the display.

Left: 'GERMANIA', 2015. Right: 'Der Italiener (the ox)', 2011.

Left: ‘GERMANIA’, 2015. Right: ‘Der Italiener (the ox)’, 2011.

Besides the spectacular installations, which definitely make an impression, I was particularly drawn to the series POETS. In these drawings, Roig portrays different figures from the Spanish artistic sphere. They all appear dressed in the same austere white robe, with the word “poet” written on it. Their faces, barely recognisable, are distorted by the artist’s strokes. Last year, Galería Max Estrella exhibited the photographs that preceded this series within the framework of the PHotoEspaña festival.

‘POETS’, 2016.

As curator Fernando Castro Flórez pointed out, the exhibition Mind Your Head acted as a warning: be careful when entering your own mind, as what you see may be difficult to recount. After such an intense and unique experience, I cannot wait to submerge myself again into the fascinating visions that constitute Roig’s obsessions.

If you happen to be in Argentina this summer, do not miss Roig’s exhibition at MUNTREF, in Buenos Aires. To know more about the artist, I recommend watching this interview.


A virtual tour of Bernardí Roig’s exhibition Mind Your Head is available here. You have been warned!