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Cy Twombly’s iconic embrace of Rome’s sensual and erotic undercurrents

Koji Inoue, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art, discusses the ‘transformative experience’ of standing before Leda and the Swan (1962) — unseen in public for more than 25 years and offered in New York on 17 May

‘If there was one picture to represent the artist, Leda and the Swan would be the most iconic,’ says Koji Inoue, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s.

Unseen by the public for more than 25 years, this ‘emotionally raw’ painting by Cy Twombly is the sister work of a painting of the same name that hangs in the permanent collection at MoMA in New York. Inoue describes standing in front of the present work for the first time — processing it with his eyes and feelings its full force in his gut. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘it was an absolutely transformative experience.’

Moving to Rome in 1957 granted Twombly a new freedom in which he found ‘his own language’. Among the many classical, Mediterranean and mythological subjects of the so-called ‘Baroque’ paintings that the artist made in Rome in the early 1960s, the subject of Leda and the Swan stands out as both a favourite and central theme.

Between 1960 and 1963 Twombly painted the subject of Leda’s rape by the god Zeus at least six times. He would again make two further works on the subject in 1976.

Thematically, with its heady mixture of sex and violence and its broader intimations of birth and destruction (the four progeny of this rape are reputed to have included Helen of Troy and Agamemnon’s future wife, Clytemnestra), the subject of Leda’s violation by Zeus is one that stands at the epicentre of Twombly’s ‘Baroque’ period.

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Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962. Estimate $35-55 million. This work will be offered in the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in New York
Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962. Estimate: $35-55 million. This work will be offered in the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in New York

In January 1961 Twombly had moved to a new studio space — two large rented rooms — in the Piazza del Biscione. With this move came a discernible shift in the direction of his painting.

Situated just off the corner of Rome’s vibrant and historic Campo de’ Fiori, with its famous flower market, cafés and colourful cast of characters — from street vendors to prostitutes and petty villains — these new surroundings played an important role in guiding the developing flow of Twombly’s painting.

From the first works that Twombly made in the new studio, it became clear that these new surroundings would lend a cruder and often bawdy earthiness to the painter’s ever-widening embrace of the sensual and erotic undercurrents running through the Eternal City.

‘People make too much of mythological titles. For me they are just a springboard — it’s simply about human beings’ Cy Twombly

Of particular significance in this respect are the two large, square and demonstrably human scale paintings entitled Leda and the Swan that Twombly made in 1962. These two paintings can perhaps be seen as the twin hinges upon which this great series of ‘Baroque’ paintings — which had begun in 1960 as a group of large, white, distinctly Italianate pictures made on the theme of classical Mediterranean civilisation — ultimately turned into a more visceral, violent and Dionysian vision of the classical past.

After these two great paintings depicting a single, dramatic moment of violence, passion and ecstatic release, Twombly’s output would comprise mainly of a still sensual, but increasingly bloody series of works depicting violent and murderous acts.

Often made on either themes of the Trojan War or famous assassinations from Italian history, these were finally to culminate in the artist’s notorious cycle of ‘Nine Discourses’ on the excesses of the mad, bad Roman Emperor Commodus — the nine paintings which were to abruptly bring Twombly’s ‘Baroque’ development to an end.

Despite the many mythological titles and classical references Twombly bestowed upon his paintings in the early 1960s, the dominant theme running through all these pictures is not, really, the antique world. Rather, it is the unchanging nature of the human psyche and the fundamentally human impulse to create, through mark-making, that has run as a continuum throughout history and the classical world.

‘People make too much of mythological titles,’ Twombly once lamented. ‘For me they are just a springboard. They’re especially alive here in Italy and in Greece. But it’s simply about human beings. Human emotions haven’t changed much.’