Unseen in public for thirty years, this large, human-scaled and epically-themed painting is in part a performative work that marks a contemporary moment of re-engagement with the myth, on Twombly’s behalf. A moment when, through the unique graphic language of painting that he had progressively perfected throughout much of the 1950s and early ’60s, the spontaneity and impulse of the creative act of making was brought to a climax through his painterly re-enactment of this extraordinary story of metamorphosis, seduction and the birth of a new era.
Distinguished particularly for its heady mix of sex and violence, the subject of “Leda and the Swan” was one of the most frequent themes of Twombly’s work of the early 1960s. Between 1960 and 1963 Twombly was to paint the subject six times: firstly, in a kind of diagrammatic way in 1960, twice in 1962 in the large, square-format of this work, and three times, on a smaller, more calculated, analytical and measured scale, in 1963. Evocative of the forces of Eros and Thanatos coming into contact with one another—of both sensual and aggressive passions combining in a magical, sexual act of procreation—these renderings of the myth of “Leda and the Swan” form the apex of a tendency to evoke the all-pervasive force of Eros that underpinned much of Twombly’s work up to this point and which would, after these paints be characterized more strongly by classical depictions of violence in the form of many pictures on the theme of assassinations, the Trojan war and the excesses of the Roman Emperor Commodus.
Comprising a centralized flurry of spontaneous and impulse-driven painterly activity scrawled, scribbled, smeared, splashed and scratched onto a large white canvas directly with his hands, Cy Twombly’s magnificent Leda and the Swan of 1962 is one of two large-scaled paintings made on the theme of the Greek myth of Leda’s seduction by the god Zeus that mark the very pinnacle of Twombly’s painterly practice in Rome in the early 1960s. Made during the highpoint of what Twombly would later term his “Baroque” period, these two paintings (the other example of which is now in Museum of Modern Art in New York) are each a frenzy of mark-making depicting the mythical moment of Leda’s violation in the form of a convolution of graphic energies embodying the twin human drives towards sex and violence as they collide with one another in a fixed space. This space is indicated by a simple horizon line drawn across the center of the, otherwise ethereal, white canvas and a simple, scrawled pictogram of a window inscribed at the top of the painting. Below it, a vague indication of blood, desire, feathers, lust and struggle revolving around a rich, red, central vortex dramatically conveys a powerful sense of the cosmic and elemental importance of this mythical and magic moment. Leda’s seduction by the god of heaven, [Zeus-become-swan], would lead, through the offspring of this union, which included Helen of Troy, to the Trojan war and the last age of the Heroes in Ancient Greek mythology.
The story of Leda is, of course, one that has captivated poets and painters throughout history with its erotic themes of seduction, violation and mystical birth. Deriving from fables written by Ovid and Fulgentius, the myth tells of Leda, the daughter of the King of Aetolia and wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. Leda’s beauty was such that she fatefully caught the eye of the god Zeus, who, one day, in the guise of a swan, came down from the heavens to save her from an eagle attack. That night, having previously been with her husband, Tyndareus, Zeus—still as a swan—seduced and raped Leda, who afterwards gave birth to two eggs bearing two sets of twins: two boys, Castor and Pollux and two girls, Helen of Sparta, (later Troy) and, some say, Clytemnestra, the future wife and murderess of Agamemnon.
