In the early 1960s, Cy Twombly’s creativity erupted in a torrent of vigorously rendered works that brim with powerful, enigmatic motifs inspired by the rich artistic heritage of his newly adopted city of Rome. Created in 1964, Untitled (Murder of Olofernes) illustrates the major pictorial themes of this era. Hovering, cloud-like forms rendered in red and blue colored pencil billow alongside towering graphite scribbles. Familiar tropes are brimming within the surface of the creamy white sheet—hearts, erotic body parts and Twombly’s familiar window motif—scribbled and hatched in the penciled doodles that have come to define his deeply personal vernacular. Reaching into the cultural heritage of Rome, Twombly creates a modern homage to the ancient tale of Judith and Holofernes in this powerful work.
Having been rendered by countless artists since the Renaissance, the story is perhaps best known from Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi’s stunning paintings of the Baroque period. In this way, Twombly knowingly engages with the rich artistic tradition of Rome and its enduring legacy. Created in 1964, the drawing dates to a seminal moment in the artist’s career, marked by a profusion of lush color and a riotous overflowing of pictorial motifs. Sharing formal affinities with his masterpiece Leda and the Swan of the same year, the present work echoes the themes of lust, violence and revenge that consumed the artist’s work at the time.
Towering columns of heavy graphite scribes build upward toward the top of the paper sheet in Untitled (Murder of Olofernes), while delicate cyphers mingle alongside, in the hearts, clouds, breasts and phallus shapes that pepper Twombly drawings during this remarkable era. Near the upper edge of the sheet, the artist’s provocative description sets the stage for the action that’s writ large across its vast expanse—“Murder of Olofernes”—that he has written in his enigmatic script. Scribbles of heavy red pencil convey the epic tale of murder and lust, which are driven home by the whirling maelstrom Twombly creates. Evocative passages of heavy graphite scribbles convey a feeling of fervid emotionalism, while erasures and crossed out or circled passages lend a powerful immediacy and depth to the work, which reads like a palimpsest of accumulated gestures.
“I like something to jumpstart me,” Twombly had said, “usually a place or a literary reference to...give me a clarity or energy” (C. Twombly, quoted in N. Serota, “History Behind the Thought,” in Cy Twombly, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 2008, p. 48) In Untitled (Murder of Olofernes) Twombly reinvigorates the drama of the original biblical story, in which Judith murders the lustful Holofernes while in his sleep. According to the Book of Judith, Holofernes was an Assyrian general who desired Judith, a beautiful widow. Judith was able to gain entry into the soldier’s sleeping quarters because of his amorous claims on her and, passing out from drunkenness, Judith murders him in his sleep. She decapitated him and—as the story goes—his head was carried away in a basket. Twombly uses the story to explore the themes of lust and violence that had consumed him at the time, as evidenced in his Mars and Venus series and most powerfully in Leda and the Swan. There is at least one other surviving drawing devoted to the theme of Judith and Holofernes.
By 1964, Twombly had settled permanently in Rome, where he rented a studio in the Piazza del Biscione near the Campo de’ Fiori. He enjoyed a burgeoning success, having fully liberated himself from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of New York, where Abstract Expressionism still lingered as the de facto style. Twombly found a receptive artistic culture in Rome, as viewers proved eager to accept Contemporary art. Twombly had spent the previous year in Sicily, and had traveled back to Rome, London, and Paris. In the recent Reading Cy Twombly, Mary Jacobus describes how Twombly’s style developed “a newly luxurious palette” during this era, writing: “His paintings glow with sensuous color, lavishly or sparingly applied to large canvases. Paint conveys his visceral response to Renaissance artworks, along with the drama of Rome’s cultural ‘theatre,’ past and present: not only its art and buildings, but its hectic street life, sexual encounters and piazzas. Painting after painting celebrates the carnality of desire -- the heightened eroticism of gods” (M. Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Princeton, 2016, p. 52).
1964 also marks a shift in Twombly’s work, in which the scrawled, graffiti-style renderings of the very early sixties move from an allover composition into more precise arrangements. His wild markings become organized into succinct and concise hovering masses that float within the picture plane, set off from the creamy white sheet. In Untitled (Murder of Olofernes), these hovering cloud-like forms repeat with a general sense of urgency, echoing across the page and enlivened by gestural passages of red and blue. Their etched surface, replete with erasures and crossed out passages, evokes the ancient, worn surfaces of Twombly’s native city, conveying what Kirk Varnedoe, the esteemed Museum of Modern Art curator, termed “his deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time” (K. Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 29). Indeed, this quality works in tandem to convey the emotional tenor of the original biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes. “The implications of the marks he passed by in the countless ruins and streets,” Varndedoe continues, convey “the idea of approaching and revivifying the culture of the past through what appeared merely to mar it.” Indeed, this proved to be Twombly’s “sufficiently personal and instinctive challenge” (K. Varnedoe, Ibid., p. 29-30).
Indeed, coming to terms with the rich artistic heritage of his newly adopted country, Twombly recognized that “Italian art, often talked about in terms of sunlight and renaissance clarity, also has a dark...side” (K. Varnedoe, ibid., p. 41). To this point, Suzanne Delahunty concludes, “The bloody deaths of heroes and powerful men...join the artist on canvas…” She goes on to say, “He did not portray his gods and heroes in the moment of classical apotheosis like the busts that silences the Grand Salon of Statues in the Capitoline Museum. Rather, he ...unmasked the heroes’ human moment of death, a violent death that was their shared and tragic fate” (S. Delehanty, “The Alchemy of Mind and Hand,” 1975, quoted in N. del Roscio (ed.), Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 65).