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A Mid-week Art Bonus: Cy Twombly - Kiss, Kiss, Baby!

Updated: May 7, 2021

She, Rindy Sam, a Cambodian-French artist, told the court it was an act of love. She might have done better to have called it a crime of passion. Whatever, the $2,830,000 bone white panel of the triptych, Phaedrus (1977) by Cy Twombly, suffered (for love?) an indelible kiss that some 30 different products could not lift off. No, $47,000 later, the heavy red lipstick remains (and for any of the curious out there, it was Bourjois' true red satin Rouge Best). Sam was fined about 4,500 euros and ordered to take a class in good citizenship. (I'd have thought impulse control, but I'm American.) Yvon Lambert, the owner of the painting and the Collection Lambert, housed in a beautiful 18th century building in Avignon, was stuck with the damage.

I was just spending my first three months in Avignon when the verdict came in, and I wondered what other than notoriety would drive someone to do such a thing? Maybe it was something in the air or in the water, for around the same time as the verdict came down against Sam, five people broke into the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and punched Monet's Le Pont d'Argenteuil, leaving a four-inch tear in the painting. Kisses, punches, four-inch tears, obviously art has the power to drive people crazy. The Monet vandalism was an act of drunkenness, though odd that they would take out their drunken rage in a museum. In Avignon, it was Twombly's work that inspired such passion. I decided I had to get to know Twombly's work, but only in the most temperate manner, no Rouge Best.

Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly, Jr., called the heir to Jackson Pollack, subject of a film by Tacita Dean (Edwin Parker, 2011), with whom he shares an affinity for work in chalk, and artist selected to paint the ceiling of the Gallery of Bronzes in the Louvre (2010), managed to be an American with more than a few spiritual and artistic connections to the artists of classical antiquity. Born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928, by 1957 he had moved to Rome and later to Gaeta, Italy, where he spent much of his adult life. His connection to antiquity often shows in the titles of his works like Leda and the Swan (1962), Discourses on Commodus (1963), Bacchus (2005), and of course, the famously kissed Phaedrus (1977).

However, his range of interests went well beyond the usual classical myths and legends. His work as a cryptographer for the army during the early 1950s shows up in pieces like the one below.

I can not help scanning my eyes over it again and again, looking for a line, a loop, a gestural form that will let me read it. I feel the same way I did at four-years-old when I could read my name on the envelop of a letter my grandmother had sent me, but could not read the letter itself. Awwwgh! The attempt is also futile with this painting, but so thoroughly engaging that I try and try again.

The most fascinating connection for me as someone who admires both Turner and Monet was the Turner, Monet, Twombly exhibition at the Tate Liverpool in 2012, a year after Twombly died. Having these three painters, who could never have met physically, shown together, created a conversation that had nothing to do with time or place. It's as though they exist in a forever moment when all time and all possibilities are present, like what physicists predict that we might experience if we could travel at the speed of light. Of course, not being photons, we will just have to let our imaginations roam. Take a look below to see the wonderful connections that play off one another like comments when old friends sit and have a good chat.

Among Twombly's most famous works are the panels called Four Seasons (1993-1994), which seem like lyric poetry done in paint. And yes, like Turner, who even composed poetry to match what he saw in nature, Twombly loved poetry, especially Keats and Mallarme, the poet friend of the Impressionists. The four panels are among the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I provide here a live link to the page that allows you to click through and enlarge pictures of the four paintings.

These pieces are not always on view, which is too bad. However, it should protect them from the kisses of mad women artists wearing indelible red lipstick.

Okay, you can admit it here. What painting would you love to kiss (only in your imagination, of course)? Log in and speak your truth.

For more on Cy Twombly's career,

Photos from and Moderna Museet, used according to Fair Use Policy, and a free download cartoon kiss.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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