Precious Bodily Fluids in the Ferragosto Pictures

Cy Twombly , Ferragosto V, 1961

OK, so maybe it’s not worth a whole blog entry, and it’s too long for Twitter, but I’m very proud of a title for a grad school paper I wrote on the painter Cy Twombly. My prof made me shorten the paper: too broad. So the title had to go.

Twombly is one of the great painters of the 20th Century; expressive, evocative, painterly. While his friend Robert Rauschenberg was doing huge collages and “Combines,” Twombly was creating large canvases with various types of scrawlings, markings and mysterious geometric forms and numbers. These canvases are remarkable for their seeming spontaneity and order.

In 1961, Twombly was living in Italy, “while holed up in Rome during August, when the town was nigh abandoned and the heat was stifling” (according to a “lot note” on, and the brilliant paintings that he produced were stratling and unfettered. The so-called “Ferragosto” pictures were eruptions of (metaphorical) blood, feces and – how to put it delicately….

Child-like scratchings of gushing pink penises, blood-red breasts, and messy smears of brown paint (scatology) cover the huge canvases, and are testament to a painter who was not bound by the niceties of Abstract Expressionism, and certainly not the stoic rigors of Minimalism. They are viscerally, powerfully erotic, in the sense that they evoke a child-like shock at the primal power of the erotic impulse.

The paintings have a jazz-like power and inventiveness, and dance like the best improvisation (as in, for example, scat singing).  There are no bourgeois conventions separating us from the primacy of the aesthetic experience.

At the same time, one could argue, like all great art, Twombly’s Ferragosto pictures evoke the Sublime, and, therefore issues of life and death. They are agitated, quivering, questioning. In that sense, they deal with the soul, and even, one could argue, Death.

So, here’s the punch line: The title of my paper was to be, “Scat, Scatology & Eschatology in the Work  of Cy Twombly.”

Image: Ferragosto V, 1961.


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