Distinguished for its heady mix of sex and violence, the subject of Leda and the Swan was one of the most frequent themes of Cy 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.
Leda and the Swan, which was painted in 1962, has resided within a private collection for more than 25 years and has not been seen publicly in that time. It is now offered as a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale on 17 May in New York.
One of two large-format masterpieces to emerge from a dramatic theme in Twombly’s work of the early 1960s, Leda and the Swan is the sister painting of a work of the same title held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and among its most popular exhibits. Never before offered at auction, the painting has had only two private owners and is completely fresh to the market (estimate $35-55 million).
‘This is a remarkable painting that has been pursued by collectors for decades,’ confirms Koji Inoue, International Director, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘Leda and the Swan is one of the most vital canvases created during this transformative period in the artist’s career. We are honoured to have the opportunity to offer this work at a particularly exciting time for the Twombly market, given its overlap with the Centre Pompidou’s groundbreaking Twombly retrospective.’
Infused with paint applied by hand, brush and stick, Leda and the Swan is a stellar example of Twombly’s amalgamation of myth and eroticism during a period in which the artist, who had moved to Rome some five years earlier, was immersing himself in the wider culture of the Mediterranean.
Revisiting the story of Leda’s seduction by the Greek god Zeus in the form of a swan, the work exemplifies an increasingly baroque tendency in Twombly’s work that emerged in the early 1960s. Leda and the Swan is part of a cycle of works that resulted from the highly physical crescendo of Twombly’s Ferragosto paintings, which were executed throughout the hot summer months of 1961. With its mix of eroticism and violence, it exemplifies the ‘blood and foam’ style that dominated the artist’s work until 1966.
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 clawing action that appears to mimic the struggle between maiden and bird. The varied sense of touch inherent throughout the painting is almost palpable.