Cy Twombly and Art Above – Great Canopies of Creativity

Salle des Bronzes at Louvre with 'Cy Twombly's' Art Above Canopy of Creativity

At Paris in March 2010 in Le Louvre’s Salle des Bronze , which contains some of the museum’s collection of bronze sculpture, they unveiled an amazing work by American international contemporary graffiti painter and freehand drawing master Edwin Parker aka Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011).

He completed this exciting new art above style painting on the ceiling in what turned out to be a masterstroke of timing, because Twombly finally left this world in July 2011.

The work has now become a place of pilgrimage for American lovers of modern art and an important aspect of Twombly’s retrospective in art, one that saw him making his own mark on history. The stunning work paid homage to the ancients through the vibrancy of its lapis lazuli blue background and included the names of ancient Greece’s best sculptors from its period of greatness for bronzes, the fourth century before the Christian era.

They were Cephisodotus, Lysippus, Myron, Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles and Scopas.

Cy Twombly has exhibited in many of the world’s major art galleries, including the Venice Biennale of 1964.

Born in 1928 at Lexington, Virginia U.S.A., Twombly lived in Italy from 1957 where he married in 1959, staying at Rome battling the cancer that had dogged him for years.

Twombly’s triptych, ‘Three studies from the Temeraire’, was purchased in 2004 by the New South Wales Art Gallery for a cool $4.5 million dollars while in 2007 ‘Blooming, a Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things’, created a sensation when on display at Avignon, France.

There an art lover ‘kissed it without thinking’. She said ….’I thought the artist would understand…it was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art’. The resultant action on behalf of all who claimed they were injured by her actions meant she had to fork out more than a few dollars in compensation. Seems more like an exercise in the art of silliness.

Appropriately, the word ceiling comes from the French ciel…meaning sky, heaven and canopy, a space the imagination has enjoyed creating art above on for centuries. Twombly’s  major retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2008 drew large crowds.

London Times reviewer Rachel Campbell-Johnson said of him at that time. ‘Twombly is not a painter who wants simply to be explained. You unearth him. It is a gradual, almost physical process.’ He has over two decades stimulated many art students into thinking about what it is they are representing and why.

In endeavouring to rediscover the relevance of being able to draw he has explored, like eighteenth century English artist William Hogarth before him, the ‘art of line’.

He has also attempted to ‘find a role for the old gods amid a modernity that had forgotten all about myth’…although it is acknowledged… ‘a show of his work should be treated like an archaeological site’.*

Cy Twombly and his 'blotches'

Many an archaeological site around the world has revealed that since the dawn of civilization, in solid form and in many cultures the ceiling in a cave, the ceiling in a tomb, the ceiling in a great palace, or now in a museum, has continually provided a canopic canvas for artistic, and cultural expression. This includes working in many different medium, including mosaics.

Ancient civilizations adored representing the sky. The Egyptians crushed the brilliant blue mineral Lapis Lazuli and applied it liberally to the ceilings of their temples and tombs. They then scattered this glorious sky with glittering gold (Egypt), or bronze (Greeks) stars to represent the vault of the heavens above, where they hoped to enjoy an afterlife.

Tomb Ceiling of Thutmosis III, Sixth Pharoah of the Eighteenth Dynasy Reign: (1479 - 1425 BC)

Glass from Tomb of Thutmosis III c1400 BC

Amazingly the ceiling of the tomb of Thutmose III 1479–1425 BC still glows gloriously. He was the son of Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut, whose architects and artisans produced outstanding works.

After her death when he became Pharoah and while honouring tradition he made significant changes in his contemporary architectural style.

Under his direction artisans achieved new heights of skill in painting and glass making. A glass painted cup from his tomb bears his name. The abstract painting that decorates its surface reminds me very much of Twombly and his unique works.

The ancient Egyptians also added the disk of the sun to their symbols with splendid outstretched wings it seemingly flew across the vault as a symbol of majesty and power.

The Romans loved representing the sky on a ceiling, but in their tradition of improving the ideas of others, they wanted to view it through a painted arbour or trellis bearing fruiting or flowered vines, such as in Roman Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

Nero’s dining room ceiling revolved and opened so those invited to his table could enjoy dinner with stars around them as well as above.

During the Middle Ages the stone vaults of a Gothic Cathedral represented a great canopy formed by a tall stand of trees as they arched and met across an ancient Roman road.

It is likely the shape for the pointed arch was sown like a seed in someone’s fertile imagination as they observed this natural phenomenon.

The semi circular ceiling of the apse at one end of a Gothic cathedral, which hovered over the seat of the Bishop, came from a tradition of providing a canopy of authority over Rome’s Caesar, or Consul’s chair.

This continued when Roman Emperor Constantine (272 – 337) decided to use the Roman meeting hall the basilica as an architectural model for the first Christian church.

While many great stone groin vaulted ceilings appear plain today during the Middle Ages they were also a creative canopy often covered with stars as a reminder of the heavenly host, God himself. One such that immediately springs to mind is the glorious ceiling of the only surviving building of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, France – Sainte Chapelle.

It was extensively damaged during the French revolution and heavily restored again during the 19th century and today it houses one of the most extensive in-situ collections of 13th century stained glass anywhere in the world.

Raphael's Loggia at the Vatican

In Italy, when humanism became a dominant force, God was joined by all his prophets, preferred people and angels of every sort and they became a force of art above to be reckoned with.

Painted boldly as a mighty panorama by Michelangelo (1475-1564) on the Sistine Chapel, and delicately by Raphael (1483-1520) in the Loggia at the Vatican, here was a picture of paradise to aspire to, and a gathering of paragons of virtue to live up to.

