Images of an artist at work in his or her studio are rare. Jackson Pollock, photographed by Hans Namuth in a barn in Long Island dripping paint from a brush over a canvas on the floor, is a singular and celebrated exception.

However, I have long been captivated by Lucien Hervé and Hélène Adant’s photographs of the elderly, frail Matisse in his studio in the Hotel Regina in Nice. One series shows him drawing the “Virgin and Child With Flowers” on large sheets of paper in preparation for the large, ceramic tile mural that fills one wall of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. The drawing now hangs in the room dedicated to the Vence chapel in Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern. In the photographs we see Matisse extending his arm by means of a long bamboo wand, to the end of which he has tied a piece of charcoal. The length of the stick and the arc that it describes gives the line a certain fluidity and a rhythm that would be absent with a drawing made from the wrist, or even with the arm at full stretch.

This was the image that came to mind in November 2005 when I stood in awe before eight immense canvases on the theme of Bacchus completed earlier that summer by Cy Twombly in his studio in Gaeta, not far from Rome. I was trying to understand how Twombly could have managed to paint these vast works. I surmised that Matisse’s bamboo pole might have played a part in allowing him to achieve works on such a scale.

At the time, I had begun preparations for a retrospective of Twombly’s work in London. The overwhelming raw power and physical beauty of the “Bacchus” series, each 10ft high and varying in width from 13ft to 16ft, was exciting because it confirmed that Twombly, at the age of 77, was still making paintings as original and compelling as any he had made in a long career. It also confirmed my hunch that the most effective way to show the range and complexity of his works in painting, sculpture and drawing would be to select groups reflecting his own practice of working in concentrated bursts, often with pauses between. The structure of the show that I came to co-curate with Nicholas Cullinan in the spring of 2008, Cycles and Seasons, was determined in front of these fiery, orgiastic “Bacchus” paintings.

The artist in 2005 at the Twombly Gallery, part of the Menil Collection, Houston
The artist in 2005 at the Twombly Gallery, part of the Menil Collection, Houston © NY Times/Eyevine

Twombly had begun the series in the studio in his house in Gaeta. He always preferred to work simul­taneously on several canvases, moving from one to another. Here he began by working on the canvases that were too large for the wall. The swirls of blood red paint had run down the canvas and had pooled on the floor. A taller, larger studio became necessary and the subsequent six paintings were completed in a new studio quickly acquired for the purpose. Three of these paintings (“Bacchus” V, VII, VIII), formed the final memorable room in the exhibition at Tate Modern in 2008 with sweeping furls of wine-red paint evoking the ecstasy, sensuality and insanity of the Roman god.

A few months after the close of the show in London, I visited Twombly in Gaeta on a cold, misty January day. He wanted to show me something but was in no hurry to do so. We walked in his garden through a lemon grove, passing palms shrouded to protect them against the cold. With a storm brewing at sea, we ate a feast of fish at his favourite beach café, almost deserted in midwinter.

Eventually, he signalled that we would go to the large studio, a huge garage on a rundown industrial estate on the edge of Gaeta. On a winding road, we drove past dusty oil storage tanks with Twombly sitting in the front of the car speaking in his laconic southern accent to point out small fragments of classical antiquity – a shrine or blocks of stone by the roadside – and nature, the shape of a tree or the contour of a hill.

Nicholas Serota in front of a Cy Twombly painting at Tate Modern
Nicholas Serota in front of a Cy Twombly painting at Tate Modern (Tate) © Tate

At the studio the steel shutter opened, the lights went on and there on the walls were a further group of three “Bacchus” paintings, rolled for some years but completed with a flourish following the opening of the Tate show. To the side were an array of poles with brushes attached, following the example of Matisse. Twombly had not spoken of these paintings during the previous three years and now he watched with his mischievous eye as Nicholas Cullinan and I drank them in.

Within hours, or more likely in advance, Twombly had conceived the idea that they should be shown together in London as an echo of the final room of his Tate exhibition. As he wrote in 1957: “To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release and by crisis it should be by no means limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be an ecstatic impulse.” Thanks to Twombly’s generosity, visitors to Tate Modern in London will now be able to enjoy the enduring ecstatic impulse of his late work.


Cy Twombly’s gift to Tate

Twombly’s sculpture ‘Winter’s Passage: Luxor’ (1985), one of the gifts to Tate
Twombly’s sculpture ‘Winter’s Passage: Luxor’ (1985), one of the gifts to Tate (Tate) © Tate

Three huge abstract oils, “Untitled (Bacchus)”, made in 2006-08, and five bronze sculptures from 1979-91 have been gifted to Tate by the Twombly Foundation, following the wishes of the great American artist.

The Iliad, which had also inspired Twombly’s artistic hero JMW Turner, was the inspiration for his “Bacchus” cycle of paintings reflecting the ecstasy and insanity of the Roman god (Italy had been the artist’s home since 1957). The bronzes, casts of Twombly’s assemblages of found objects and detritus such as the top of an olive barrel, echo the themes of classical antiquity.

Tate’s associations with Turner, and the superb quality of Tate’s 2008 retrospective of his work, were strong motives for this generous gift.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article