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Twombly and Rilke

Thinking about Twombly and how he also loved Rilke and incorporated nuggets of poetry and writings in his paintings.

Spanning a large wall in the Menil Collection’s Twombly Gallery, that tri-partite painting measuring 157.5 by 624 inches, “Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor,” is meant to be read from right to left. Along the right shore, the intense scumbled suns of noon flame yellow, blood red, and stark orange. The figurative theme of the work involves a flotilla of Maat’s boats carrying their dead across the Nile to the Western shore of the setting sun, characterized by matte solemnity and a flat gray sea. Inscribed upon the canvas is Twombly’s slightly altered memory of Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy: “This floating world which in some way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too just once and never again. But to have been this once completely even if only once, high and light. How the dizziness slipped away like a fish in the sea.” The repeated and layered name of Orpheus cuts across the vertical quotation as palimpsest—Orpheus, the one who paused for a glance, and lost so much upon turning away. Myth and poetry for Twombly, like drawing, painting, and sculpture, constituted mediums of their own. Through the scrims of time and memory, he offers scattered glimpses of innumerable literary and classical worlds.

and from Through inscription or dedication, Twombly often invokes the sister arts of literature and music, and the subtle presence of language is integral to much of his sculptural practice. Of the many luminaries that appear through name or phrase, perhaps none is more important than Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the lyric poet of the German language. There is a felicitous symmetry in Twombly’s incorporation of Rilke’s elegiac prose, given the role of art in the poet’s work. Twombly’s Orpheus (Thou unending trace) draws its title phrase from a verse of Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke’s 1922 homage to his mythological forebear. The songs of Orpheus, the progenitor of poetry and music, could impel stones and trees to move, and his “unending trace” is the lyric art that lives on despite his death at the hands of the maenads. Rilke himself is memorialized in Twombly’s art by a sequence of works from 1985 that include an apparent altar, Untitled (above). Though partly veiled by Twombly’s ubiquitous white paint, its crimson inscription, “Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair,” makes clear its relationship to an important five-part painting of that title. The pigment Twombly uses for the dedication and the plastic petal is the red of blood as much as of roses–appropriate given Rilke’s use of the rose as emblematic of love and sensuality, but also of death. The poet’s epitaph,”Rose, oh sheer contradiction, / Delight of being, no one’s sleep under so many / Lids,” surmounts the largest of the five painted panels. Fragments of verse from the early nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi are borne aloft by the other four. The final panel of this work is inscribed with lines from a Rumi verse, “In drawing and drawing / you his pains are / delectable his flames / are like water.” Here, as in many of Twombly’s later canvases, paint drips and cascades–like Rumi’s elements–from lush, nearly sculptural clouds of pigment.

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