Cross the Green Mountain
I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head
I dreamed a monstrous dream
Something came up
Out of the sea
Swept through the land of
The rich and the free.”
—Bob Dylan, Cross the Green Mountain, 2003
“Such are these paintings by Cy Twombly, ‘dedicated’ to Bacchus: the imagination of a life force and the certainty that the most profound abyss and the lightest heights represent not a dualism but rather the breath of all things; they are a unity.”
Towering over the viewers and enveloping them in a tumultuous, spiraling web of flesh-andblood- colored form that seems to simultaneously climb and fall across the surface of the canvas, Untitled, 2005, is one of Cy Twombly’s last great works. It was executed using a large brush drenched in rich, vermilion paint and affixed to the end of a long pole which Twombly maneuvered with great skill and effort in a manner not unlike that used by Henri Matisse in his last years when painting his chapel in Vence. Here, Twombly has manipulated the brush to push, pull, drip, daub, and splash his rich red color over a warm, flesh-colored ground so that its line appears to both rise and fall, pour and drip, (in the manner of blood or wine) and generate one, single, cohesive and inexorable, spiraling field of form. The result is a fiery, magisterial mass of burgeoning, painterly form and energy that both dwarfs the viewers and impresses upon them an elemental, almost primordial, sense of power, rhythm, and grandeur.
The painting stands over ten feet high (3.25m) and extends over sixteen feet (4.94 m) in length. As such it is the largest example from an epic group of similarly, giantscaled paintings on a theme which Twombly, at the age of seventy-five, made in a sudden and intensely physical burst of creativity that began in 2003 around the time of the US invasion of Iraq and ended in 2008 with the artist’s donation of three of these great works to the Tate Modern in London.
Founded upon the spiraling use of a graphic loop of linear form—reminiscent of his so-called “blackboard” lasso-loop paintings of the late 1960s, but here more expanded into a wilder and more visceral form—this great series, (known as the Bacchus), is one that marks the culmination of Twombly’s fifty years of painterly practice and a final summation of the epic and perennial theme of scrawling, whirling, writing/drawing that the artist had regularly invoked at various points throughout his career. The theme of these paintings was that of Bacchus/ Dionysus—the classical god of wine and drinking—as well as of the intertwined nature and closely related polarities of ecstasy and rage, inspiration and madness, intoxication, and debauchery that the “Dionysian” force within life also embodies.
As photographs of the artist’s studio in Gaeta taken in 2003 attest, Twombly embarked upon the Bacchus paintings at a time when much of the Mediterranean, (the source of so much in his work), and in particular, the nearby US Naval base in Gaeta, was increasingly preoccupied with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In his catalogue essay, “Fire in the Water” that accompanied the first exhibition of Twombly’s Bacchus series in 2005, Malcolm Bull argued that the abiding theme of these paintings was that of an elemental Dionysian force of madness rising, like a “fire that rises from the depths of the sea” (M. Bull, “Fire in the Water,” in Cy Twombly Bacchus Psilax Mainonmenos, exh. cat., New York, 2005, p. 55). Nicholas Cullinan too, has drawn a parallel between these paintings and the outbreak of the Gulf War (N. Cullinan in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 219). And while it may be wrong to seek any direct correlation between these epically themed paintings and something so narrow and specific as the 2003 war in Iraq, it should be remembered that it was a recurring habit of Twombly’s to parallel the violent and dramatic political events of his own time with pictures that addressed more universal themes of conflict, violence and strife, often drawn from similar moments in classical history. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, for example, Twombly concluded a series of classical assassination paintings with meditations on the violence and excess of the Roman emperor Commodus. Many of his paintings on the theme of Achilles and Troy, too, have often been thought of as meditations upon the Vietnam War. It was therefore perhaps more than mere coincidence that, in 2003, Twombly embarked upon a series of paintings that revisited the theme of Bacchus in a way that was dedicated to the theme of the mad and raging incarnation of Dionysus—as he is first described by Homer in his epic poem of the Trojan War, the Iliad.
The Bacchus series of paintings that Twombly began in 2003 comprises three distinct sets of work. The first of these are six, eight-foot-high and portrait-format paintings that Twombly completed in 2004 but did not exhibit until 2008 when they were shown at the Red October Chocolate Factory in Moscow. His second, largest, and main group from the series are the eight, landscape format Bacchus paintings, of which Untitled, 2005 is numbered the fifth and which were all completed in 2005 and exhibited together that year at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. A further series of six other landscape-format paintings was completed in 2008 after Twombly saw Untitled along with Untitled (VII) of 2005 hanging together at his retrospective in the Tate in 2008. Deciding that these paintings looked “so good” hanging together, he presented the three largest works from his new 2008 Bacchus series to Tate Modern and kept the remaining three works from this series for himself.
