Quattro Stagioni is a cycle of four paintings representing the four seasons. Tate’s version is the second of two cycles; the first is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Both cycles were begun in 1993 at Twombly’s studio in Bassano in Teverina (north of Rome) and completed in 1994 at another house owned by the artist in Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Born and bred in Lexington, Virginia, Twombly was deeply influenced by Modern European art, particularly twentieth century European painting, and moved to Italy in 1957. Since that date he has worked in Rome and various locations in Italy and the United States as well as travelling widely around the Mediterranean. Throughout his career, Twombly’s paintings have been based on two components – line and paint. In such early works as Panorama
1955 (Daros Collection, Switzerland), a monotone grey canvas is covered in irregular chalk scribbles which hover on the verge of becoming recognisable as letters or ciphers. In the 1960s, daubs, smears and drips of colourful paint applied with a brush, the brush handle and the tips of the artist’s fingers begin to supersede the crayon and graphite marks of his earlier paintings. In some paintings, such as August Notes from Rome 1961 (Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC), line is almost completely replaced by colourful patches of paint; in others, such as Leda and the Swan 1961 (collection the artist), it is a source of violent energy. Since the mid 1970s, the linear marks frequently take the form of text, introducing a third component: written language. Clumsy capitals or scrawled cursive letters are mixed with doodled shapes and indecipherable scribbles usually in compositional balance with painted elements. The tension between the graphic qualities of linear inscription and the sensual materiality of paint is central to the impact of the work. This runs parallel to a tension between intellectual cultural history and intuitive emotional expression enacted in Twombly’s paintings. Classical mythology, literature and historical works of art are appropriated and translated into a visual response which is tactile, visceral and aesthetic. His particular reference to Greek and Roman myths evokes an archaic symbolism, a subject he shares with the American Abstract Expressionists. A generation younger, he is further connected to this movement by his expressive, ‘gestural’ use of paint.
Twombly’s representations of the four seasons are typical to his production of the late 1980s and 1990s in which light has become a principal theme. His prominent use of white echoes that of French Impressionists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) for whom it was an important ingredient in the depiction of light. A series of nine paintings, Untitled 1988 (Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston), portraying the green reflective surfaces of a watery pool, recalls Monet’s celebrated paintings of his water garden at Giverny, France created between 1899 and 1926. Plant life and the sea also recur in Twombly’s imagery of this period. A single work is frequently made up of several parts, as in Quattro Stagioni which is subtitled A Painting in Four Parts. The four seasons as symbols of the natural cycles of birth and death are a classical theme in poetry, music and painting. In Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni strong colours evoking the brilliance of the Mediterranean light are combined with scrawled poetic fragments from several sources. After pre-priming the canvases with cream-coloured gesso, the artist pinned them to the wall and applied individual colours, allowing the paint to dribble down in long, vertical lines. Estate, or summer, represents the second season of the year. Predominantly white and yellow, the painting is dominated by the blinding light of mid-summer in a hot country. The canvas is covered with many layers of paint and text in pencil and red crayon. Echoes of the red boat-shapes, which form a central column in part I, Primavera (Tate T07887), cross the centre of this painting in a diagonal line. Originally painted in black, they have been covered by patches of bright yellow, onto which the artist has made vertical and horizontal pencil lines repeating the basic form of the boat. This relates to traditional Egyptian rowing boats which, it has been suggested, symbolise the journey through the underworld in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ (Bastian, p.37, note 15). Twombly lived for several months in Egypt in the mid 1980s and began to use the symbol of the boat in 1992. On the right side of Estate, passages of a poem by the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-71) are partially legible. Referring to the transience of youth and the passage of time, it evokes the vanitas tradition, in which symbols of mutability and mortality undercut symbols of beauty and fertility. At the top of the painting, the name Baia de Gaeta is superimposed over the words ‘Say goodbye Catullus to the shores of Asia Minor’. Twombly subsequently used these words as the subtitle for a painting in three parts begun in 1972 and finally completed in 1994. This work, Untitled Painting 1994 (Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston) shares much of the imagery of Quattro Stagioni, including the journeying boats and the focus on white light. The Roman lyric poet Catullus (84-54 BC) died soon after returning to Rome from the neighbouring province of Bithynia, Asia Minor, reputedly of a broken heart.
Heiner Bastian: Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, volume IV 1972-1995, Munich 1995, pp.34-5 and 178, reproduced p.180 in colour
Demosthenes Davvetas, Roberta Smith and Harald Szeemann, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf 1987
Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994, pp.162-5
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Cy Twombly’s remark that ‘lines have a great effect on painting’ resonates not only with his graphic practice but ...