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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


On May 1st, my guest writer, the outstanding ceramicist Helen Long wrote powerfully about influences and revelations that coloured the flowering of her artistic career. Such influences – the kind that smack one in the face - are crucial in their impact on one's creativity, and naturally I have experienced my own.

One of these was encountering for the first time the paintings of Francis Bacon at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich in the early 1980's. Another, some twenty-five years later, was my visit to explore an artist hitherto unknown to me, the great Cy Twombly at his 2008 Tate Modern retrospective in London.

AUTUNNO, from QUATRO STAGGIONI (A Painting In Four Parts) - Cy Twombly, 1993-5

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was a painter and sculptor of commanding individuality and puissant influence. His mostly enormous canvases are instantly recognisable, not least for their use of graffiti-like scribbles executed in a spidery yet ethereal style, their somewhat diffuse composition and the artist's frequent inclusion of quotations from poetry and classical myths.

DUTCH INTERIOR - Cy Twombly, 1962

I suspect that my fascination with Twombly's work stems in part from the profoundly dysfunctional childhood that I endured. My young years were tainted in complex ways, meaning that happy memories of the time are minimal; recollections are in fact diffuse altogether. My father was a silent and profoundly disturbed tyrant, resulting in a married life of perpetual abuse and hardship for my mother and a deeply scarred childhood for my sister and me.

Much of what occurred, I blanked out. What we are used to however, we tend to cling to, even when it is unhealthy to do so; such outwardly toxic retentive behaviour can, perversely, end up giving us succour and comfort through its familiarity.

How does this relate to Cy Twombly's pictures? I grew up (until my early thirties when I broke free) in a home where no paint or wallpaper was present on any walls. This was not for lack of money, but because of parental dysfunctionality. All interior walls were bare pink plaster (finding an echo in the pink hues to which I frequently return in my work) or they retained partially scraped-off wallpaper remnants from previous inhabitants of the house stretching back many decades. I went through a protracted period during which my paintings actively explored the theme of old walls, that have both seen and withstood a great deal. These works directly reference the imprisoning walls of my home.

UNTITLED - Haydn Dickenson 2012

No carpet existed in my childhood home. The floors were bare boards in terrible condition (which I believe has given rise to compositional elements in some of my paintings) or, in some cases, had raw hardboard pinned to the old wood beneath. The latter, I feel, is reflected in my interest in pinning hardboard to rough wooden stretchers before painting on the board, and leaving as much bare hardboard as possible in the picture, in the form of negative space.

Childhood scribbles made by my sister and me as children remained on the interior walls, as did pencilled measurements of our growth on the bare plaster next to where my father sat at mealtimes in silent seething wrath.

It follows that Twombly's sensual graffiti-like style of mark-making became and still appears, to me, a transfiguration of those joyless memories; in this way, hardship and dysfunctionality breed positivity and creativity.

Twombly's work, like much of the very best art, still divides critical opinion. I have seen his paintings described as 'violently daubed', while I perceive Twombly as a passionate, often delicate lyricist. I keep two newspaper clippings about Cy Twombly pinned to my studio wall, as I like his energy to be near me.

In 2011, when Cy Twombly died, I painted a picture in his memory.

REMEMBERING CY - Haydn Dickenson 2011 (private collection)

We abstract artists need our loins to be girded at all times in anticipation of misunderstanding (at best) and vitriol (at worst) from some sectors of the public and, indeed, from some critics. In my very first blog post, nearly one year ago, I wrote of some of the varied trolling that I have received over the years, all of which seems as amusing now as it was enervating at the time. I am also reminded of the comment written in my visitor-book at one exhibition where the anonymous scribe invoked the words of the artist Dasha Balashova who has so generously written of the “inner 'nerve', expressive energy, and live creative impulse” in my work. The phantom critic hijacked Dasha's words, exclaiming that “Haydn does indeed 'have a nerve' exhibiting this rubbish”!

Back to the cryptic title of this article and to Cy Twombly who, after his1979 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York exclaimed that it "went over about as well as a turd in a punch bowl."

As turds go, Cy's must indeed have been a stonker, as he joins the ranks of multiple artists across all avenues of creativity – music, poetry, drama et al – in continuing to raise the hackles of thousands! Greatness usually provokes tempests of controversy; only the anodyne and the mundane go uncontested.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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