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Greek Mythology in Art: Cy Twombly's Leda and the Swan

In Greek Mythology, Leda, the daughter of King Thestius of Pleuron, was renowned for her striking beauty. Her beauty captured the gaze of Zeus, who observed her elegance from Mount Olympus. Taken by his desire, Zeus transformed himself into an exquisite swan. He approached Leda and, in disguise of the swan lay beside her and impregnated her.

Leda would also lay with her husband, Tyndareus, on the same day. Leda's significance in Greek mythology waned after she bore Zeus's child, and she is scarcely mentioned in other tales. Meanwhile, her husband, the King of Sparta's story extended through many years.

Remarkably, Leda and her illegitimate children faced no retribution from the goddess, Hera, who usually sought revenge. However, this violation ultimately triggered the Trojan War due to Leda's daughter Helen.

The story of Leda and Zeus remains a compelling Greek myth as many artists have used its iconic imagery. Cy Twombly's, Leda and the Swan, is acclaimed to be one of the most exciting representations of the well-known tale.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, (190.5 x 200 cm), oil, pencil and crayon on canvas, Rome, 1962.

Courtesy of MoMA

In 1962, Cy Twombly created six renditions of the myth in a baroque and abstract style. One of these paintings, titled, Leda and the Swan, 1962, achieved a remarkable auction price of almost 53 million dollars in 2017.

The 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.

This mixed-media canvas was crafted using a combination of pencil, crayon, and oil paint. The painting showcases the artist's iconic gestural application which utilizes his hands, brushes, and even sticks. Within the work, the viewer can spot imagery that is loaded with layers of symbolism and references such as hearts, a phallus, and a window. If that's not enough buried under layers of paint is the inscription, "Leda + the Swan."

The size of this artwork echoed a mural which captivated many Abstract Expressionists, who are known for their grand scales that surpass the typical easel paintings.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, (190.5 x 200 cm), oil, pencil and crayon on canvas, Rome, 1962.

Courtesy of MoMA

Throughout his work, Twombly stands out as a painter of his era as he maintains a consistent connection to the aesthetics of graffiti. Twombly's signature scrawled calligraphic markings might bring to mind the automatic writing of Surrealism, a legacy passed down through Abstract Expressionism. Moreover, these markings evoke the ancient scratches and scribbles that adorn the walls of Rome, his residence from 1957 onward. Rome significantly influenced Twombly, as it fueled his fascination with classical antiquity.

In particular, he drew upon this story of, Leda and the Swan. Twombly's interpretation of this historical theme is a refreshing take on the typical representational depictions. Instead, it manifests as the passion and energies depicted through fervently overlapping materials and symbolic images.

In addition to Leda and the Swan, Twombly completed ten expansive canvases titled "50 Days at Liam," drawing inspiration from Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad. These pieces were executed using oil, oil crayon, and pencil, portraying the tragic fall of Troy.


Homer, The Iliad.


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