Swan, Redacted: dirty pictures at MoMA

The myth of Leda and the swan has been a favorite subject for artists since antiquity, in part because it invites sensual explorations of form, both in the female nude and that most curvaceous of avians. With the gentle arc of its neck and its serene glide, the swan is a paragon of grace. Why, then, does Cy Twombly’s painting Leda and the Swan (1962) resemble an explosion?

I had just come from the Willem de Kooning retrospective at MoMA when I saw it. When taking in a monographic show of such scale—there are nearly 200 works in the de Kooning show—a viewer will gradually construct a sort of lens: a sensitivity to the evolutions, shifts, and any elements which endure through the arc of the artist’s career. At the tail end of the exhibition, when my senses were fully seasoned to the work, it was worthwhile to take a second pass through.  Certainly the fully calibrated lens would reveal subtleties which hadn’t been readily apparent to my uninitiated eye. And sure enough, there was much more to be seen once equipped with the complete overview.

And it was in this state that I encountered Twombly’s Leda. A tumult of pencil and black crayon blooms from the center of a square white canvas; the palette is so subdued that at a distance the painting is almost quiet. Closer in, it riots, churns and smolders.  Dabs or smears of color are scattered throughout, and in places, images appear amid the chaos of hatches and scribbles. But I had to question what I was perceiving: does the painting really teem with female body parts? Would these marks take on such prurient suggestiveness had I not just looked at dozens of brazenly lewd de Koonings? Twombly’s painting so often evokes graffiti, but rarely the bathroom-wall type scrawls these marks bring to mind.

Or, perhaps this element has always been there, and I have simply looked past it. Here, a heart shape is pierced at its cleft with a dark dot, transforming it into a cartoonish derriere. This is certainly no accident: the same heart-with-dot motif appears perhaps a half dozen times. Elsewhere, lobe-like shapes crowned with pink-red smudges become pendulous breasts. A stack of these bulbous forms at the upper right resembles, more than anything, a de Kooning Woman: a voluptuous hourglass of flesh, with only the barest hint of head or feet.

I have no doubt that these forms are intentional—the myth, after all, is a tale of rape or seduction. The violence of the painting echoes Yeats’ vision of a forceful and frightening encounter, far from the consensually erotic scenes from Michelangelo, Leonardo or Correggio. (In Ovid we find a mix of the forceful and gentle: And shew’d how Leda lay supinely press’d / Whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov’ring o’er her breast)

In an entirely uninformed interpretation, I imagine the artist enraptured of someone who is out of his reach. The act of painting is a passionate daydream, a surrogate seduction; he scrawls “Leda + SWAN” in the lower quarter of the canvas–but his mind is not on the swan, it is fully and desperately preoccupied with the object of his desire. A long, impassioned tussle with the canvas reveals Leda in fractured—mostly obscene—glimpses; the presence of the aggressor is evidenced not bodily but only by the carnage it leaves in its wake, like a devastating cyclone. In the end the artist scratches out the word SWAN. In this feverish and unrequited desire, there is no serenity, no grace. The swan—creator-destroyer and lecher—is the painter himself, subsumed by the painting and laid waste by it.

January 08 2012 10:15 pm | art on view and museums and myth

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