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Ides of March

Cy Twombly

Ides of March

Cy Twombly
  • Date: 1962
  • Style: Abstract Expressionism
  • Genre: figurative, abstract

The painting Ides of March (1962) belongs to a phase of Twombly’s career, in which the artist focused on monumental events from Italian and Roman history. Broadly speaking, this phase refers to artworks created in the early 1960s, primarily between 1962 and 1964. The influence of Italian and Roman history, correlates with events in Twombly’s personal life, namely his move to Rome in 1957. The artist’s surroundings had a profound impact on his art, and he immersed himself in the rich culture and history of the city. However, Rome contained more than remnants of its classical past, and the grand legacies of the Renaissance and the Baroque. The artist was also exposed to the gritty, dark side of contemporary city life: to poverty, prostitution and petty crime. The paintings from the period embody this contrast and tension. Much like the atmosphere of Rome, which combines the heights of ancient antiquity with the coarse experience of urban life, Twombly is successful in absorbing influences from the ancient world without compromising his painting style and contemporary sensibility.

There are several stylistic changes in Ides of March that can be attributed to the relocation to Rome. Being away from New York, where Abstract Expressionism was at its peak, gave Twombly a sense of freedom that was expressed in his painting. Most evidently, the paintings of the early 1960s mark the artists return to color. Twombly himself admitted that he would not have created large color paintings in America, and this was a largely inspired by living abroad. Ides of March has an overall dark palette of tones of black, brown, red and maroon accented with touches of green and yellow. Twombly manipulated the color in different ways: by applying it by hand, by mixing expressive brush strokes with lines drawn in pencil and by creating an effect where the color seems scratched. This variation gives the painting texture and a material quality. He also abandoned the all over painting technique, making the white canvas visible. The use of white was possibly inspired by the Mediterranean light. On the other hand, the white could have served a purely spatial and symbolic function: it can represent the classical notion intellect or the concept of memory.

The title, Ides of March, refers to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Twombly created several paintings that relate to the subject of historical assassinations: Death of Giuliano de’Medici (1962), Death of Pompey (Rome) (1962), and the series Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). The title, Ides of March, ignites the imagination, and accentuates the figurative element in the painting. The viewer is able to discern a profile and movement that can possibly resemble a stabbing motion. However, scholars point out that Ides of March should not necessarily be understood as an illustration or a narration. The strength and visual impact of the painting stems from the tension created between the colors and lines. Although the title helps to recognize a figuration, Twombly ultimately paints in an abstract manner. Because Twombly does not succumb to mimesis, his lines have an autonomous quality, and the gesture of drawing becomes central to the painting. The gesture is evocative of feelings of passion, violence and fury. Ultimately it represents the artist’s unique ability to interpret classical antiquity in a manner that does not compromise the fundamental principles of Abstract Expressionism.

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