Souvenir de L'Ile des Saintes 1979 is a richly coloured eight-part watercolour, pastel and gouache work on paper. The eight small cream sheets of rough watercolour paper are numerically sequenced, beginning with a hand-painted title page that bears the month and year of the work’s execution (December 1979) and the title, written in a loose, slanting script using purple-brown gouache. The individually-framed sheets of paper can either be installed in a single row format, or in a grid of two rows of four frames, with the title page at the top left of the grid. Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes is a significant work in the artist’s oeuvre, as it marked Twombly’s first experiment with the medium of watercolour. Across the multi-sheet work, the artist combined translucent pools of pallid watercolour paint that spread across the paper, with scratchy pastel scrawls and daubs of thick gouache impasto. In many of the eight sheets, it is clear that the artist worked the wet media onto the paper surface directly with his fingers, as well as using paint brushes. The paper has buckled in places as a result of the excessive absorption of water.
Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan notes in his chronology of the artist’s career that during winter 1979, ‘Twombly spends the months of December and January 1980 on the Caribbean island of Les Saintes, working on a series of watercolours’ (Cullinan in Serota 2008, p.245). Indeed, the title Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes translates as ‘Memory of Saints’ Island’, a reference to the work’s place of production, a remote and sparsely-populated French territory of eight small islands, with a strong Breton influence. The islands are also known for their lush vegetation, which may have influenced the shapes and colours visible in the work itself, for example the bursts of bright red, green, blue and purple in sheet three.
Across the eight sheets of paper the artist brought together striking, gaudy, and at times even muddy, colour combinations – from the second sheet’s thick impasto dashes of white, green, brown and pink paint, to the loose clouds of white and pink gouache in sheets five, six and seven that almost fill the space of the paper, to the more delicate and spare application of rose-pink watercolour in the eighth and final sheet. While the overall appearance of Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes is unquestionably painterly, there is also evidence of drawing, in the form of Twombly’s trademark looping, cursive line that appears in pastel in several of the sheets. The combination of calligraphic scrawl and gestural paint application is a hallmark of the artist’s practice from the early 1970s onwards, and can also be seen in works such as the four paintings collectively titled Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts) 1993–5 (Tate T07887–T07890). The presence of several paintbrush hairs in sheets four and seven is indicative of Twombly’s rough style of paint handling and speedy execution, which leaves no opportunity for correction or contemplation during the working process.
Souvenir de L'Ile des Saintes is representative of a period of Twombly’s career characterised by an intense focus on the natural world – as demonstrated by the ten-part print suite in Tate’s collection, Natural History, Part I, Mushroom 1974 (Tate P07573–P07582). This contrasts with periods before and after which focus thematically on antiquity, classicism, history and mythic personages, named in scrawled, scribbled writing and often accompanied by sexual graffiti. Indeed, Kirk Varnedoe has characterised Twombly’s work of the late 1970s and early 1980s as ‘pastoral’ (see Hochdörfer 2009, p.228), a term which aptly evokes the mood of bucolic abundance in Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes.
The artist, reflecting upon the importance of particular landscapes, such as Les Saintes, to his work, commented: ‘I always went to the sea. Since I was a child we always spent summers at the sea … I’m not too sensitive about colour, not really. I don’t use it with any nuance, that I know of. It’s the object; the form of the thing is more interesting to me than colour. I’m not principally interested in colour.’ (Quoted in Serota 2008, p.52.) This suggests that for Twombly, the work’s gestural textures and billowing pools of paint upon the watercolour paper took precedence over the at times clashing array of colours in Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes.
Prior to his departure for the Caribbean in December, the year 1979 was highly significant for the scholarship directed towards the artist’s body of work, as the curator Achim Hochdörfer has detailed: ‘In May, he met French philosopher Roland Barthes in Paris, who this year published two of the most … individual essays on Twombly, in which his works are characterized, as, among other things, “clumsy” and “left-handed”.’ (Hochdörfer 2009, pp.306–8.) Barthes’s writings articulated, in poetic terms, that particular combination of slapdash haste, pulsating energy, and rejection of traditional skill through which Twombly produces work. Barthes also emphasised the importance of the surface ground to the painter’s marks, declaring: ‘No surface, no matter what the distance from which one looks at it, is truly virginal. A surface is always and already asper, discontinuous, uneven and rhythmed by accidents: there’s the grain of the paper, the smudges, the trelicings, the interlace of tracings, the diagrams, the words.’ (Barthes in del Roscio 2002, p.91.) This descriptive passage is particularly pertinent to the active surfaces of Souvenir de L’Ile des Saintes, which combine roughly handled and buckled paper, paintbrush hairs, finger-paint daubs, and the embrace of chance painterly effects.
Nicola del Roscio (ed.), Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich 2002.
Nicholas Serota (ed.), Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008.
Achim Hochdörfer (ed.), Cy Twombly: States of Mind: Painting, Sculpture, Photography, Drawing, exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna and Munich 2009.