In the first series of Bacchus paintings, completed in 2004, Twombly inscribed each of these essentially smaller-scale and more tentative works with both the name “Bacchus” and either the Greek word “Psilax” or “Mainomenos” written above their looping tangle of vermillion-painted lines. Untitled, 2005 is one of the main group of eight Bacchus paintings that, when they were first exhibited together at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in November 2005, were presented under the collective title: Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos. A handwritten note by Twombly on these paintings explains that these were “8 PICTURES PAINTED in vermilion color on the subject of BACCHUS RAGING (RAVING) (mainomenos)”. (N. Cullinan in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. London, 2008, p. 221, n.3). The title of this exhibition—as with the earlier inscriptions— refers to two directly contrasting aspects of the god Bacchus. Psilax means “wings” and refers to an aspect of Bacchus that lifts and raises the spirit to the heights of sensual pleasure and/or intoxication. By contrast, the reference to Bacchus as Mainomenos invokes the raging Bacchus and signifies the violent, raving god of Dionysian fury. It is this description of the god that is used by Homer on his first appearance in the Iliad.
In invoking these two directly contrasting concepts of Bacchus, Twombly evidently wanted to convey a sense of polarised extremes rising and falling within one inexorable and intoxicating wave of madness. As Nicholas Cullinan has also pointed out, in addition to entitling these works Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos, Twombly also wrote an explanation of the central themes of these works that included a description of Bacchus from Theokritos’s Idyll as the god of madness or maniodes. Twombly’s note reads: “Bacchus/Psilax/Winged (wine) /Maniodes (Theokritos)/ Mainomenos / (Dionysos Homer) /RAVING)” (C. Twombly, handwritten note, in N. Cullinan in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 221).
Madness, passion, ecstasy, rising and falling are all, therefore, the core qualities of these works which, in the physicality and scale of their presence reflect a similar sense of vigor and expended energy taken, on the part of the artist, in the making of them. The basic looping motif of these works, like the theme of Bacchus, is a recurring theme in Twombly’s art. It first appears in his early scribbles made blindly in the dark when, as a young man, he was consciously training/untraining his hand to draw intuitively and spontaneously during his military service. It reoccurs in repeated emulations of Leonardo’s Deluge drawings and linear studies of the spiraling energy of natural forces which fascinated Twombly for many years, and appears again, with a cold, methodical logic in the repeated and meandering looped scrawl of his so-called “blackboard” paintings of the late 1960s. It was in these works that the possibility of such a line to convey, through repetition, a sense of a single, continuous field of energy was first articulated. Later, too, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, a more impassioned, more spiritually-orientated and vibrant orange-red-colored line, emulating the trance-like delirium of whirling dervishes, also surfaced in Twombly’s work to become, what Richard Leeman has described as a “bodily writing, the line of which wraps itself tirelessly around a void, around that which cannot be represented” (Richard Leeman, “Cy Twombly’s Speaking Body” in Cy Twombly, exh. cat., Paris, 2016, p. 130). It is an extension of this same delirious, impassioned and “whirling” line wrapping itself around “that which cannot be represented” that Twombly has essentially revisited and developed onto an epic and magisterial scale in the vast Bacchus paintings.
The theme of Bacchus too, is one that has also run repeatedly throughout Twombly’s career. A Nietzschean-based play between the polarities of an ordering, conceptual, “Apollonian” force of forming and the impulsive, emotional, visceral, “Dionysian” force of chaos plays a central role throughout much of Twombly’s painting. But, it is not only this: the figure and persona of Bacchus himself, in many of his various incarnations or aspects, also appears with recurring frequency in Twombly’s art. In addition to many simultaneous expressions of ecstatic rising and falling, especially in his sculpture of the 1950s, Dionysian cycles of raging and dreaming, flights of drunken fancy combined with raving passion distinguish much of the artist’s work from his Ferragosto paintings to the Nine Discourses on Commodus, for example. Bacchus/Dionysus also makes a more explicit appearance in a 1975 collage entitled Dionysus, in a series of pictures from 1977 on the theme of Bacchanalia and in a triptych of 1981 entitled Bacchus in which the fluidity, viscosity and color of flesh, blood, wine and red paint are all interwoven into a single image that can be construed as both human heart, vine leaf and a hanging bunch of grapes.
“To paint,” Twombly noted in 1957, “involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse… this is very difficult to describe, but it is an involvement in essence (no matter how private) into a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action” (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.). As this statement indicates, Twombly’s basic approach to the act of painting can also be construed as strongly Dionysian. His oft-quoted concept of his line as the “sensation of its own realization,” for example, as a kind of cipher of its own “actual experience,” is an explanation of his work as self-manifesting impulse or spirit. Inspired by the example of whirling dervishes, by the poet Rumi and perhaps also by the trance-like, Dionysian revelry of Sufi mystics that Twombly had admired and perhaps even witnessed during his travels in Central Asia and Nuristan in 1979, Twombly adopted a similar combination of meditation and concentration followed by spontaneous and impulsive action into the practice of his own work. The first results of this approach appear in a series of graphic works that ranged from his Nymphidia and Lycian drawings to the Suma works of 1981 and 82, in which the same wild, fiery, whirling, and chaotic line that so magnificently reappears on such a grand scale in the Bacchus paintings, can be seen.
