The subject of 'Leda and the Swan', like that of 'The Birth of Venus' was one of the most dramatic and frequent themes of Twombly's work of the early 1960s. Between 1960 and 1963 Twombly painted the subject of Leda's rape by the god Zeus/Jupiter in the form of a Swan six times, once in 1960, twice in 1962 and three times in 1963. Like his Birth of Venus paintings, Twombly's adoption of the classical theme of Leda and the Swan formed part of an increasingly baroque tendency in his work that emerged in the early 1960s and dramatically enriched the strongly tactile and sensual nature of his art. Richer, more expansive, earthy and engaged, the strong textures, sensual handling and often deeply erotic nature of these early '60s paintings contrasted directly with the subtle almost tentative nature of his earlier, gentler, more languid and graphic paintings on classical themes set in a Mallarmé-esque white background that he had made shortly after his move to Rome in 1957.
As in Twombly's first paintings on a classical, Mediterranean or even a specifically Italian theme, the artist's adoption of the subject of Leda and the Swan does not really refer to any specific painting or classical or art historical precedent, but rather to the paradigm offered by the myth or legend itself. Like 'The Birth of Venus' for example, the story of Leda and the Swan provides an opportunity and a conceit through which Twombly is able to graphically explore the eternal themes of love, sex, violence, birth and death.
This work is the first of the three paintings of Leda and the Swan that Twombly made in 1963. These three paintings constitute Twombly's last treatment on the subject at this time. Twombly's first painting of Leda in 1960 is the most gently ordered of all the six Leda paintings, seeming to carefully orchestrate the story of rape into a complex table of separate graphic events. His two best-known paintings on the subject are the two large square-format works that were made soon after the explosion of sensual color and heated erotic energy that took place in his work in the Feragosto series of paintings made in the summer of 1962. These two paintings, one of which is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, give full painterly range to the highly sexual and violent nature of the subject matter. The group of three paintings to which the present work belongs is stylistically a kind of collation of these two earlier and very different approaches, seeming to fix the vivid sexual action in an interior grid. Echoing the strange combination of brutal sexual energy enclosed in a cold, impersonal rectangular graphic outline also explored in a work such as Francis Bacon's Two Men Wrestling - an artist Twombly has said he greatly admires - this tripartite group of paintings on the theme of Leda seems to be an exercise in contrasts. It is in this respect too, with its apparent struggle between the Dionysian form of explosive, violent, erotic, scribbled freeform drawing and the disciplined restraint of an Apollonian grid, that his later Leda paintings anticipate and explore the themes Twombly would soon afterwards address in his culminatory series of this period: his Nine Discourses on Commodus of 1963.
This monumental series of nine paintings, on the subject of the mad Roman emperor Commodus, marked the culmination of Twombly's invoking of the Epic through an evocation of great classical themes. Like Bacon's paintings, Twombly's three renditions of Leda and the Swan from 1963 are the first of Twombly's works to exhibit the same extraordinary mixture of violence and geometry that the Commodus series also later evoked. In this work for example, a heavily worked impasto, smeared in all directions with the fingers generates a powerfully sense of physicality and of bodily interaction, mixing the colours of blood and semen in a manner reminiscent of both the Feragosto and Birth of Venus paintings. Like The Birth of Venus works with their mixture of blood and sperm, the theme of Leda's rape also invokes the timeless themes of birth, violence and death. The progeny of this famous violation was Helen and its ultimate consequence therefore, was the Trojan War. The gestural smears and graphic textures of this painting, so reflective of Twombly's experiential actions on the canvas actively reflect also the epic and timeless themes invoked by the myth. Exploding within a confined space, the unformed or 'informel' nature of Twombly's painterly scrawls sensually articulate a sense of lustful violation not through the imagery but through the still visible traces of the artist's own experiential activity on the canvas's surface. They are the marks of his own experiencing of the subject through his own sensual interaction with both the story of the myth and the visceral nature of his materials.
"In painting it is the forming of the image", Twombly said, "the compulsive action of becoming; the direct and indirect pressures brought to a climax in the acute act of forming. (By forming I don't mean formalizing or, in the general sense, the organizing of a 'good painting'. These problems are easily reached and solved and in many cases have produced beautiful and even important works of art.) Since most painting then defies the image; it is therefore to a great extent illustrating the idea of feeling content. It is in this area that I break with the more general processes of painting. To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a critical moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state; but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states. One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is 'contaminated'. Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate, it is the sensation of its own realization. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception. This is very difficult to describe, but it is an involvement in essence no matter how private into a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action. The idea of falling into obscurities or subjective nihilism is absurd, such ideas can only be held by a lack of reference or experience" (Cy Twombly, 'Documenti di una nuova figurazione : Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly," L'Esperienza moderna, no. 2 (August-September 1957) , p. 32.)