What makes Cy Twombly’s Louvre ceiling painting so special?

Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris
Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Cherishing the mundane

Introduction

If you ever find yourself in Paris, Cy Twombly’s mural in Louvre is well worth visiting. Cy Twombly was remarkable in every way, having created a lasting legacy with his works, including sculptures, paintings, drawings, and photography. He was one of the key figures in 20th-century art. In his works, he combined painting and drawing techniques, repetitive lines, scribbles, and the use of words and graffiti.

Cy Twombly & his permanent work at the Louvre

Home to the Mona Lisa, the Louvre is highly regarded as the best art museum in the world, holding an unparalleled collection of artworks produced through the ages. As such, it is the greatest honor for any artist to have their works included in the Louvre, and Cy Twombly enjoyed the rare opportunity to create a permanent artwork for one of the world’s most respected art museums.

Twombly was selected by a council of international artists as part of the museum’s commitment to incorporate contemporary art within its collection and galleries and became the first American ever to create a permanent artwork for the Louvre. One year later, in 2011, Cy Twombly passed away after several years of battling cancer.

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Cy Twombly on March 23, 2010 with The Ceiling, 2010

Where is the work located?

His installation featured a 3,750-square-foot (around 400 square meters) noteworthy painting on the ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes1, which is inside of the Sully Wing, one of the largest and oldest wings of the Louvre. Alongside German Anselm Kiefer and Frenchman Francois Morellet, Twombly is the third artist to ever paint a permanent modern decorative work for the Louvre.

Sully Wing, 1st floor, room 32
Salle des Bronzes Antiques

Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris
Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by ctj71081

The Salle des Bronzes

Erected between 1551 and 1553, the Salle des Bronzes has more than 1,000 pieces of art created from bronze and other precious metals. The pieces contained here include helmets, Hellenic rings, the crown of laurel in gold2, and so much more. Although the elements inside are incredible, Twombly’s mural on the ceiling stands out the most.

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Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris

Influences

His work has always been highly influenced by components of old Europe and his fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity and its mythology. The mural in the Louvre is no different. The ceiling is a monumental wash of blue intended to complement the Greek and Roman bronze statues in the Salle des Bronzes.

Analysis

The elegant blue, reminiscent of the hues of the Aegean Sea, provides a background for the floating discs that pay homage to famous 4th-century Greek sculptors such as Phidias and Praxiteles. The names of these Hellenic sculptors are written with straight and bold strokes, while the mural covers the entire length and width of the surface.

Legal situation

Things haven’t been beds of roses for the painting, thanks to the legal battle that ensued between the artist’s foundation and the Louvre later on. The site-specific artwork originally overlooked a neutral pale stucco room with limestone flooring. But a renovation job approved by France’s Historical Monuments Commission saw the room repainted in a rusty brown color and re-floored with parquet in the space of two years.

Twombly’s foundation, charged with guarding the artist’s legacy, was outraged by the new changes, especially the décor, which it said fundamentally altered the artist’s original work. After numerous appeals fell on deaf ears of Louvre’s president Jean-Luc Martinez, the foundation decided to file suit against the museum3 in March of 2021, demanding the changes be reversed.

The museum’s president maintained that the room itself was not part of the Twombly installation, and thus they had every right to make the changes, but the foundation strongly disagreed. Representatives for the artist said4:

It’s offensive. Why wouldn’t you at least tell us? For this to come via text message with a picture where everything is done. We hit the roof.

The foundation’s lawyer David R. Baum wrote to the museum’s president5 in early February 2021, challenging an “alteration that was made without any consultation with, much less permission from, the Foundation.” In the letter, Baum requested the “urgent intervention” of the French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot, demanding an “immediate correction” by Louvre.

The Louvre had no intention of reversing the renovation works that, at the time, were already well advanced, according to the deputy managing director of the museum Vincent Pomarede. Looking to “calm things down,” the museum resorted to “talk to the foundation”, insisting that the iconic ceiling hasn’t even been touched. “The museum is a living body,” Vincent Pomarede stated6. He continued:

The Louvre made this explicit to Cy Twombly, as we do with every artist working with us. In the preamble of the contract with Cy Twombly, it was made clear that the museography could change. How could it be otherwise?

Prior to Twombly’s installation in 2010, the Sale de Bronze was one of the very few galleries not to have seen any change since the 1930s. “Each room of the museum is repainted two or three times a century,” Pomarede explained7, stressing that the galleries with ceilings painted by artists Braque or Delacroix have also gone through renovations.

“We need to change the display cases, review the spaces, update the safety standards, revise the display of the collections. There was a time when museums preferred these white or light grey colors, now they’re all coming back to deeper colors,” he was quoted8. “The Cy Twombly Foundation has not seen the gallery yet, so they are welcome to come and judge for themselves.”

Caving to legal pressure

Despite insisting that it would not reverse the changes, the Louvre Museum caved to the legal pressure from the artist’s foundation, agreeing to reverse significant changes made to the room containing Twombly’s mural.

The museum reached an out-of-court settlement with the artist’s foundation, and the foundation settled to drop the lawsuit in exchange for the room being restored to its original appearance.

In a joint press release9 on December 10, 2021, the foundation and the museum said they are “pleased” to have “reached an agreement that will allow the presentation of one of the major works by the great contemporary artist Cy Twombly in a harmonious and coherent setting.”

The agreement also includes changing the color of the walls, wood panels, and display cases to lighter colors.

Conclusion

The ceiling’s shade of blue is bold and its simplicity adds to its allure while perfectly highlighting the ancients statues distributed all over the room. Although the mural in Louvre is quite simple in its appearance, the geometry and classical Hellenic homage help give it an up-to-date magnetism that is hard to ignore.

Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris
Cy Twombly – The Ceiling, 2010, approx. 344 m2 (3700 sq. ft.), Salle des Bronzes Antiques, Louvre, Paris, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0) by ctj71081

Footnotes

  1. https://www.louvre.fr/en/rooms/salle-des-bronzes
  2. https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/coronet-laurel-leaves-and-berries
  3. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/02/18/cy-twombly-foundation-absolutely-prepared-to-take-legal-action-after-louvre-destroys-artists-ceiling-painting-in-renovation-works
  4. https://observer.com/2021/03/the-louvre-has-been-sued-for-making-changes-to-a-gallery-with-a-cy-twombly-ceiling/
  5. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/02/18/cy-twombly-foundation-absolutely-prepared-to-take-legal-action-after-louvre-destroys-artists-ceiling-painting-in-renovation-works
  6. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cy-towmbly-louvre-nick-serota-1946149
  7. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/02/18/cy-twombly-foundation-absolutely-prepared-to-take-legal-action-after-louvre-destroys-artists-ceiling-painting-in-renovation-works
  8. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/02/18/cy-twombly-foundation-absolutely-prepared-to-take-legal-action-after-louvre-destroys-artists-ceiling-painting-in-renovation-works
  9. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/louvre-ceiling-mural-dispute-twombly-2046786

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