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This paper explores Cy Twombly’s use of antiquity and the past with regard to fundamental questions of representation, meaning, and historical consciousness. The paper argues that the relations between image and word in Twombly’s classicizing gestures challenge some key perceptions of “ancient” and “modern.” The paper suggests that the “Twombly effect” (Barthes) has important implications for our understanding of history and antiquity.

As Roland Barthes ("Sagesse de l’art” in L’obvie et l’obtus: Essais critiques III. Paris: Seuil, 1982), eloquently showed long ago, Cy Twombly’s relation to the question of figuration and signification is deeply embedded in his use of “written events,” and in his, often “nominalist” gestures towards the past. When in “Virgil” (1973) he writes the poet’s name on the canvas, “it is as if Twombly was condensing in his hand the very immensity of Virgil’s world, all the references of which his name is the receptacle. This is why Twombly’s titles do not lead to analogy. If a canvas is called The Italians, do not seek the Italians anywhere, except, precisely, in their name.” Here, then, the name seems to say everything that has been said before. Such art and Barthes’ comments are firmly embedded in traditions of modernity and arguments about non-mimetic representation. Yet, by virtue of its use of language (itself not unique – compare Kossuth, Baldessari, etc.), and its “nominal” statement of the whole, it also seems to sit uneasily with other emblems of modernity in art. Speaking of the mirror in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, Foucault famously says “Here the mirror is saying nothing that has already been said before [my emphasis].” What Twombly seems to offer, then, is a radically different, “classicizing” gesture (to which Barthes was in part well attuned). Indeed, reading Barthes’s comments on name, one can reach straight back to the classical past and to ancient literature. Ovid, for example, “looking” at the ruins of cities of the past says (Metamorphoses 15. 26-30): “…Sparta was famous, great Mycenae flourished, // and Cecrop’s citadel of Athens, and Amphion’s Thebes. // Sparta is now worthless soil, proud Mycenae is fallen, // and what is the Thebes of Oedipus but a name [nisi nomina], // what is left of the Athens of Pandion, but a name [nisi nomen]?” The similarity between Ovid and Twombly could be expanded, but for the fact that one of the more prominent perceptions of the difference between antiquity and modernity, especially in studies of visual culture, assumes that in antiquity “the world was understood as a book” (Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 2002) while, as Heidegger for example argued, "the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age" (Martin Heidegger, 'The Age of the World Picture,' in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Garland, 1977). Twombly’s art, clearly modern and in the tradition of visual art, forces us to reconsider some fundamental perceptions of the history of art as well as some of its underlying notions. As Foucault (and Deleuze) stresses: “It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say” (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. London and New York: Pantheon, 1970. Gilles Deleuze Foucault. London: Continuum, 2006). Foucault adds: “Between the figure and the text we must admit a whole series of crisscrossings, or rather between the one and the other attacks are launched and arrows fly against the enemy target, campaigns designed to undermine and destroy, wounds and blows from the lance, a battle.” Cy Twombly’s art may teach us that there are similar “criscrossings” between antiquity and the modern that we must acknowledge in any reading of both the present and the past.

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