Safety Curtain 2010/2011

Cy Twombly – Bacchus

The new Safety Curtain of the Vienna State Opera is a design by Cy Twombly whose influence in contemporary art has been of major significance for over sixty years. Bacchus, the painting serving as a model, is one of the most intense images the artist has ever created: It is a panorama of sweeping bright red loops and downward flowing veins of colour inviting the eye to scan the individual lines and track their course, to see where they begin and where they end, how they overlay and break off in staccato-like manner to begin again somewhere else – every single nuance of the painterly traces wants to be perceived and enjoyed as an event in form.

To accomplish this impression, Twombly applied the act of painting as a controlled chance performance. Instead of conducting the brush by hand, it was tied to a long stick thereby easing the connection between painter and canvas. The lines are no longer controllable in detail; they are left to their own devices and develop their own whims. Through the rhythmic repetitions of the circular movements a furious dynamics is set off which unfolds an almost orchestral monumentality. They condense, fill the image field to the bursting point and keep losing themselves in the powerful sweep of the event. The title Bacchus is not least a reminder of Friedrich Nietzsche's description of the dionysian in "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music". It's as if one were observing the exhilarating exuberance of gestural strokes left entirely to themselves, a dionysian regressive frenzy which is further increased by the intensity of the red colour and its associations with wine and blood and fire.

Born in Lexington (Virginia) in 1928, Cy Twombly has become one of the most influential artists of our time. Starting out from abstract expressionism, he eventually developed an idiosyncratic gestural style with script-like signs which present themselves as "gauche" (Roland Barthes) and are raised to the monumental on large-format canvases. No other artist of the 20th century got so unconditionally involved with the "Degree Zero" of modern art. As contemporary starting points he uses children's writing exercises, absentminded scribbles and graffiti on building walls in order to update the experience held in mythic tales and trace an arc to the great topics of Mediterranean cultural history. In recent years Twombly has created an impressive late work – Bacchus, painted in 2005 and now decorating the safety curtain of the Vienna Opera, represents one of its most prominent examples.

Cy Twombly's friendships with musicians and dance performers, in particular with John Cage, Earle Brown and Merce Cunningham, go back to an early stage of his career. The similarity of his scriptural imagery with graphic musical scores and choreographic sketches was soon noted and it is therefore no wonder that Twombly's work has inspired many musicians and composers – ranging museum in progress from Morton Feldman all the way to Wolfgang and Christian Muthspiel. Music's capacity of producing an immaterial sound from a material instrument (wood, brass, catgut), i.e. this paradox between mere material fact and its transcendence, becomes particularly virulent in Twombly's art as well: The red colour, the course of the gestural brushstrokes, the traces of paint dripping down are presented in their entire literal quality. And yet they always also point beyond themselves, turn into imaginative events and form their own phantasms. Thus, the opera's new safety curtain becomes itself a prelude to the plays and their interaction between real events and aesthetic appearance.