‘I like the idea of scratching and biting into the canvas. Certain things appeal to me more. Also prehistoric things, they do that scratching. But I don’t know why it started.’ (C. Twombly, ‘History Behind the Thought’, quoted in Interview with Nicholas Serota, 2007, Cy Twombly. Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 48).
‘Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation’ C. Twombly, ‘Documenti di una nuova figurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly’, L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2, (August- September 1957, p. 32).
‘One of the prime guiding spirits behind (Twombly’s) combination of the decorative and the gruesome... was the painter Francis Bacon. Twombly’s admiration for the British artist - whom he considers ‘the last great European painter’ - has its grounding in his long-standing dialogue with the tradition of European expressionism. Bacon’s efforts to bring the meaty power of that kind of painting into the barer existential spaces of post-war experience, and to make a personal poetry by mixing lush painterly aesthetics with a sense of the gross materiality of the life of the flesh, were ready avenues of affinity’ (K. Varnedoe, ‘Inscriptions in Arcadia’, Cy Twombly, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 37).
Housed in the same private collection since the 1970s, Death of Pompey is one of the finest of a major series of paintings on the theme of epoch-changing murders and assassinations that the artist made in 1962. The paintings that comprise this ‘assassination’ series are a sequence of large pictures on the theme of the Death of Guiliano de Medici, two oil paintings of the Death of Pompey (the first, now in the Kunstpalast Museum, Dusseldorf - the second, larger and final version is the present work), The Vengeance of Achilles (Kunsthaus, Zurich) and two paintings of the assassination of Caesar entitled the Ides of March.
With its scrawled, smeared and seemingly bloodied, flesh-like surface, this final version of the Death of Pompey is a stark, graphic and highly visceral portrait of both the act and the consequences of such an historic assassination. The material product of a series of dramatic physical interactions with his paint, in which Twombly, using his bare hands, has scratched, clawed and twisted his fingers through the thick plastic medium of his paint, it is a highly visceral painterly emulation of a murderous assault upon the physical material of the human body.
Breaking down the borders between action-painting, portraiture, history painting and performance art, Death of Pompey is part of a series of works that followed on from the explosive and highly physical release of passion, eroticism and visceral energy that had defined Twombly’s Ferragosto paintings, made throughout the hot summer months of 1961. Like the majority of paintings made in the immediate aftermath of these seminal new works, Death of Pompey is also infused with the new and distinctly Baroque mix of eroticism and violence that came to dominate the artist’s work until 1966. As Kirk Varnedoe has pointed out, Twombly began the year 1962 with ‘a masterpiece’ in the form of Leda and the Swan now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. And it was this tumultuous painting of the rape - which through its progeny, Helen of Sparta, was to give rise to the Trojan War - that was followed later in the year by the series of paintings on the not-unrelated theme of epoch-changing political assassinations to which Death of Pompey belongs. With the exception of The Vengeance of Achilles, which depicts an imposing phallic spearhead in the form of a giant letter ‘A’ dripping in blood, each of these 1962 ‘assassination paintings’ is not just thematically associated but also built upon a similarly simple format.
In each of these works Twombly has centred his painterly activity upon a loosely scrawled pencil drawing of a perspectival grid-like form that calls to mind either a chair, a plinth, an entrance door or a stage-set. Clearly indicative of a specific but also undefined space or locale, this rationally organized, grid-like structure functions in direct contrast to the freeform drip, splash and play of the paint above it. But it serves the purpose of pinpointing the arena within which all the wild, violent, drama and formless action and interaction with matter that Twombly ‘performs’ in the making of these works, is to take place. Literally setting the stage therefore, for the artist’s actions, this simple formal structure or graphic device acts as a focal point for the uniquely creative and destructive play with material that goes on above it. At the same time, like an armature, it also anchors the open and freeform nature of this play into a sense of its being rooted in a specific space and moment in time.
Each of the works in this series refers to a momentous and epoch-changing event in Italian history. Twombly’s Death of Guiliano de Medici paintings refer to the murder of Guiliano de Medici by an assassin working for the Pazzi family in 1478. This younger and famously beautiful brother of Lorenzo de Medici, was stabbed to death mercilessly and repeatedly as he tried to enter the large doors of the Duomo in Florence on April 26th of the year. An especially violent and public crime (Guiliano was stabbed over nineteen times) it was a politically motivated assassination that marked the beginning of a long period of brutal violence and political killing in Florentine politics. Twombly’s paintings entitled Death of Pompey and the Ides of March similarly refer to two other historic betrayals and public assassinations - ones that, in these cases, marked both the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial Roman dynasty. The great Roman General and rival of Julius Caesar, Gaius Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), was stabbed to death by his entourage as he disembarked along the plank leading from a small boat to the shore on his landing in Egypt in 48 B.C. Caesar too was famously assassinated on the steps of the Roman senate four years later, dying from stab wounds, it was noted, at the feet of a statue of his former rival, Pompey.
