My Favourite Painting: Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum

'An extraordinary statement on the intoxicating power of art,' says Hartwig Fischer as he chooses 'Untitled' by Cy Twombly as his favourite painting.

Hartwig Fischer on why he chose ‘Untitled’

 From the 1950s, Twombly used markings and scribblings on paper and canvas, a characteristically “gauche” line (a term introduced by Roland Barthes) moving between writing and drawing, legibility and illegibility, to affirm presence.

In his “Bacchus” series, he seems to come back to the spiralling lines of his 1960s “blackboard” paintings, free-wheeling across the canvas, inspired by the god, ecstatic, liberated and liberating. An extraordinary statement on the intoxicating power of art.

Twombly’s work has had a strong presence in my life, ever since a show in 1984 revealed how myth, poetry and history of the ancient past are both present and remote, lost and regained in his work. This series is like the apotheosis of his life-long quest .’

Hartwig Fischer is the director of the British Museum

John McEwen comments on ‘Untitled’

Edwin Parker ‘Cy’ Twombly Jr and his father were both nicknamed Cy after the baseball legend Cy Young (1867–1955). Indeed, Cy Twombly Sr pitched for the Chicago White Sox.

Twombly Jr was born and bred in Lexington, Virginia, US. At 12, in addition to attending Lexington High School, he took private art lessons from the Catalan Pierre Daura, an exiled veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Daura was no provincial; he had been a member of Cercle et Carre with the likes of Mondrian and Kandinsky.

In 1950, Twombly received a scholarship to New York’s Art Students League, where he became fast friends with the creative livewire Robert Rauschenberg, who persuaded him to go to the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

One of his teachers, Robert Motherwell, theorist and spokesman of the New York School of Abstract painters, got Twombly his first solo show. A travelling scholarship in the company of Rauschenberg through North Africa, Spain, France and Italy extended his internationalism, which was completed when he married the sister of his Italian patron, Giorgio Franchetti, and settled in Rome. This delayed his artistic acceptance in the US.

Twombly made his name with witty, delicate, drawn and painted ‘graffiti-like’ pictures, which were succeeded by more expansive ‘romantic symbolist’ ones such as this. The Roman god of revelry, Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek), is a recurring theme in his art. In 2005, he re-read the Iliad, which seems to have prompted eight canvases in vermilion — the colour of wine and blood — with spontaneous brushstrokes expressive of the ecstasy and insanity of this mad and maddened son of Jupiter (Zeus).


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