Rich and complex, the work of Cy Twombly, who passed away in 2011, spans a period of some sixty years without ever losing any of its force, even in the very last years of the artist’s life. One of the most productive in recent history, Twombly’s career links the culture of post-war America, dominated artistically by Abstract Expressionism, and the Classical Mediterranean culture that he discovered as a young man and made his own. The artist would remain very close to the world of his birth, that of the Southern United States, better known in Europe for its literature, with William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote and more.

From his childhood and youth in Lexington, Virginia, where he grew up under the attentive eye of his African-American nanny, Lula Bell Watts, he retained the characteristic and sometimes difficult-to-understand accent of the South. The boy’s family environment seems to have stimulated his intellectual curiosity, cultivated his sensibility and encouraged an interest in painting. When in 1952, at the age of 24, he applied for a grant to travel to Europe, he said he wanted “to study the prehistoric cave drawings of Lascaux.” He also planned to view French, Italian and Dutch museums, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and Roman ruins. He also declared himself to be “drawn to the primitive, the ritual and fetishistic elements, to the symmetrical visual order.” Once he had his grant, he invited the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom he met in New York two years earlier, to accompany him. They took a ship for Naples on 20 August 1952. The rich and original culture that he acquired would nourish his work. His readings were also voyages – Goethe, Homer, Horace, Herodotus, Keats, Mallarmé, Ovid, Rilke, Sappho, Virgil – on which he would draw for his creation. He found inspiration too in less well-known authors, among them Lesley Blanch, Robert Burton, George Gissing and 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. This uncommonly refined sensibility found an expressive outlet in his painting.

Yet while Twombly was indeed a highly cultivated and well-read painter, this was only one aspect of his complex personality. The sophistication of his work is accompanied by a constant attention to vernacular realities, visible to varying degrees but always present. Endowed with a rare wit and humour, Twombly could be deliciously irreverent and even dirty-minded when he wanted. In front of his painting Apollo (1963), he remarked laconically to Paul Winkler, who used to be director of the Menil Collection in Houston: “Rachel and I used to love to go dancing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem”. And in a whole series of drawings from 1981-1982, he wrote the phrase “Private Ejaculations”, in the knowledge that in the 17th century it referred to short, intense prayer at regular intervals.

We know today, too, that photography played an important role in Twombly’s work and life. A private, even secretive man, he nonetheless regularly allowed himself to be photographed. Some of the most famous pictures of the artist were taken by Horst P. Horst for Vogue magazine, illustrating an article by Valentine Lawford entitled “Roman Classic Surprise” published in the November 1966 issue. Taken in Twombly’s apartment in the Via Monserrato in Rome, the photographs reveal a dandy living in palatial accommodations. This appearance in Vogue did little to improve his relationship with the United States, at a low ebb since the controversy of the Nine Discourses on Commodus shown at Leo Castelli’s in New York. It was considered too smart and sophisticated: too distant, in brief, from the American idea of an American artist.

Twelve years later, in 1978, Heiner Bastian published the first monograph on Twombly’s painting, for which the artist took care to present himself differently. The cover picture shows him dressed in jeans and pull-over, boots on his feet, sitting on the ground beneath a tree, with sheep close by – an image intended to communicate an idea of an artist close to the earth, living a healthy and simple life. Twombly indeed was probably both, dandy and Roman shepherd.

Sally Mann, a friend from Lexington, often photographed Twombly and his studio toward the end of his life. Thanks to her we have photos that document the development of the Coronation of Sesostris series, which he finished in the city of his birth. Among the most beautiful of the images are those of the studio, empty of work, with just traces of paint on the walls. From some of these ghostly images of a whole phase of Twombly’s work, of his place of work and creation, Mann assembled an album, recently published as Remembered Light.

The Centre Pompidou is staging the first comprehensive retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work in Europe. Unprecedented in scope, bringing together works from public and private collections the whole world over, the exhibition will be shown only in Paris. Organised around three great series – Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) and Coronation of Sesostris (2000) – it offers a chronological survey of the whole of the artist’s career, the 140 paintings, drawings and photographs affording an insight into the complexity of his work as a whole, simultaneously scholarly and sensual. Among the works shown are some of his best-known ones, many never exhibited in France before. Polyphonic in conception, the accompanying catalogue proposes a multiplicity of approaches, with essays on different aspects and periods of Twombly’s career. It also includes reflections and personal impressions by other artists, and accounts of the formation of the two great collections of Twombly’s work – the Brandhorsts’ and Yvon Lambert’s – as well as recollections by his son Alessandro Twombly. The catalogue closes on a lively and joyful portrait of Twombly from the pen of Nicola Del Roscio. Through this varied testimony, readers will discover not only the artist, but also the man, seemingly returned to life before our eyes.

Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception.

(Cy Twombly)