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TWOMB 1985.Tulips II A
Tulips II A, 1985Photography by Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly's Celestial Photographs

A brilliant Berlin show spotlights the American artist's lesser-known, but equally striking, photographic oeuvre

Lead ImageTulips II A, 1985Photography by Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly’s ethereal photographic studies of flowers, objects and interiors provide a thrilling insight into the late American artist's life and creative outlook. Like his monumental abstract paintings, filled with rhythmic scribbles and evocative smears, his photographs contain a rich textural quality to imitate outbursts of expression. In both the paintings and candid snapshots, he unveils fragmented forms and rich hues that eschew representation for emotion. 

It was in the 1950s, while studying at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, that Twombly began taking photographs of his daily life and continued to do so until his death in 2011. Only in 1993 did he choose to publish and display these profound images. For the first time, Twombly’s photographic work is being shown in Berlin in a new exhibition, appropriately titled Cy Twombly Photographs, at Galerie Bastian. The show features more than 40 intimate images from his time in Italy and Germany, and documents a realm that was often shielded from the public, yet proves supplementary to his oeuvre. Serene landscapes, studio scenes, natural subjects and details of his own pieces are included in the collection. 

Infused with an air of fragility, his photographic work oscillates between the visible and invisible, the physical and emotional, and the present and the past. Similar to how the scrawls and ripples in Twombly’s paintings attempt to preserve particular moments, his idiosyncratic photographic style is rooted in the way he took advantage of the immediacy of the medium.

It’s not the first time Galerie Bastian has presented Twombly’s work, though. In 2012, the gallery dedicated two shows to the artist. Heiner Bastian, art collector and co-owner of Galerie Bastian, has long been an admirer of Twombly’s poetic paintings and met the artist for the first time in Italy on November 2, 1972. In the book A Day with Cy Twombly, Bastian writes about his first impressions of the artist: “So this is Cy Twombly, I thought, an American who had chosen Rome, a place of the Old World, who acquainted himself with the Homeric history of civilisation, who conducted a poetic dialogue between the anatomy of moments and their fading.” Inevitably, traces of this “poetic dialogue” can be seen and felt throughout the exhibition.

The selection of photographs on show allows visitors to view objects and natural phenomena from Twombly’s animistic perspective. In the series Tulips II (1985), he captured six dreamy close-ups of tulips from various angles, in soft focus. Soaked in light and saturated in shades of crimson and coral, the row of blurred flower photographs flicker alive and arouse an out-of-body sensation of falling. In another instance, when Twombly shoots parts of a savoy cabbage, in Cabbages (1998), he focuses on its crinkled texture and the meandering of light, rather than the vegetable as a whole. In this way these photographs also reveal intimations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s wide-reaching influence on Twombly’s work. In particular, it brings to mind this passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

“If you will cling to Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.”

Whether through scraggly lines, dense paint strokes or capturing the folds of a tablecloth, Twombly’s art deals with unmediated gestures emerging from the crux of a moment or mental tremor. A portrait of the inner landscape. On one of Twombly’s drawings from 1990 at his house in Bassano, Italy, he jotted down a sentence that seems to resonate with his work: “The Image cannot / be dis possessed of a / priMORdial / freshness / which IDEAS / CAN NEVER CLAIM.”

Cy Twombly Photographs is at at Galerie Bastian, Berlin until July 23, 2016.