That Twombly’s giant Bacchus paintings were also created swiftly in a performative, transcendent and near-trance-like moment of action, similar to these earlier works was confirmed by Twombly in an interview he gave to Nicholas Serota in 2008. “I really enjoy being in the studio now,” he told Serota. “I like to do different things and I’m curious about a lot of things, but I enjoy painting… It’s very fast, particularly the Bacchus paintings... they were all done in a couple of months…In that big studio. ... It was just very physical, it’s a process. I tried to do one since then but it didn’t work. It was the sensation of the moment, you can’t warm it over, unless you want a mannerism” (C. Twombly, “History Behind the Thought,” Interview with N. Serota, 2007, in Cy Twombly, Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 48).
Apart from their scale, what distinguishes Twombly’s Bacchus pictures from earlier works is their unique combination of a rhythmic, climbing/falling line with the splash, spillage and drip that the artist attains by working (on such a grand scale) with an overloaded brush and an over-fluid medium. Allowing each of his painterly marks and moves to drip profusely in vertical lines down the canvas, Twombly, in these works has established a unique rhythm of rising and revolving form augmented by a rain of paint that simultaneously suggests the dripping of blood and/or wine. In two Bacchus paintings made, in the artist’s lower-ceilinged, upstairs studio in Gaeta, the hanging canvases were too large for the room and were also folded onto the floor where a layer of these drips splashed and gathered to form a separate line along the bottom of these canvases. In all the other works, made in the larger, main studio space, and as one can see in Untitled, this rain of drips, fell ultimately to the floor below the bottom of the canvas so that an uninterrupted wall of red rain is established. In other places on the canvas, Twombly has applied the flesh color of the paintings’ ground over the top of its vermillion lines and allowed these flesh-colored marks to drip so that a field of falling paint emphasizes a rhythmic depth of rising and falling that runs with depth into the pictorial space of the canvas as well as across it. It is essentially this wall of red rain too, that bestows these great paintings with their visceral quality—a quality highly indicative, within the context of Bacchus, not only of the wine and blood that accompanied Bacchanalian revelry but also of its delirium. Bacchanals were famous for their degeneration into a madness that could, at times, as with the Maenads for example— become so intense that revelers and followers of this ritual would literally tear one other to pieces.
In the monstrous scale and fiery grandeur of Twombly’s Bacchus paintings, there is, therefore, something inexorable, elemental and almost primordial being expressed. A force of such awesome power rising and rolling across the surface of these canvases that, when seen in the context of recent world events, these paintings seem to echo and articulate something of the fundamental sense of the epic change currently taking place in our time. As Malcolm Bull wrote in his introduction to these works in 2005, “Dionysus, it emerges, is a double movement. His madness is a circle of fire, an unbroken circuit of excess, each attempt at containment spilling into the next. Like Achilles circling the tomb of Patroclus, this madness threatens to become an unbreakable loop around the emptiness of death. Yet just as the madness of Achilles is interrupted by Thetis’s extraordinary vertical journey from the depths of the sea, so too Dionysus himself rises and falls at will. Plunging into the whirlpool of madness, Dionysus always comes up again, ascending from the underworld to the heavens. No wonder that when Pausanias went to Amyclae, a village in Laconia, he found that the local people worshipped Dionysus, under the name of Psilax is Doric for “wings,” and Dionysus too can carry men aloft, like the wings of a bird. Twombly’s Bacchus shares this duality. The brushwork of these paintings is reminiscent of Leonardo’s studies of storms and the movement of water, while the color and mass of the emerging forms recall the dramatic representations of fire in the The Fire that Consumes All Before It, from Fifty Days at Ilium (1977-8)…. “Born of fire, nursed in water, Bacchus is the fire that rises from the depth of the sea” (M. Bull, “Fire in the Water,” in Cy Twombly Bacchus Psilax Mainonmenos, exh. cat., New York, 2005, pp. 53-55).
Implicit too, within this concept of fire and water and the cyclical motion of repeatedly falling and rising from the sea or of Dionysus’s plunging into the underworld and then ascending once again, is an elemental image of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Twombly’s Bacchus paintings, made near the end of the artist’s life, remind us also therefore of the temporal, as well as cyclical nature of all creation; that whatever madness it is that currently holds sway in this world, nothing lasts forever.