In Quattro Stagioni 1993–5, Twombly both mourns the passing of time and celebrates life. Like many poets and painters before him Twombly links the progress of the year with the life cycle, each season representing a different stage in life. Primavera (spring) conjures the energy of plants springing into life and is full of vigour. Fiery Estate (summer) is tinged with the knowledge that, quoting from a poem by George Seferis, ‘youth is infinite and yet so brief’. Autunno (autumn), drenched in the colours of harvested grapes, marks the moment of panic, when winter begins to draw in and mortality rears its head. Inverno (winter), the sparsest panel, is mute, boat forms and words dissolving in the silvery tones of the mist and sea.
Inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s last painting cycle Four Seasons 1660–4, and in which, like Twombly’s work, colour is used abstractly to express emotion, Twombly incorporates passages from Maria Rilke’s mournful Duino Elegy 1922, among other poems, and also references his own large painting, Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) 1994, a work suffused with regret. The seasons are hung in a different order here beginning with autumn to reflect the cyclical nature of life, a suggestion that Twombly welcomed in discussions with the curator shortly before his death last year.
Monet also recorded seasonal changes in his series of poplars in the 1890s, as well as in his paintings of irises whose moment of bloom is tied to specific times of the year. These paintings are imbued with a strong sense of time. Twombly’s sculpture Thermopylae 1991, in contrast, signals an interruption. This work, which makes reference to the defence of Sparta by Leonidas in the face of the Persian invasion, was created at the time of the first Gulf War (1990–1). It serves as a memorial. The blooms, whose development is arrested before reaching full maturity, symbolise young lives cut down in their prime.