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Cy Twombly's monumental Fifty Days at Iliam (1979) can be read as a memorial series created in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The overall argument is that Twombly—often viewed as a painter geared to the past rather than the historical present—was responding not only to the grandeur and momentum of Pope's Iliad, but to the mood in the US at the time of the build-up towards a public Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The series was exhibited at the Whitney in the year that Apocalypse Now finally appeared.

The phallic energy of the 'A for Achilles' motif (associated with vengeance in Twombly's previous treatments of the Iliad) and the motif of shades of the dead are combined in this series with emphatic naming of the dead heroes: lists that confront viewers with monumental acts of commemoration. In Homer's Iliad, a hero's memorial would have been a nameless stele. For Pope, however, the monument is associated with the proper name. How to commemorate the US dead of Vietnam remained an issue in the un-reconciled America for which Vietnam had become a shameful defeat.

Alongside commemoration, issues of both violence and law run through the Iliad. Already anachronistic, the archaic civilization of Homer's poem is seen from the perspective of the emerging polis depicted on Vulcan's shield. The city at peace and war is a world excluded from, yet framing, the struggles over Patroclus's and Hector's bodies. Gregory Nagy follows Lessing's Laocoon (1766) in singling out the shield's scene of litigation over a dead body as a moment that opposes civic judgment to revenge.

Significantly, the shield itself—hanging at the entrance to Twombly's series—is read by Nagy (as by Lessing) as a limit-case for the argument between poetry and painting, text and image. The shield is being made rather than complete, pointing to the ways in which the Iliad continues to create its audience as an interpretive community, even though Achilles himself remains frozen in the posture of both avenger and victim. By drawing the audience into the poem, the Iliad anticipates the ways in which passers-by at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial are reflected on its inscribed surface.

Twombly's monumental and commemorative series installs his re-mediation of Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad in the historical moment of its performance, reminding viewers today that the trope of recurrent public mourning remains forever uncompleted.

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