To Sappho, 1959: On Twombly’s Drawing & Drafting Process

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk along with Ahuvia Kahane (Royal Holloway) on the topic of ‘Cy Twombly, Modern Painting and the Reception of the Classics’. It will be part of the interdisciplinary research network hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies called TRIVIUM: Classical Intersections. Sadly I cannot be in London in person (especially as I would have loved to have visited my new nephew, Frankie, who has just arrived!), so I will by there virtually via video. If you are in London, the event will take place in Room F1, Royal Holloway Bedford Square Building ,11 Bedford Square, London,  WC1B 3RA and will start at 4.30pm.

I will be speaking about how Cy Twombly’s incorporated a variety of uses for the Archaic Greek poet Sappho throughout his life’s work, but especially in a series of works during the pivotal year of 1959. While we find the scribbled and half-scratched-out name of Sappho in the Poems to the Sea (1959) and some of the Sperlonga drawings (1959), in the latter we also find a transition to another use for the ancient poet. In drawings like the one below (you may be able to just make out – to the upper right of the paper the words ‘to Sappho’), Twombly not only directly addresses the work to Sappho, but also starts to develop a new schematic style.

Cy Twombly Sperlonga Drawing 1959 (Del Roscio 2012, 130)

 Complete with numbers and boxes, these works paved the way for a fully-fledged drafting approach to some of his major paintings in the years to follow (e.g. Triumph of Galatea; Rape of the Sabines). Rather than simply a learned reference to the Classical poet to add to the other names of Plato, Virgil and Ovid in Twombly’s work, Sappho appears to have had a singular importance for Twombly in 1959, when the Lesbian poet and her paeans to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, guided the artist’s own transition to his new life in Italy, with a new wife and a new son. Sappho was a constant marker for both the life and loves of his present and also a nostalgic reminded of the life and loves of the world (New York) he left behind. This is Twombly’s version of (pseudo-)Ovid’s Heroides 15 – the so-called Epistula Sapphus – an elegy to a male lover Phaon, haunted by the poet’s former female lovers and lyric-self.

For the details about the event and TRIVIUM in general, go here.

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