‘Leda and the Swan (1962) hadn’t been seen in public for almost 30 years,’ says Koji Inoue, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sales in New York. ‘When it finally came to Christie’s in 2017, it was the most anticipated picture of the season.’
The Twombly painting focuses on one of the most enduring themes in art history: the seduction of Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, by the god Zeus, disguised as a swan. (The sister work of the same name and size is today one of the most visited paintings in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)
‘For artists and authors alike, the myth of Leda and the Swan is one of art history’s most familiar archetypes of metamorphosis, rebirth and evolution,’ says Inoue. ‘That the offspring of this union was Helen of Troy — whose beauty led to a cataclysmic war — adds another dimension: consequences.’
‘Twombly uses his whole body to channel Leda’s experience, smearing, pushing, clawing, scratching and drawing on the canvas’
Twombly was living in Rome when he painted both images, and drew inspiration from earlier renditions of the subject by Timotheus, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Pontormo, among others.
‘Equal parts poet and painter, Twombly is, for me, one of the great 20th-century artists, tackling antiquity’s most ambitious themes in a way that speaks to the contemporary concerns of human expression,’ says Inoue. ‘Here he uses his whole body to channel Leda’s experience, smearing, pushing, clawing, scratching and drawing on the canvas.’
In the saleroom in May, the work achieved $52,887,500 including buyer’s fees — the top lot of the auction and a world record for a 1960s-era painting by the artist. Although the Evening Sale boasted ‘an unprecedented number of lots worthy of a catalogue’s front cover, this work was particularly special for the department because of how it had come to us,’ says Inoue. ‘The consignor was thrilled when Leda and the Swan became the top price of the season, but for me, the most memorable aspect of what we achieved with this very important painting was our exceptional teamwork.’