Periodically, throughout history, this strange tale has given rise to numerous pictorial and poetic interpretations and reworkings. In the twentieth century in particular, the tale has inspired famous poems by W. B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)—who described the rape from Leda’s point of view. Interpretations of the myth also appear in twentieth century painting as well as in much Symbolist art of the fin de siècle. But the subject was perhaps most popular in Renaissance Italy, although, comparatively few original masterpieces from the many works created at this time now survive. Most notable among these are Leonardo da Vinci’s 1508 Leda and Michelangelo’s 1529 painting commissioned by Alfonso d’Este; both of which are believed to have been deliberately destroyed sometime after 1600 because the subject matter had, by then, come to be deemed too vulgar. Several notable copies of these famous paintings still exist however, and Twombly undoubtedly knew of Leonardo’s Leda through such copies as well as through the series of drawings for this painting that Leonardo made. One famous copy of Leonardo’s Leda resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence along with a Tintoretto and a Pontormo of the same subject, for example. Both Leonardo and Nicholas Poussin, who also painted the subject of Leda in the 17th century, were important influences upon Twombly’s work, but whether their pictures of Leda and the Swan played any part in Twombly’s thoughts on the subject is hard to tell. Twombly’s painting of the 1950s and ‘60s was as much influenced by poetry and by fragments or phrases from poems, as it was by paintings from history. In addition, it is equally conceivable, for example, that his thoughts on Leda may have been influenced by the many beautifully weathered frescos and antiquated sculptures of Leda and the Swan from classical times that he would have encountered in the villas of Pompeii, the Musei Capitolini in Rome or the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. As in Twombly’s first paintings on a classical, Mediterranean or even a specifically Italian theme, his adoption of the subject of “Leda and the Swan” does not really refer to any specific painting, classical or art historical precedent, but rather to the general paradigm offered by the myth. Like his paintings of “The Birth of Venus,” made also in 1962, for example, the story of Leda captivated Twombly because it provided him with a conceit through which he could graphically explore all the eternal themes of love, sex, violence, birth and death through the depiction of one singular and transformative event. Of particular interest to Twombly too was the concept of the divine swan (Cygnus) and the idea of its beating wings being stilled or “held” by their beloved; transmitting the flutter of desire both inwards and outwards through the gentle medium of touch. For Twombly, this concept, which derived from the poems of Stephan Mallarmé, was a metaphor for the way in which he himself, sought to convey and evoke emotion through the touch of his mark-making approach to painting.
Twombly had first visited Italy in 1952 while on a tour of North Africa and Europe with his close friend and fellow artist, Robert Rauschenberg. There, he had been instantly struck by the overwhelming sense of history that surrounded him and the fact that modern life in Rome played itself out against an antique backdrop often several millennia old. Inspired by the palimpsest-like nature of the Eternal city’s ancient graffiti- covered walls for example, upon returning to New York, Twombly immediately embarked upon a series of works made by scratching impulsively into the surface of wet paint. In paintings such as Panorama of 1954 and Academy of 1955, each of Twombly’s lyrical lines became what he called a signifier of ‘the actual experience’ that had gone into making it; a form that displayed “its own innate history.” It “does not illustrate” he wrote, “it is the sensation of its own realization.” (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.) As a result of this, too, Twombly’s imagery became what he called, “one of private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception” (Ibid.).
Twombly settled permanently in Rome in 1957 where the Mediterranean culture and atmosphere of the city provided a perfect locale for the development of his poetic sensibilities. Shifting away from his more densely packed gestural works vaguely reminiscent of the New York School, Twombly’s work from the late 1950s into the early 60s began to evolve into a unique pictorial language that, in the manner of Ezra Pound’s poetry for example, invoked ancient classical myths and histories immersed into a contemporary experience. “One may assume that Twombly’s experience of Rome, of its living architectonic and pictorial continuity, and the contact the city offered to painters of the Renaissance, opened up fundamental perceptions which were only to find concrete painterly expression in works from 1960 on, after years of personal reflection,” Heiner Bastian explained, also noting that, for Twombly, the inspiration of classical mythology and allegorical fiction would become “ideal material for a landscape of myth and metamorphosis” that would reoccur “again and again in his painting and never quite leave him” (H. Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly Paintings Vol. I 1952-1976, Frankfurt, 1978, p. 39). Enchanted by Rome’s rich history and its legacy of classical, medieval and Renaissance masters, Twombly absorbed his surroundings and channeled his interpretations through impulsively created paintings often made in a sudden flurry of gestural activity after long periods of meditation upon a theme, phrase or idea.
Throughout 1962 Twombly painted a series of works that in their imagery, handling of paint and subject matter, grew increasingly sensual, erotic and even bawdy. Many of these often whimsical, scrawled, scratched, daubed and even, in places, scatological looking paintings bore prominent classical inscriptions and titles such as “The Birth of Venus,” “Psyche and Amor” and “Hero and Leander.” These were classical titles indicative not just of famous mythological couplings, but of the passion of such liaisons, of the human emotions and feelings that always underpinned these epic stories. Executed in the spontaneous, vivid and electrifying scrawl and smear of Twombly’s uniquely eloquent touch, these works all exude an overwhelming sense of vitality, action and immediacy that imbues these pictures with a very current or immediate sense of visceral sex and violence actively taking place in the midst of a dreamlike Arcadian landscape of the ancient classical past.
