10 Jan 2018

Flight of Fancy: Leda and the Swan

Over the centuries, the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan has inspired art both beautiful and bizarre. We present some of the most striking interpretations of the impossible love between woman and bird-God.

Leda and the Swan, Paul Cézanne
Leda and the Swan, Paul Cézanne
By John Fanshawe

''Flights of Fancy'' features bird-inspired art from all over the world. Leda and the Swan first appeared in the June 2017 issue of BirdLife: The Magazine.

In his book, Birds and People, Mark Cocker argues that the classical world “issued us with one of the most challenging of ideas, not only in relation to swans, but in relation to all birds – that of sexual congress”. He refers, of course, to the pairing of Queen Leda of Aetolia, and the Greek King of the Gods, Zeus, in the form of a swan. Quite apart from spawning Helen of Troy, this mythical tryst has inspired a remarkable cast of artists, authors and musician to imagine and create their own versions of the union. From early Roman reliefs, via a long-lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and others by Titian, Cézanne, an extraordinarily explicit version by Boucher, Dalí, and Twombly, this interspecific love-making has fascinated us for millennia.


Study for Leda and the Swan, Leonardo da Vinci


For most people, a male, or "cob" swan is both a beautiful and intimidating bird that defends his own mate, or "pen", and their young with real ferocity. Contemporary copies of the da Vinci, notably by Cesare da Sesto, where the swan and Leda stand above a clutch of eggs broken open to reveal hatching babies, create a surreal atmosphere in which the relationship between the bird-god and woman, however unreal, seem possible. Indeed, it is striking that Salvador Dalí’s Leda Atomica, with its seated female figure and awkward swan, was painted in 1949 when Dalí had re-embraced classicism, and where even Dalí, with floating eggs, seems atypically ill-at-ease with the association.

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Leda Atomica, Salvador Dali


For me though, it is Cy Twombly, who, with his characteristic abstracted masses of paint and line, coaxes out a sense of the energy and sheer chaos of the encounter. With a possible window above the scene, his work creates a blurring weirdness that, had such a happening happened, would surely have confronted any mad voyeur.


Leda and the Swan, Cy Twombly