Exhibition banner for Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

‘To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release,’ Twombly wrote in 1957, ‘and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse.’ This ‘ecstatic impulse’ has made regular appearances in his work, often personified by Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) – the god of wine, whose rites were celebrated with orgies and animals being torn to pieces and their raw flesh consumed.

In the summer of 2005, with America at war in Iraq, Twombly found inspiration in Homer’s Iliad to create a cycle of eight paintings executed in vermilion on the subject of Bacchus. The title of the series – Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos – refers to the dual and almost schizophrenic nature of the god, oscillating between pleasure and sensual release (psilax), and debauchery bordering on the nihilistic (mainomenos). This schism is echoed in the paintings’ ricochet between euphoric loops that soar upwards and sanguine floods of paint that seep, ooze and cascade down the canvas. Red is the colour of wine, but also of blood and these works are some of the most liquid that Twombly has painted, engorged and overflowing with paint. However, their calligraphic quality also recalls the scratched works and incisions of the early works in the first room of this exhibition.