Fusing the drama of the murderous moment of assault with a near representational depiction of its gruesome consequences on the body of the victim, in each of these ‘history’ paintings Twombly has gone through a kind of painterly reenactment of both the acts of wounding and of being wounded, in order to create the picture. Recording the material traces of the violent energy with which it has been splashed, thrown, dripped, gorged, squeezed and pulled onto the canvas, Twombly’s paint in these works simultaneously suggests both the violence of wounding another human being and the visceral nature of the wounds themselves. As Twombly once said of his graphic line - that it ‘doesn’t illustrate’, but is rather, ‘the actual experience with its own innate history... the sensation of its own realization’ - here, Twombly’s fleshy, hand-scrawled paint operates in just the same way. (C. Twombly, ‘Documenti di una nuova fgurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly’, in L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2, August-September 1957, p. 32).
As the large lumps of paint thrown, splashed and smeared across the grid of Death of Pompey show, Twombly’s use of paint echoes in many respects the use to which it was sometimes put by painters that he admired such as Chaim Soutine and most especially, in this case, Francis Bacon. As Kirk Varnedoe pointed out in 1994, ‘One of the prime guiding spirits behind (Twombly’s) combination of the decorative and the gruesome...was the painter Francis Bacon. Twombly’s admiration for the British artist - whom he considers ‘the last great European painter’ - has its grounding in his long-standing dialogue with the tradition of European expressionism. Bacon’s efforts to bring the meaty power of that kind of painting into the barer existential spaces of post-war experience, and to make a personal poetry by mixing lush painterly aesthetics with a sense of the gross materiality of the life of the flesh, were ready avenues of affinity’ (K. Varnedoe, ‘Inscriptions in Arcadia’, Cy Twombly, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 37).
In 1962, Bacon himself was re-exploring historic themes of violence and torment in his Crucifxion triptych and a renewed series of Papal portraits. With its suggestion of an act of murder in a fxed rectangular space Death of Pompey is a work that in many ways recalls some of the tortured fgures and broken bodies of Bacon’s screaming popes, crucifxions and blooded bodies pinned to a bed. Eschewing the manifest fguration of Bacon’s painting, but not the visceral and material play with paint that the British artist often brought to his work, a picture such as Death of Pompey displays a similarly tactile and material appreciation of oil paint as a highly evocative and corporeal substance. At the very centre of Death of Pompey, for instance, the suggestion of a stab wound oozing blood is clearly suggested by the thick crimson paint that has been squeezed directly from the tube and left to pour down the canvas. In other places Twombly’s hands have clawed through the thick paint leaving fnger marks in the surface as if to evoke a falling man desperately attempting to cling on to life. Several of these ‘assassination’ paintings are also accompanied, as here, by a crimson-stained hand-mark imprinted onto the raw canvas. Recalling the earliest, most primordial creative act of cave painters, this imprint also functions paradoxically as a kind of murderous signature - as if it were the physical trace of the assassin wiping clean his blood-stained hands.
By appearing, through painterly reenactment, to simultaneously exist both right in the moment of the murderous act and to be looking back on it from the vantage point of history, Twombly’s ‘assassination’ paintings assert themselves as epic visionary pictures that exist outside of time. They are paintings that assert a fascinating duality that is refective of the artist’s own position as a relative newcomer to Rome, observing the Eternal City and the endless cycle of creation and violent destruction that so distinguishes Mediterranean culture, from a wholly independent viewpoint. The duality that Twombly establishes in these works however is not just one contrasting the raw, visceral and exciting drama of the crime with the tragic, long-term, even epoch-changing nature of the event, it is more than this. It is a duality that speaks powerfully, through a combination of the creative but often violent act of painting itself and the destructive but often desirous act of murdering a fgurehead, of the timeless and elemental relationship between Eros and Thanatos. At its heart, Death of Pompey is a work that speaks, both eloquently and disturbingly therefore, of the fundamental and integral connection that exists on a primordial level between the twin forces of creation and destruction themselves.