Exhibition banner for Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

By the early 1960s, the languor and lightness that had followed Twombly’s arrival in Italy subsided, replaced in works such as Murder of Passion and Crimes of Passion II by anxiety, violence and an ever-more baroque aesthetic of painting. Their heightened eroticism and sensuality is marked by smatterings of orifices, breasts that double for buttocks, and phalluses adorned with scribbles of pencil that seem to describe pubic hair, but also by techniques such as smearing, an ever-increasing impasto and the use of progressively saturated colours.

References to history, myth and the great painters of the past also began to appear in Twombly’s paintings. School of Athens echoes the famous Vatican fresco by Raphael in which the great thinkers of antiquity are framed within a series of arches in an idealised classical palace. Empire of Flora refers to the Italian goddess of flowers, and the licentious festival dedicated to her. Herodiade takes its title from Mallarmé’s dramatic poem about the mother of Salomé and includes direct quotations from the poem transcribed onto the canvas.

During this time, Twombly established a studio near Campo de’ Fiori, an area populated by a lively market and petty thieves. This teeming, visceral atmosphere found its way into The Italians, a painting strewn with scribbles and signs, heart-shaped forms, flaccid phalluses and ejaculations of paint.