Cy Twombly’s Lepanto cycle

Pulsating light, bloody sea

Cy Twombly’s Lepanto cycle in the Museum Brandhorst (art gallery) is a monumental study about life, history and light. The pictures hang in a room whose lighting conditions were designed specifically for the cycle.

One of the greatest showdowns of the early modern period is today being given the light that it deserves – and perhaps even a similar light to the one in which it took place. On 7th October 1571, 211 galleys of the Holy League, consisting of Venetian, Spanish and papal troops, encountered 260 warships of the Ottoman Empire in the Greek gulf of Patras. The Christian troops won the day. From a strategic point of view, the success was of little importance: The supremacy of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean was not affected by the victory. For the Occident, however, the victory was of great symbolic significance. In Venice a public holiday was declared and the poet Cervantes who took part in the battle as a soldier documented the event in his work Don Quixote. However, the naval battle was above all an important motif for renaissance painters. The most famous picture was painted in 1572 by Paolo Veronese: Above the bleak turmoil of the ships wedged against each other, the Virgin Mary and several saints wake up in an anxious state.

After the publication of the cycle in Venice, the entire art world fought over Twombly’s pictures, who at this time, ten years before his death, was at the peak of his success.

Some 400 years later, an artist takes up this theme once again. The American Cy Twombly, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and the heir and conqueror of abstract expressionism, painted a monumental cycle of pictures in twelve parts for the Biennale 2001 in Venice. Today this work hangs in the Museum Brandhorst in Munich and is called “Lepanto”. The cycle is rather like a legacy of the artist who died in 2011 in which all the themes that were important to Twombly are condensed: mythology, the Mediterranean, the sky, colour and, above all, light.

So it is very fitting that light also plays a very special role in the room in the Museum Brandhorst in which thetwelve canvasses, each of which is a good three by four metres in size, are now being displayed beside each other. That the pictures are being displayed in precisely this museum is no coincidence: After the publication of the cyclein Venice, the entire art world fought over Twombly’s pictures, who at thistime, ten years before his death, was at the peak of his success. Ultimately it was Udo Brandhorst, a close friend of Twombly's for decades and one of his most loyal collectors, who was awarded the collection.

However, a decisive factor in awarding the collection was that the cycle was to be hung in a room designed specifically for it in the upper floor of the Museum Brandhorst.The room is basically the crown jewel in the building designed by the firm of architects, Hutton Sauerbruch. It is generally shaped like an octagon and the pictures hang in it in a flat arc before the viewer. It is the size of the room that is captivating. The ceiling of the room plays an important role. It consists of frosted glass behind which there are slats which can open and close depending on the degree of sunlight.

According to Achim Hochdörfer, Director of the museum, “The idea was that the room is illuminated with day light and if necessary artificial light can be added.“ If the sun is shining too strongly, the slats close. “But we quickly realised that the idea was good on paper, but a lot harder to realise,” recounts Hochdörfer. “A cloud obscuring the sun was enough for the slats to move and you could hear the buzz of the motors constantly.” The decision was therefore taken to only adjust the slats to the lighting conditions a few times a day. And is so often the case: the emergency solution turned out to be a stroke of luck. You see, this is the way in which the Lepanto Cycle is to be viewed – in changing lighting conditions and nothing fits better with the monumental dramatism of this work.

“Sometimes visitors sit here for hours on the benches. It is almost as if they are meditating.”
Achim Hochdörfer

Twombly’s entire oeuvre is in no way simple or easy to understand. In a very irritating way, his often large-scale paintings frequently give you the impression that they are incomplete or sketchy. Crooked lines run over the surface of the picture, and some of them, like scribbled words and fragments of sentences, are hard to recognise. The Lepanto cycle is different. It overpowers the visitor with its intense colour and power. The naval battle of Lepanto – surprising for a historical battle – can be reconstructed exactly. Hundreds of ships got into position in the early morning. The weather was clear and the view good.

The first picture of the cycle is painted entirely in soft shades of blue. It was a beautiful morning above the sea and the sunhad just come up. Individual shapes similar to ships can be seen, but they are not yet in formation. Twombly is not portraying anything, he is citing the material world. The “ships” look like theyhave been painted by children, they are simple shapes – sometimes it seems you can seea hull from above, sometimes from the side. The drama begins to take shape as you move from one picture to the next. Colourful elements are added.

We know that colourful flags in battles at that time played a decisive role – the fight wasover when the enemy banner was captured. The acrylic paint flows in thick banners which have solidified into hard synthetic beads. It is easy to recognise the thick of the battle under the merciless heat of the Mediterranean sun. More and more red shades blend into the colourful chaos. The sea becomes dyed with blood. The naval battle of Lepanto only lasted five hours but it cost just under 40000 soldiers and sailors their lives. On the last pictures calm is restored again but not peace, it is the silence of death.

From the 1990s onwards, more and more ships crop up in Twombly’s work. They are farewell motifs and symbols of melancholy hindsight.

You can simply be carried away by the powerful blaze of colour in these pictures. This is what happens to many of the visitors to the Lepanto room. The room is conspicuously empty – the huge, colourful pictures are what define it entirely. An almost spiritual atmosphere is created as a result. You inevitably fall silent in the face of the solidified light. Achim Hochdörfer tells us: “Sometimes visitors sit here for hours on the benches. It is almost as if they are meditating.” You can also approach the Lepanto cycle analytically and try to sort through the individual strings of meaning. But it is unlikely you will be completely successful in this.

“What interested Twombly about the naval battle is that it was one of the most important historical events that was also a central element in the collective imagination. Just like the earthquake of Lisbon was later on,” says Achim Hochdörfer. “You just had to say the name and everyone knew what you were talking about. ”For the American Twombly, who from the 1960s onwards lived in Italy, this impregnation of Europe with culture, history and mythology was always asource of fascination.

Another of the cycle’s strings of meaning has to do with Venice: Venice as themost important warring faction in the battle, Venice as an early centre of painting,and, as the venue for the Biennale, a hotspot of contemporary art. It is no surprise then that the following situation was closely interrelated: with the cycle, Twombly was painting his way into a very special inheritance, that of the colourists. This tradition starts with the Venetian Veronese and extends past Turner and Monet into the present day. And then of course there is also the metaphorical level: seafaring which stands for life.

From the 1990s onwards, more and more ships crop up in Twombly’s work. They are farewell motifs and symbols of melancholy hindsight. Then there is also the Death Ship, an allegory for the crossover to the Kingdom of Shadows, i.e. the underworld. The Lepanto cycle counters this once more with a celebration of colour and light. Having said that, however, the last trip is predetermined. In the picture “Untitled” which was created in 1993, if you like a pre-study to the cycle, the inconspicuous dedication “To Lucio” can be seen on one ship. This is a reference to Twombly’s friend and gallery owner Lucio Amelio who died of Aids. Twombly adds a modified fragment from the poet Giorgios Seferis to the painting: “The light is a pulse / continually slower and slower / you think it is about to stop.”

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle