Discovering Fifty Days at Iliam
By Elijah Septoff
During a recent trip to Philadelphia, I decided to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the first time. The museum hosts a wide collection of art, from medieval armour to contemporary sculptures. Currently, there is even a fashion exhibit titled Fabulous Fashion, featuring different dresses and accessories throughout time, on display only until March 3rd, 2019. The museum has two massive floors and every corner is full of art. However, there was one part of the permanent collection that stood out to me the most because, at first glance, I thought I hated it.
A second look at Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) did not really change my mind. The work is a series of ten canvases, each with clumps of paint, crossed out words, random scribbles in the shapes of clouds and ovals, and lots of blank space. Viewing the series altogether is discombobulating, like looking at a secret code or hieroglyphics. If one did not know better, the pieces look like random scribbling or as if a madman tried to make art. But upon closer inspection, they form a narrative, albeit one that does not easily jump out at the audience. Words like ‘Hecuba,’ ‘Ares,’ and cloud-like objects link together, allowing Twombly to express his version of Homer’s epic, The Iliad.
Reading the epic inspired Twombly to tell the story of the last fifty days of the Trojan War through his art. Despite never having read The Iliad, I knew very much about the well known story. I was alarmed to see the classic tale reimagined in such a way. Due to its abstract nature, it is hard to realize what inspired it at first, but once I understood the story it was telling, I began to appreciate the piece. It looks a bit like notes from an English class, random words and lines from The Iliad mingled in with nonsense scribbles and loosely related sketches. For a collection that took two years and spans ten pieces, it is crassly rough and unappealing to look at, which is exactly Twombly’s point. Fifty Days at Iliam brings forth emotion, like anger and confusion, but also understanding and grief- all feelings one gets when reading a work by Homer.
The collection tells an all-encompassing story, more so than just the snapshot moments that some other masterpieces in the museum, like portraits by Le Brun or paintings of sunflowers by Van Gogh, could ever hope to achieve. Art can be skillful, abstract, realistic, or anything else, but what really matters is that it evokes strong emotions. This is what enables Twombly’s work to be able to stand alongside those beautiful portraits and still lifes, compared to kitschy pieces that are commonly seen in hotels or restaurants, but have no sense of feeling. It is all considered art, and can all be appreciated, but one that garners a rush of passionate emotion can stand the test of time. That is why I do not hate Fifty Days at Iliam. I am still confused by the style, yet at first glance it caught my eye more powerfully than any other piece in the museum. And, due to its perplexing nature, it demands more analysis than many other realistic or less abstract art does. Thus, normal people, not just art critics and historians, are tempted to look further than what is on the surface.
A piece of art does not have to do everything, and Fifty Days at Iliam certainly does not, but what it does, it does magnificently.