By LIZ HAGER
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
—William Butler Yeats, from “Leda and the Swan”
Since antiquity, when it was first associated with music (through Apollo), the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory within the annals of art. Other birds may have commanded more visible spots: the dove (peace, the Holy Spirit); the owl (wisdom); the crow (loquacious indiscretion), the peacock (pride), but the swan has adeptly defended a more difficult tract—the duality of human nature. At once graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, poetic and prosaic, the swan has functioned as the representative of hypocrisy.
Leda and the Swan, mosaic from Sanctuary of Aphrodite on Palea Paphos, ca. 1500 BCE
The most oft-depicted swan motif in the history of art is of course Zeus’/Jupiter’s “seduction” of Leda—Jupiter, in the guise of a swan and seeking protection from a marauding eagle, “falls into” Leda’s arms. She is married to Tyndareus at the time, so this is an illicit affair. Depending on the version, the union produces either all celebrated offspring—i.e. Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra and Castor/Pollux—or just Helen and Pollux.
Rich with symbolic possibilities, the theme has inspired scores of artists to heights of visual poetry and understandable flights of eroticism.
After Timotheos, Leda and the Swan, AD 1-100
Marble, 52 inches
(The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
Seduction and violation, fidelity, sex, love, and motherhood—Leda has it all. The comparative ways in which artists through the ages have dealt with the myth illuminate different cultural touch points. But the Leda of art almost always seems to exude the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with seduction, rather than the deminution, degradation, and shame brought on by violation. Perhaps this is because Leda has been largely rendered by men.
Beyond this, the male pantheon is nearly equally divided between those depicting the act of copulation itself and some other moment, either before—foreplay and caressing—or after—tending the babies. Interestingly, not until the modern era have female artists in any numbers embraced the theme.
Apparently, the Greeks and Romans did not consider it permissible to depict a women in the act of copulation, so, in the few examples of classical sculpture that have survived, the swan slithers up Leda’s front side, its phallic neck telegraphing the act to come.
Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, 1510-1515
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)
The myth languished until the late Middle Ages, when Humanist rediscovery of classical texts (in this case, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) led to its rejuvenation. Renaissance artists were hugely enthusiastic about Leda, no doubt in part because it allowed them to depict copulation, a most profound human act. The mind-boggling paradox here is that at the time it was acceptable to depict a woman fornicating with an animal, though not with a man.
Many versions echo the Leonardo example above—narrative time has been erased, so that Leda may embrace the swan and her children in a pastoral scene of familial affection. (Note: Leonardo also expressed his naughtier side in this Leda.) Corregio and Pontormo provide further examples of this tradition.
Tintoretto twisted this convention and brought Leda inside, though who can blame him with sumptuous Venetian interiors all around him. The nude defensive gesture and the cage show us that she is protecting Zeus (swan) from being carried away by the eagle (domestic). But it’s hard not to think that Tintoretto is suggesting she might want more of a good thing.
Michelangelo went all the way, so to speak, by throwing Leda’s leg over the slithering swan. He set a more explicit standard and his painting, now lost, inspired numerous copies, most famously Rubens and Bartolomeo Ammanati, who executed the moment in sculptural form.
after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530
Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm
(National Gallery, London)
Subsequent artists were not so chaste. In the particular work below Boucher focuses greater attention on the sumptuous rippling of the flesh of the women than on the act of seduction/violation. But the painting is still rather tame—the phallic symbolism of the swans neck only hints at what is to come. (Is it too much to wonder about two women and a swan?) Other Bouchers are not so implicit.
In his rendition below, Paul Cézanne used various figural attributes to compositional success. The exaggerated curves in Leda’s body mirror the bird’s graceful neck and arc of its wings; therein Cezanne achieves compositional balance. One senses that the story and its symbolism were of less important to Cézanne than the opportunity to show what he could do with shapes and color schemes. Although the scene isn’t as explicitly sexual as some of the other Ledas, though all those curves suggest enough.
Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, 1880-1882 (best estimate)
Oil on canvas, 59.8 x 75 cm
(The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.)
A few years before Cézanne, Moreau painted his Leda series. Drawn to symbolism, Moreau focused predominantly on the union, the sacred marriage of woman and god. Reputedly, it was these paintings inspired Yeat’s poem.
Salvador Dali took a decidedly contemporary approach, linking Leda (a portrait of his wife Gala) to the atomic bomb (dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Like suspended particles, all elements of the painting float more or less unconnected in space. Nevertheless, the composition is highly-organized, for Dali strictly followed divine proportions. It’s all connected with his deep belief in the efficacy of mathematical ratios. As Dali was deeply religious, this painting could also be interpreted as his version of the annunciation.
Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949
Oil on canvas
Cy Twombly’s 1962 abstract version is powerful visual evocation of motion. One feels the beating of the swans wings, the pumping of the heart, the flurry of activity inherent in the act of seduction. On a more literal level, the work ties into the artist’s environment, specifically the graffiti-covered walls of Rome, where he lives.
Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.
Contemporary women seemed to have pushed the myth beyond conventional interpretive boundaries. In her performances, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta channels the myth through themes of violation, rage and revenge. Contemporary sculptress Barbara Balzer finds the whimsy in a swan literally “coming home to roost.”
Barbara Balzer, Leda and the Swan
The male contemporary renditions of the theme are fairly graphic—interestingly Steven Kenny adds a menacing swan, thus straying into the territory violation (though Leda doesn’t resist much).
And then there are the just plain weird interpretations, i.e. Bjork’s 2001 Oscar dress.
Certainly, Leda and the Swan provided fodder for much artistic inspiration over the ages. And it’s gotten me thinking about the implications of an ancient myth in today’s cultural milieu.