Fifty Days at Iliam

Contemporary art as a movement has strived to understand the world’s innermost truths, an objective artists believe can be achieved by pushing the boundaries of what is traditionally regarded as art. In doing so, artists hope to find the truth to life and art. A movement thought to have originated with Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist works, contemporary art has extended the boundaries of what is included in “the canon” of art. Regardless of whether or not viewers agree with its canonization, museums have begun to dedicate numerous galleries to contemporary art, legitimizing the pieces in the process. Fifty Days at Iliam, a series of paintings by Cy Twombly on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an example of this newer form. 

Within its walls, the Philadelphia Museum of Art holds countless artworks, spanning various time periods and geographic locations. Due to this, it is the museum’s duty to display this art in an unbiased manner. That is, it should display its art in a way that does not prioritize one artist, time period, or geographic location over another. It should provide its guests with the most complete representation of its collection possible. To be in a museum is to have institutional support, making artists and their works alike more important and serious in the overall art world. To be in a museum is to be universally recognized as deserving of recognition in the art world. Thus, museums have a duty, both to their artists and visitors, to create an environment that showcases art in a non-biased manner. However, museums tend to fail at doing so, the Philadelphia Museum of Art included. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, like many museums, prioritizes European and Western Art, while marginalizing the non-Western and non-European works on show. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this minimization of non-Western works is most clearly seen in the Asian Art galleries. Made to encompass the entire history of art for about four Asian countries (India, China, Japan, and Korea) in about the same sized space as one hundred years of American art, the galleries provide a rushed experience. It is also important to note that this is the museum’s only section dedicated to non-European or Western art. Besides its rushed nature, its placement within the museum, as it is put behind the European Medieval and Renaissance art, makes the galleries feel like an afterthought, one that easily can be missed if visitors do not know about it. It almost feels as if the museum understood its Eurocentric galleries were a problem, and, as a result, decided to hastily put together an Asian art section, not bothering to expand or treat it with the same level of care as the rest of the museum.

More subtly, this favoritism given to European and Western artists is also seen in the museum’s contemporary art galleries in the way that Western artists dominate the space. The first half of the galleries are dedicated to Impressionism, an art movement that originated in France, making it make sense that a large number of the artists are European. Following these, the galleries begin to follow the chronological evolution of avant-garde art, allowing visitors to understand the connections between each artistic movement. The layout of these galleries forces visitors to become a part of the art’s evolutionary process, following the avant-garde timeline until they get to the contemporary art section, in which the cohesion begins to dissolve. Contemporary art, unlike the avant-garde, does not follow mass movements, as it is a more individualistic way of artmaking. Artists began to work towards a more personal relationship with their artworks as they attempted to discover a deeper meaning and an inner truth to their lives, works, and the art world as a whole. Thus, many contemporary art galleries could not be labeled under a specific movement, rather they were labeled after certain artists and their various beliefs. 

It is in this individualistic atmosphere that Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) is displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The title refers to the final fifty days of the Trojan War, as Twombly took inspiration from Homer’s Iliad to create an emotional narrative of the war. Composed of ten paintings, the series is displayed in a gallery of its own in the back corner of the contemporary art section. Prior to entering the gallery, guests are faced with Twombly’s Shield of Achilles, reminiscent of the shield Achilles’ mother gifted him for protection in the war. As the gallery itself is made to resemble the war, this artwork placed at the gallery’s entrance is symbolic; it creates the impression that the gallery’s visitors are being protected by the same shield as they enter Twombly’s war. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are faced with an array of pieces with chaotic natures, each covered with scribbled designs that give the impression of chaos, urgency, and rage. Visitors move about this room by following the painting’s momentum and emotions, tracing the story through the Achaeans’ (early Greeks) rage and its impact on the opposing Trojans.

It is in Twombly’s The Fire that Consumes All before It (1978) that the series’ emotional and chaotic narrative can most easily be seen. Made with oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas, this piece stands over the viewer, dominating them with its 9 x 6 ft frame. Its focal point is the red splotch of paint at its middle right side that seems to be smudged towards the painting’s left edge. Its color is more saturated on the right, with it becoming less dominating and more desaturated the more left it goes, almost as if there was a bloodspill on the canvas and someone tried to clean it with a rag, making the stain bigger. The harsh marks that spread the color throughout the canvas give a sense of disorientation, as if someone was attempting to clean the mess in a hurry, but to no avail. Under this spot, there is scribbled writing that says, “like a fire that consumes all before it.” This is a clear reference to the Greek troops in the war, who throughout the Iliad would commonly be compared to a great fire that destroyed anything and anyone that came before it. Furthermore, this is a connection to Achilles, who, after the death of Patroclus, was written to have been consumed by rage out of grief and as a result massacred the Trojan troops, most notably Hector, whose dead body he dragged behind his chariot in front of the city’s walls until it became unrecognizable. The painting’s urgency and chaoticness are heightened by the small spots of red beneath the large spot of color. These resemble the small drops of blood that come out of a blood spatter, a connection that heightens the work’s connection to war and bloodshed as a result of the Greek troops.

This narrative of destruction is further understood when one takes into account the work directly facing The Fire that Consumes All before It, The House of Priam, made to depict the destroyed and decrepit nature of Priam’s, Troy’s final king, home as a result of the war. Of course, this title could be taken literally, being taken to mean Priam’s actual home, but it also represents Priam’s house in regard to Troy as a city. Rather than using bold colors, this work uses more muted tones, such as gray and dark, muted blues. Placed directly in front of The Fire that Consumes All before It, The House of Priam is made to be viewed in conversation with it. When considering this, the contradictory colors completely contrast one another, allowing visitors to understand the impact of the “fire” of the Greeks on the Trojan army. The aggressive fire forced the Trojans into a dull, dead civilization. Within these two works, the end of the Trojan War is shown. The death of the Trojan civilization as a result of Greek rage is depicted.

As this series is depicted as an individual work, autonomous from any other contemporary art series in the museum, visitors have the ability to fully immerse themselves within the narrative. Upon entering the gallery, they are thrown into the narrative at the story’s climax, the final fifty days of the war, much like what happens when people read Homer’s Iliad. Twombly creates a narrative of the Iliad that lacks form but rather is expressed via emotion and urgency. Viewers are completely immersed in this narrative, surrounding themselves with the chaos of the war and battles, evoking a more emotional response to the story rather than an apathetic one. This is something that could have only been achieved through the individual nature of this series’ display. Following in the individualistic footsteps of contemporary artworks, Fifty Days at Iliam must be individual in its creation and display, as it creates an intimate connection between the narrative of the Trojan War and the viewer. It is because of the way that it is displayed in the museum that a deeper understanding, and by extension connection, to the work can be created.

Fifty Days at Iliam: The Fire that Consumes All before It, Cy Twombly, 1978; Italy; oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas; 9’10.125” x 6’3.6.25”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading