In tribute to the passing of Cy Twombly (April 25, 1928 – July 5, 2011), we revisit one of our favourite of his works, The Ceiling at the Louvre, which is accompanied by a revealing interview with the American artist.
It is a little known fact that the Louvre in Paris – a museum famous for its unrivalled collection of classical art and antiques – has an active policy relating to contemporary art, whereby it invites living artists to contribute to the architecture and decoration of its historic building. In 2007, Anselm Kiefer installed a permanent artwork and earlier this year, François Morellet unveiled his artistic addition. The policy is a tradition rather than an innovation; a ceiling painted by Georges Braque is just one example of the museum’s long time commitment to contemporary art.
Cy Twombly is the latest living artist to contribute to the Louvre. He has painted The Ceiling in the museum’s Salles des Bronzes, which was revealed on March 25, 2010. It is a colossal work, which covers more than 350 square meters, situated above the Louvre’s collection of bronze statues. Differing from the American artist’s more romantic work, The Ceiling is composed of a blue sky punctuated by white spheres (Twombly describes them as shields), which are inscribed with the names of leading Greek sculptors.
In a conversation with Marie-Laure Bernadac, the Curator in Charge and Special Advisor on Contemporary Art at the Musée du Louvre, Cy Twombly discusses his latest work.
You were given this proposition by the Musée du Louvre and, even though you hadn’t seen the room, the Salle des Bronzes, were you interested in the idea?
I guess so, but I don’t really remember
all of that…I must have seen the room because
I did the maquette and its subject was the
objects in the room. So I used the circle as
shields in the blue sky. As for the writing, the
Greeks always wrote on everything, you know.
Even on a little cup, they would write “I belong
to Phidias” or things like that. And one day I
did the maquette just like that, using a bottle or
a glass to make the circles. After that, I didn’t
make any changes whatsoever. I saw a friend
artist Barbara passing in front of my studio
and I said her to come in and mix the colors
for me. I had a chart with a whole variety of
blues, the deep blue, the caramel colors, the
brownish-grey. And so for the circles I put this
one in that spot and this one over there. So they
don’t jump. It remains quite flat. Nothing
fights with each other. I didn’t want it busy.
They’re just around the side, and I left the ceiling
open for the blue sky, a Giotto blue.
Have you done other special commissions
and do you like doing them?
I don’t mind at all. I did the curtain for
the Opéra Bastille in Paris in 1986. But my
great love was designing the pavilion in Houston
which was actually constructed by Renzo Piano.
Mrs. de Menil came and asked me to design a
pavilion to house some of my works. So I made
the drawing and then Piano did the building
itself with the incredible roof. He had it in marble
at first, but I wanted to use pressed stone and
indigenous material. It had to be simple, not pretentious.
It’s not a museum, it’s just a pavilion
for a group of works. In it, I put all of the sets
that I wanted to keep together, like the green
paintings, the grey set and other things.
How did you start making the
sketches for the work?
You know, the room is like a glorified corridor
because it’s long and narrow. So when you
have these circles in different colors, I didn’t want
them to jump or make busy counterbalances to
each other. I wanted a sense of floating, of lightness
over that huge surface. And it worked, I didn’t
have to do any changes. And it is quite flat.
It’s a nice room, I love it, it’s so beautiful with
the windows to the floors. And I love coming in
from the Henri II Room with the beautiful ceiling
Were you inspired by any other
No, because of the length of the room.
Usually rooms with painted ceilings are like a
double cube and they soar up in the middle. But
this room has no center. And the whole idea
of the original maquette was to take its length
The size of the ceiling didn’t scare
Not at all. I love big spaces! I live in
Italy, and it’s full of big spaces. So I feel very
much at home in large spaces.
You say that the starting point for
your paintings is often a reference from literature
or a piece of poetry. In this case, was your
initial source of inspiration the names of the
Greek artists found in the Louvre? The names of
great painters or sculptors were
often integrated into the painted or sculpted décor
in the museum.
No, it was when I saw the bronzes in the
room: that naturally determined the ceiling. And
then I found the Greek writing particularly
beautiful, the names of all the great sculptors written in Greek:
Praxiteles, Phidias, Myron, Polykleitos…
Why didn’t you use your own handwriting,
which you often do in your paintings
I couldn’t conceive of anything I did
before as something that could be used for a ceiling.
And I wanted the names to be clear and legible,
they stabilize the circles. You know, after 60
years of working, things just come into play. You
don’t know why you do this or why you use
that: it’s not something conscious. You have
enough references, and that enables you to just
put things in without having to meditate or calculate
what you’re doing. The main thing was to
make something that worked in this room. It had
nothing to do with any previous work or the way I
Is it a way of affirming your status
as a “Mediterranean artist”?
I don’t know how much that has to do
with this room. I’ve lived in Italy for 50 years, although I go back and forth to the States. I did spend 8 summers in Greece, so a little of it may have
rubbed off! But the young lady who is a curator
in the department of Greek Antiques tells me
that some of the characters used for the names
are from the wrong period. Well, anything too
perfect has to have a mistake or the gods will take
it away. So that’s my mistake in the ceiling. But
anyway, no one’s going to notice it up there.
I was wondering about your choice
of blue, a color that isn’t usually found in your
works, with the exception of your recent paintings
in the Untitled I - IX series, or in your
triptych The Three Dialogues of Plato dating
It’s simply the sky.
And the circles?
The motif was to be a shield, the Greek
shield. And depending on the color, they do different
things, many of them rotate. But no one
thinks of a shield at first, they think of a circle.
Was this a new process for you: making
a model and then having assistants do the
painting? As if you were working on piece of
Yes, it was the first time. And the painters
and crew did an amazing job since the whole
process was quite complex.