Kings and Princes in Europe and England soon caught onto the idea so many a ceiling became an apogee for establishing that they had enjoyed a ‘great life’.

Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) portrayed English King James 1 of England, rising gloriously to heaven on the ceiling of Banqueting Hall at Whitehall.

Many a decorated ceiling in an English and European country house, such as in the Heaven Room at Burghley House ensured that their noble owners and their accomplishments were recorded for posterity.

Seventeenth century painter, designer and decor planner extraordinaire Charles le Brun (1619-1690) excelled at art above, painting a great many ceilings.

First in the Gallerie d’Hercules at the Hotel Lambert, although what remains has been much ruined by over painting today.

He then worked on all the painted interior decoration at the château Vaux le Vicomte for his patron the Superintendent of the King’s Finances Nicholas Foucquet.

It was to Vaux that the young King Louis XIV (1638-1715) came to enjoy a stroll around the garden in the afternoon with the man who would become his principal gardener at Versailles Andre le Notre (1613-1700), changing the course of garden history.

At Vaux le Vicomte Louis XIV climbed an ever rising sea of steps to explore the new château which architect Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) had sited grandly on a podium to enhance its style and to provide an impressive approach to its entrance.

Hotel Lambert, Galerie Hercules

Gallerie d'Apollon, Le Louvre

Louis admired the architecture, as well as the decor,  most especially the interior painted decoration by Charles le Brun.

After bringing about his host’s downfall, he then whisked Le Brun, Le Vau and Le Notre away to become his Dream Team at Versailles.

Charles Le Brun was what we would today call a child prodigy and he became First Painter to Louis XIV in 1661.

In 1662 the king made him a titled nobleman and named him General Custodian of Paintings and Drawings in charge of enriching the royal collections.

Restoring the Ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

For Le Brun the ceilings at Vaux provided a practice run for his two most splendid achievements in art above. They were his masterpieces in the Galerie d’Apollon at le Louvre (1663) (left) and the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at chateâu du Versailles (1682)

Both have recently been restored to their full glory.

It appears despite the ceiling at Versailles being far more famous, and considered Charles Le Brun’s masterpiece, it may have been the ceiling he completed from 1663 at the Louvre that really is his piéce de résistance.

His true genius in the realm of art above was only revealed during restorations that took place in this grand space from 2001 to 2004.

In the Galerie d’Apollon the chief restorer reported that ‘layers of overpainting and varnish were removed’ revealing, not only the original work itself, but also Lebrun’s genius at considering a complete project.

To plan his own paintings, the positioning of the figures in their frames and the choice of the colours he used they discovered the natural light that streamed through windows on the south and east sides had been taken into account as had the other elements of decor.

This included a series of magnificent tapestries and large amounts of coloured and carved stucco work. In this way he ensured that the end result would bring them all together in harmony.

His representation of Apollo in his chariot has been repeated as a great fountain feature in the gardens at Versailles and in the Salon d’Apollon. Louis XIV aligned himself with the sun God Apollo who symbolically is indeed the whole package. What the eighteenth century would call a ‘compleat’ man.

He has been variously recognized as a god of light and of the sun. Of truth and prophecy, medicine, healing, and plague; music, poetry, and all the arts; he represents harmony, order and reason and as the Romans had no equivalent in their religion they adopted him. He has featured in both literary and mythological texts and in all aspects of art for thousands of years, including a great deal of art above.

In the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, considered the most famous room in the world, twenty great chandeliers of silvered bronze adorned with Bohemian crystal hang from the ceiling as a continuing reminder that Louis XIV was the leading light of his generation.

The paintings on its ceiling represent a monumental homage to Louis XIV’s military victories in the Dutch Wars of the 1660s and 1670s, portraying him as a person rather than a mythological figure.

They are displayed as a narrative, moving from war to peace.

They were all designed by Le Brun using hundreds of drawings,” Véronique Sorano of the restoration team explained. “They were then painted on canvas and attached to the vault. Le Brun worked with a team’, but unlike at the Louvre, ‘we have no knowledge of whether he painted any himself.”

As at the time Le Brun was over 60 years of age, it is more than likely younger artists of his school would have completed the majority of the work under his instruction, and then he would have enjoyed completing the finer details himself.

Each oil is accompanied by a description, which traditionally would be in Latin. But in this case, also for the first time, they were written in French, by none other than playwright Jean Racine and poet Nicolas Boileau.

Each oil is accompanied by the date of the event portrayed, and the central painting (pictured), “The King Governs for Himself 1661,” records the moment in 1661 when, after having ascended to the throne in 1643 at the age of 4 ruled over by his mother and Mazarin, Louis assumed direct power.

At the Louvre in the Salon d’Apollon, the great centre piece to complete the ceiling planned by Le Brun, was only created two centuries after the construction of the gallery.

The choice of artist enlightenment artist Eugene Delacroix, whose expressive brush strokes and optical effects of colour contributed to the development of the painting style known as Impressionism, would surely have been approved by Le Brun himself from heaven above. Delacroix’s magnificent depiction of Apollo Slaying the Serpent Python was completed in 1851.

Cy Twombly’s work on the ceiling at the Louvre can’t be accessed at close quarters, but his depiction of the sky, with its vibrant blue background decorated with yellow, off white and blue spherical orbs is sure to attract a great deal of comment, perhaps even controversy, from the man known as the ‘bloke who best does blotches and scribbles’*.

It is good to see that the tradition of art above is ongoing and today much appreciated as the Twombly commission for the Louvre has proved.

Cy Twombly has now joined an elite group of artists reminding us of our need to look ever forward and ever upward as we enjoy the glory of the climb of love and life.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept 2010 – 2013

*Rachel Campbell-Johnson The Times, London, June 17, 2008

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