This is a post about an artist from the list of artists for the Project Brief, Cy Twombly. I think his name is very “twirly”? In terms of the sounds, though a fun fact is that he’s actually called Edwin.
The work I’ll be looking at specifically is Quattro Stagioni (ITA; Four Seasons) (fun fact, Googling the Italian name gives you pizza). Some basic information to set the context, is that it was:
- Worked on while he was living in Italy
- From when he was around 65 years old
- Completed between 1993-94
- Done with acrylic & oil paints, along with pencil and crayon, on four canvas
Personally, I find it useless if I just copy and paste what I understand by reading reviews by others online, so I will attempt to interpret it on my own. This will hence is incredibly speculative, and you can instead skip to this link for a professional summary which won’t be as longwinded.
For me, I feel like some of the most prominent characteristics which stood out to me were
To start off, I found the preference for the Italian name intriguing. Did you know that he is an American, and only moved to Italy when he was about 30 years old? Wikipedia states that he was an avid pursuer of “romantic symbolism”, and in my opinion this is a way in which it is reflected: Italian is a language associated with love and beauty, especially when it is also not a native language, such that it has the exotic charm of the foreign. However, the official name of the work is never confirmed as to if it’s the Italian or English name, and I feel that that, in a way, also reflects the universality of the seasons, that it transcends physical borders, still “works” no matter what language is used.
On a less Meta level, the colour choices are rather striking to me. When I look at it, I instantly identify that it has to do with a presentation of nature across seasons, possibly because the colours are mostly naturalistic colours than seemingly-synthetic colours.
Most of the canvases are minimally painted with a base coating of bluish-white, and feature the colour yellow in various shapes and extents. I feel that that’s a way in which Twombly seeks to unify the 4 canvases, and by extension, solidify the idea that the seasons are ultimately connected even if the form changes (i.e. the yellow and bluish-whites don’t maintain a constant shape across all canvases). In hindsight, perhaps the yellow is reflective of the sunlight, and how it highlights features, while the bluish-white indicates the sky.
Yet, to offset the idea that all seasons are the same, he uses different main colours for all canvases. Spring is associated with crimson red and summer features only yellow, while winter has a dark green. Autumn is the most colourful, from crimson red to magenta to dark green and blue.
I find this puzzling, personally, since it goes against many of the ideas I associate with seasons. Winter is often associated with barrenness, but here, the dark green gives off the suggestion of flourishing evergreen conifers (basically, Christmas tree trees), surprisingly also another sensible way to look at winter.
I consider summer a season for the thriving, yet unexpectedly there is nothing but the “sun” and the “sky”. Perhaps it’s because Italy is a Mediterranean country: supposedly, in that part of the world, summer is associated with dryness, and hence potentially barrenness. Even more challengingly, I would associate spring with beginnings and renewal, and henceforth pastel colours to represent that budding nature. Here, however, it’s red, for what I presume are flowers. Could this be another way of seeing the seasons through an Italian context? Red poppies, maybe, which are supposedly the first flowers to begin blooming according to this site, and which are associated with sleep and remembrance. Spring, the time in which flowers awaken from sleep, a remembrance of former glories.
Autumn, however, seems to make a lot of sense for me somehow: it is the season of change, and that is reflected in the harmonious union of various colours, reds and greens of fall leaves as they blend together.
I personally find Autumn the most aesthetically pleasing, not just due to the colours, but also the shapes used. It’s not something I can explain, but I really like the variations in marks, from paint flowing down by gravity to brush strokes to aggressively-rubbing-brush-bristles-against-canvas (forgive the wording, I have no knowledge of painting techniques). There’s even a few markings which resemble little branches with berries on it.
All the canvases have rather different types of markings as well: Spring features repeated shapes of a horizontal line intersected by multiple vertical lines (I’d still like to think those are poppies, but it’s a very stretched notion); Summer, blotches with the paint flowing downwards; Winter, what appears to be a paintbrush haphazardly brushed in short strokes. I still don’t quite understand the reasoning behind the shapes of the marks, though, so maybe I’ll try to think of how they make me feel.
Autumn… Feels haphazard, like a mess of various different markings. That probably ties in with the idea of Autumn being the season of change. Again, Winter resembles wintry trees to me, with the rough leaves in the shape of a Christmas tree. Summer remains a mystery to me, but it makes me feel somewhat lethargic, like the paint rolling down lazily. Spring, too, is an enigma, it feels rather crisp, possibly linking to the idea of spring as a season of rebirth.
(I won’t really discuss negative spaces, which seem mostly to be a decision of minimalism in focusing on key shapes than attempting to illustrate in full detail.)
Something else which remains puzzling to me is the presence of words. Autumn is clearly labelled, albeit in crooked handwriting, while Summer (and possibly Spring) features illegible chicken scratch. What do I make of this? Nothing, maybe. Maybe Autumn was labelled for the pure fact that he worried that people would not be able to identify it correctly without assistance, due to the vibrancy one might associate with other seasons.
In which case, Autumn may be the most important canvas of them all. After all, it is not always arranged in the order we always assume: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. There is another order currently being used in the Tate Art Gallery, that of Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer (this is allegedly his preferred order). Again, I am clueless: this may simply be a personal preference, where he sees autumn to be the “first” season unlike typical opinion.
In The End
Reading actual reviews, I somehow managed to understand about 35% of the ultimate message despite getting the interpretation all wrong. I’m not surprised to see that I was incredibly off the mark in terms of interpretation, where many artistic choices were in fact shaped by Twombly’s personal preferences: for example, Autumn was inspired by Italian wine harvests and is meant to invoke a sense of relaxation. (Also, the shapes in Spring are supposed to emulate Egyptian war boats, which I still can’t see clearly.)
All in all, I’d say the most crucial takeaway is that of “individual input”. It seems like a lot of the choices behind the paintings are driven by Twombly’s personal opinions, experiences and knowledge, which deviates wildly from my own, and as such I find it difficult to comprehend what he sees, relying on my own perception to form a meaning for myself based on my own experiences. I admire his ability to shrug off universal assumptions to input his own unique way of perceiving the world, though somewhat at the cost of understanding (or it could just be me). I suppose the key would be to balance between the standardised definitions set by the world, and one’s own meanings formed by personal insights.