Were you a frequent visitor to the Louvre?
And when? What did you come to see?
Yes. I’ve been in Europe since 1957. I
used to go to Paris a lot. I had an apartment
and I often stayed at the Louisiana Hotel.
And I had shows in Paris, at Yvon Lambert’s
gallery, and also at the Pièce Unique Gallery. So I
would spend a lot of time in Paris. And I often
went to the Louvre.
And what did you go to see?
As many things as possible. It depended
what I had a crush on at the moment. It might
have been either Greek or Roman. I collect
Roman sculptures and I wanted to compare
them. Another time I might be fascinated with
the Rubens of the Marie de’ Medici cycle or
Why are you interested in Roman
It began when I first started coming to
Rome. You could find quite a few pieces there
back then. I have many interests and that’s
just one of them.
Is there any connection between your
sculptures and your interest in antique statues?
Not at all. I think they’re quite separate.
What about Picasso? Some of your
sculptures made with found objects could be
likened to Picasso’s sculptures from the 50’s.
Picasso is basically a great sculptor. I
think he has enormous feeling as a sculptor. But
in his sculptures the found objects are always
obvious, while in my sculptures I try to make
them disappear, to make them abstract.
Some painters are great
sculptors, like Picasso, Matisse, Degas and others.
Painting and sculpture are quite different.
You say that Poussin is also one of
your favorite painters. Why?
Yes, because like him I went to Italy and
I lived in Rome. Rome in the 1950s was
another world. It wasn’t a big tourist attraction.
In a sense, it was more local. And I love the
romantic idea of the artist coming to Rome, and of
the French Academy.
Are you inspired by Poussin’s landscapes?
No, I like the subjects of his paintings, which are not necessarily landscapes, for example, the Bacchanales and things like that.
What about his Four Seasons? Were
they a source of inspiration for your Four Seasons
No, I had a “Poussin” period, if you like, but no, that’s something different. In fact, I look at all of the
painters quite often… Jasper Johns did the four
seasons and they all looked like winter. And I
thought: I’ve got to do it and make summer look
like summer, and spring like spring! That’s it! I
forgot about that.
And do you still collect works of art?
I do. I have some very beautiful
Picassos, some magnificent drawings and two
or three paintings, one from the show he did in
Avignon, and a beautiful one of a woman
combing her hair from the ’40s, and other things. I
like to be a collector.
How does this project relate to your
recent paintings? Was your approach to it very
Yes, this was very different kind of project.
And my approach to it wasn’t at all the
same. I wanted to make something that was,
above all, a response to this particular space.
If you had to give this ceiling a title,
what would it be?
The Ceiling. When I did a set of paintings
in Gaeta during the winter, I just called
them the “Winter Paintings”. Well, this is
a ceiling. The painting doesn’t really have a subject.
It was made for this ceiling. I’m happy to
be in this beautiful old wing of the Louvre and to
have Braque as a neighbor. I hope our two works
are complementary. But I’m sure there will be
some negative reaction, as there was to Braque in
What are you working on these days?
Mostly paintings. There are four paintings
I did in Virginia that were shown in the
Gagosian Gallery in Athens. They’re called
Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves. And
the blue is beautiful, a very brilliant blue.
When we received the model, Henri
Loyrette and I held it up over our heads to see
what it would look like when you looked at from
below. And we saw that it was perfect!
Which works in the Louvre would
you choose to illustrate this interview?
That’s a difficult question to
answer, but off the top of my head, I’d say: Mola, Rubens, Marie de’ Medici and
Titian, Portrait of a Man with Glove.
How would you define your relationship
to the past, to tradition? All of your
artwork is inspired by it, but it’s not immediately
obvious, except through the mythological
The past is a springboard for me. I get the
impulse and excitement from the subject of the
work. And then painting gives you a rush to do
it in the way you do it. Anything interesting has
a life of its own, like most aesthetic and creative
things. Ancient things are new things. Everything
lives in the moment, that’s the only time it
can live. But its influence can go on forever.
So it has nothing to do with academ-
icism and the weight of the past. How do you
explain the fact that you left Virginia to go and
work in Europe, and in Italy, in particular?
Virginia is a good jumping board for living
in Europe. My mother said I always
planned to live in Italy, ever since I was a kid.
What do you think of the beautiful
essay that Roland Barthes wrote about you?
I love it. Doing the Louvre ceiling may
have been a great moment, but Roland Barthes
was really the great moment in my life. To have
a text from someone like that…In a way, he
was talking about himself, because he did drawings,
Do you write at all yourself?
No. It would be embarrassing because
I’m not a writer. In my paintings, I write other
people’s texts, but I don’t write anything myself.
In the last four paintings, for example: I always
wanted to use Alkman’s phrase “Leaving Paphos
Ringed with Waves.”
You read a lot of poetry. Do you
often get your inspiration for painting from
Rilke has always been my great source.
That one poem about the fishes that explains the
difference between verbal things and seeing art,
how it goes into something non-verbal. And I
like Archilochus, one of the first poets after Homer, a military fellow. I did a beautiful sculpture
in Houston and written on it is a line by Archilochus:
“We left them their dead as a gift to remember
us by.” And then there’s the beautiful Pessoa
poem, The Keeper of Sheep. And the newest one, the poem I’m working with now, is by Saint John Perse. I’m going to use it on a big painting I’m doing now. The song of Anabasis is one of his most beautiful, it goes like this: “I have built myself, with honor and dignity
have I built myself on three great seasons,
and it promises well, the soil whereon I have
established my Law. Beautiful are bright
weapons in the morning and behind us the sea
is fair. Given over to our horses this seedless
earth delivers to us this incorruptible sky. The
sun is unmentioned but his power is amongst
us and the sea at the morning like a presumption
of the mind.”