It has been said that Cy Twombly’s paintings resemble writing, or are a kind of écriture. Certain critics have seen parallels between his canvases and wall graffiti. This makes sense. In my experience, however, his paintings refer to more than all the walls I pass in cities and gaze at, or the walls on which I too once scrawled names and drew diagrams; his paintings, as I see them, touch upon something fundamental to a writer’s relationship with her or his language.
A writer continually struggles for clarity against the language he’s using or, more accurately, against the common usage of that language. He doesn’t see language with the readability and clarity of something printed out. He sees it, rather as a terrain full of illegibilities, hidden paths, impasses, surprises, and obscurities. Its maps is not a dictionary but the whole of literature and perhaps everything ever said. It’s obscurities, it’s lost senses, its self-effacement come about for many reasons – because of the way words modify each other, write themselves over each other, cancel one another out, because the unsaid always counts for as much, or more, than the said, and because language can never cover what it signifies. Language is always an abbreviation.
It was Proust who once remarked that all true poetry consists of words written in a foreign language. Every one of us is born with a mother tongue. Yet poetry is motherless.
I’ll try to make what I’m saying simpler. From time to time I exchange letters and drawings with a Spanish friend. I do not (unhappily) speak Spanish, I know a few words, and I can use a dictionary. Often in the letters I receive there are quotations in Spanish from poets – Borges, Juarroz, Neruda, Lorca. And I reply with other quotations of poems in Spanish, which I have sought out. The letters are hand-written and, as I carefully trace the letters of strange words in what is to me a foreign tongue, I have the sense, as at no other time, of walking in the furrows of a poem, across the terrain of poetry.
Cy Twombly’s paintings are for me landscapes of this foreign and yet familiar terrain. Some of them appear to be laid out under a blinding noon sun, others have been found by touch at night. In neither case can any dictionary of words be referred to, for the light does not allow it. Here in these mysterious paintings we have to rely on upon other accuracies: accuracies of tact, of longing, of loss, of expectation.
I know of no other visual Western artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colors the silent space that exists between and around words. Cy Twombly is the painterly master of verbal silence.’
Copyright John Berger 2002.
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