The Anatomy of Melancholy- Cy Twombly at the Menil

On a recent trip to the Menil Collection with mother and younger brother we went to see the new exhibit called “The Beginning of Everything,” a temporary exhibit of drawings that included pieces from Cézanne to Ellsworth Kelly spanning decades of works on paper, and to stop for a light lunch at the delicious Bistro Menil for salad and eggplant fries. But we ended up stumbling upon a hidden gem that was positively amazing–The Cy Twombly Gallery. It was only that day that I heard about the gallery and as a dedicated Cy Twombly fan, I had to incorporate it into our day–but it turned out to be the main event.

When we walked through the glass doors into a large, empty, white room, with grey-tinged air, I was taken aback by the most striking painting I think I have ever seen. Three panels, untitled, with ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ scrawled in the middle, it was so striking that I actually awed out loud.

52 feet long, 13 feet high and completed over 22 years, Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor), is a stark progression of color, from small, boat-shaped black cuts to pink, red, yellow balls of color, detailing a journey of sadness and sacrifice to love and fulfillment.

Enigmatically, Twombly wrote ‘ORPHEUS’ on the center panel, and above that in red, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’ These words indicate the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to save his love, Eurydice. The journey starts with a sparsely painted canvas, containing charcoal tally marks, then as you view the painting (left to right), there is a steep acclivity of color. Bursts of vibrant yellow, orange, pink and blue explode on the canvas. Finally, on the end panel Twombly faintly scrawled Rilke prose reading, “and yet there on the other shore under the dark gaze/ Sun in your eyes, you were there/ the other side, the other dawn, the other birth/ and yet there you were in the vast time.”All of these elements of the painting–the pale-gray canvas, the color explosions, and the poetry–come together to make a cohesive and full story. The journey (although ultimately unsuccessful) progresses from pale loneliness, to colorful happiness as it follows a Orpheus’s from a life devoid of his love–shown in from grey and sharp black–to brilliant bursts of hope signified by the rainbow of colors.

It is under these brilliant bursts of color that the main key to deciphering this painting is written. In iconic Twombly scribble, the Rilke poem about the other about an elusive person he is longing for on “the other side” is written. The poem connects to the universal story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This other side is the divide separating the lovers. Although the bursts of color give the painting great vibrancy it is underpinned by muted gray backdrop. The color may allude to the eerie shroud of the underworld, where Eurydice will be trapped forever, or to make Orpheus’s colorful love for her stand out even more.

What I love about this painting, and Twombly in general, is that he can paint such an vivid story of a journey of love through the most simple painting techniques.  His mastery lies in his ability to tell such an intricate story and convey the complexities of the emotions of the characters in them with great immediacy and ease.

The fleeting minutes I got to spend with this painting were inspiring and up-lifting. I am so excited to have found this gallery, and I hope more people will find it, because it really is a testament to Twombly’s brilliance as an artist and storyteller.

Poetry detail in Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)
Detail of left panel of Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)

2 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Melancholy- Cy Twombly at the Menil”

  1. Lovely, vivid critique Julia. It’s one of my favorite galleries at the Menil. Ariel and I stumbled upon it during a WITS program. It was awe-inspiring as are you.

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