Towmbly and The Orphic Poet

Untitled, Cy Twombly, circa 1987


The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke has inspired a number of Cy Twombly’s sculptures and paintings. Here the last line from Rilke’s Duino Elegies is scribbled onto a piece of card at the base of the work: ‘And we who have always thought of happiness, climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls’. The sculpture itself resembles a slender tree that has broken in two. The broken section leans almost vertically against the still upright other half.

There is a felicitous symmetry in Twombly’s incorporation of Rilke’s elegiac prose, given the role of art in the poet’s work. Twombly’s Orpheus (Thou unending trace) draws its title phrase from a verse of Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke’s 1922 homage to his mythological forebear. The songs of Orpheus, the progenitor of poetry and music, could impel stones and trees to move, and his “unending trace” is the lyric art that lives on despite his death at the hands of the maenads.


The importance of the modern German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Twombly includes the figure of the Orphic poet and their shared interest in the ancient River Nile. Twombly’s Egyptian series, Coronation of Sesostris, 2000, represents a late flowering of his remarkable graphic inventiveness.


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