Tantalizing its viewers with a suggestion of form, Twombly’s Leda and the Swan is a work infused with Italianate light that deliberately teeters on the brink of comprehension—never allowing the various forms that articulate its surface to coalesce into anything overly figurative, legible, or specific and thereby retaining their intensely evocative visual power. What we are left with are the scribbles and smears that give the appearance of adhering to some sort of inner logic, the result of a haphazard yet systematic approach to merely evoke the seduction and violation of Leda at the hands of Zeus.
The poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s statement that “to name an object is to remove three-quarters of a poem’s joy… to suggest it, that is the dream,” is a sentiment that Twombly clearly followed in his work. Preferring suggestion to definition, Twombly often layered his paintings with suggestive, rather than illustrational, imagery, containing multiple possibilities of meaning and interpretation so as to infer a sense of enduring mystery rather than to specify, limit and measure something into a definable, but also, thereby sterile, quantifiable statement (S. Mallarmé, quoted in J. Huret, Enquiete sur l’evolution literature, 1891, n.p.).
Eliminating the barriers between action painting, portraiture, history painting and performance art, Twombly’s two Leda and the Swan paintings of 1962 represent the ultimate expression of the highly physical release of passion, seduction and visceral energy that a few months before, in the sweltering heat of the Roman summer in 1961, had unexpectedly exploded from Twombly in his Ferragosto series. Demonstrating a similarly exuberant and distinctly Baroque mix of eroticism and violence to these delirious paintings, Twombly’s two large-scale Leda and the Swan paintings exemplify a similar “blood and foam” style. They employ the same techniques of juxtaposition and contrast and the throwing together of a very tactile sense of the sensuality of touch in the here and now with the rich mythological eroticism of Rome’s illustrious past. Here, painting, the act of painting and the sensual, pleasurable nature of both touch and the sexual act have become all fused together in painterly play of graphic suggestion, tactile smearing and gestural form to conjure an energized sense of an eroticism that doesn’t just invoke the past but actually appears to reinvigorate it with the dynamism of present feeling. On this point, Heiner Bastian noted in the Cy Twombly catalogue raisonné that, in Leda and the Swan “the pictorial space is seized by an orgiastic exertion, an apotheosis of frenzied passion, the virtual depiction of Zeus’s longing for Leda, the instant of her seduction by a god in swan’s form. The allusion to the myth throbs in a culminating sensuality. The work responds in reciprocative rhythm as prey ravishes hunter… Twombly’s Leda and the Swan does not transpose the coolly controlled myth envisioned by the versions of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Correggio or Tintoretto, he transforms instead a complex artistic vitalism into frenzied obsession with art and life. Still, Twombly’s Leda and the Swan does not carry the phantasmagorical to the breaking point; in truth, for all its furor, his depiction projects a compassionate, sympathetic view of human desire” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Vol. II, Berlin, 1993, p. 28).
While the more intense violence of the MoMA version of Leda and the Swan is augmented with scrawled, graffiti-like pictograms of breasts, phalluses and heart-shaped anuses, seemingly flying among the feathery carnage of activity, such symbols are almost wholly absent in the present work. Here, instead, in a move that anticipates his later assassination paintings such as The Death of Pompey, The Ides of March, and The Vengeance of Achilles Twombly has filled his hands with paint and smeared them down the canvas in a manner that in its clawing action appears to mimic the struggle between maiden and bird, as well as the almost palpably varied sense of touch inherent throughout the painting.
Both these paintings exhibit somewhat similar qualities, therefore, to the violent, passionate, oil-paint-as-flesh paintings that Francis Bacon had also begun to make in the early 1960s. Like Bacon’s bloody figures pinned to a bed or writhing against the geometry of a modern 1960s office, Twombly’s six renditions of Leda and the Swan are works that display a similar contrasting of violence and geometry: one that was later to appear in the equally intense but deliberately reductive format of the Nine Discourses on Commodus that Twombly made in the wake of the Kennedy assassination between 1963 and 1964. As Kirk Varnedoe was perhaps the first to point out, it was not the “orgiastic fusion and confusion of energies” in his Leda paintings that Twombly “carried forward” from these works, “instead it is the drier comment of the marginal “window” rectangle above that indicates the directions – thinning, slowing, stabilizing—that Twombly’s art was beginning to take.” With Leda and the Swan it seems, Twombly had attained a height of expressive intensity that could not, and was not, to be exceeded; only moved in a different direction.