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Swan’s Way: Part 1 April 27, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Arts, painting, poetry.
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Figura serpentinata

Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan (as it survives through copies)

I. Submission

How does one get it on with a god? That is the question entertained by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee in his lecture series cum novel, Elizabeth Costello:

What intrigues her is less the metaphysics than the mechanics, the practicalities of congress across a gap in being. Bad enough to have a full-grown male swan jabbing webbed feet into your backside while he has his way, or a one-ton bull leaning his moaning weight on you; how, when the god does not care to change shape but remains his awesome self, does the human body accommodate itself to the blast of his desire?


This investigation leads Costello to some interesting insights about what we possess that the gods lack. What makes us so fascinating that the gods should condescend to earth in the form of beautiful bulls and swans to make out with us? Is the lovemaking not spicy enough up there? Asking the question in these terms, Costello is risking that embarrassing cliché: what does it mean to be human? Yet Costello is far from the first to entertain the question in this manner. It is out of the Ledaean entanglement with an erotic problem that artists past and present have probed ever so subtly into the value of the humanities.

II. Foreplay

Correggios Leda and the Swan

Correggio's Leda

The story of Leda—”male swan jabbing webbed feet into your backside,” to use Costello’s paraphrase—was a popular theme among the Renaissance masters. You couldn’t paint women having sex with men, but you could paint them frolicking with swans. Thus, many of the great masters including Leonardo and Michelangelo took up the Leda theme with alacrity. The need for discretion, however, led to a symbolic practice whereby the swan’s sinuous neck came to displace the more obscene organ. When the authorities caught on to the erotic symbolism, many of these paintings were destroyed on grounds of indecency (the charges were not false). The masters may select different moments from the myth. They stage the deed in broad daylight and at night. They show the swan with varying levels of horniness. But on one point they seem to be unanimous: Far from crying uncle, Leda enjoyed every bit of her f*** session with divinity.

Leda and the Swan, Leonardo da Vinci (copy)

da Vinci's Leda (a copy)

Correggio, for example, shows Leda lounging against a tree, the swan “necking” between her breasts. She is smiling, and there are onlookers, which means this must be the before picture, rather than the after shot. Leonardo is not interested in foreplay and cuts right to the chase in the multiple cartoons that he executed while working on the Mona Lisa. Standing in elegant contrapposto, Leda turns away from the swan, yet wears a smile that is half shame, half pleasure. To the left, the product of her one-night stand with Jove: Egg #1: the twins Castor and Pollux; Egg #2:  Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.

III. New Positions

But in Michelangelo’s Leda, there are no eggs, and there are no onlookers. The painter, in Stefan Beyst’s view, has sought to adapt the shape of the swan to Leda’s body, but is not the converse true? Leda must adapt her body to the greedy, headstrong swan. The swan appears completely natural in its movement. It is Leda who looks as if she has been dragged along the crenelations of a castle wall. The elongation of Leda’ torso shows the Mannerist tendency in Michelangelo as does the expressive angling of the body. It telegraphs the discomfort Leda must undergo in surrendering herself to the hunger of the gods. (Malcolm Bull suggests that Zeus was so randy all the time because he had been reared on goat’s milk). But if Leda’s torso seems to cry stop, her relenting smile and the wriggle in her fingers say go, go, go.

Leda and the Swan

Peter Paul Rubens: Leda mit dem Schwan (1590)

Rubens’ Leda looks like a mirror reflection of Michelangelo’s (Rubens’ executed another copy in exact imitation of the original), but it is to my mind an improvement on his predecessors. Da Vinci adds too many details, and gets the pose wrong. Michelangelo advances the pose, but screws up the lighting. Rubens’, however, gets everything right. Everything from the setting to the lighting to Leda’s body position is perfectly attuned to the literary anecdote which informs it. More is left to the imagination as the darkness of the forest obscures Jove’s phallic fan of feathers, and it is only proper that so naughty an act as making love with a god take place in the wild rather than on the furniture in an artist’s studio. The chiaroscuro, the dramatic value contrasts between light and dark, the radiant highlights adds the gusto seemingly lacking in Michelangelo’s painting whose palette suggests the swan is a necrophiliac. In Michelangelo’s painting, Leda’s body is supported by the ground. But as Rubens depicts her, she seems to be balancing all her weight on her right leg. And rather than giving Leda a little peck on the lips, as is the case in the Michelangelo, it kinkily clamps Leda’s mouth shut.

IV. The Twisting of Tradition

The Leda of Michelangelo and Rubens painting does not simply present discomfort or rape, it represents the outrage of a painterly tradition. The question is, which tradition?

Beyst and others have described Leda’s pose as a figura serpentinata, but I am not quite convinced. As coined by Giorgio Vasari, the serpentinata describes spiral movement of a figure or group of figures along the vertical axis. This invites the viewer to circle the object, beholding it from all sides rather than from a single vantage point. It is in other words contrapposto in torsion.

Which the painting in question is not. The genealogy of style is, I think, far more twisted. The Laocoon group shows what true serpentinata movement looks like as does a painting like Bacchus and Ariadne, where serpentinata movement in the body is not explicitly linked to sex. The odalisque pose, on the other hand, is all about sex.

Venus of Urbino

Venus of Urbino (1538)

This is the pose that Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510) and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) made famous. It is the pose later imitated by artists from Ingres to Manet to Matisse. Lying sideways, perpendicular to the canvas plane, the female model ever so slightly crosses one leg over the other, baring her voluptuous haunches. Sometimes she faces the viewer; sometimes, her backside does. The Leda of Michelangelo and Rubens, I submit, represents a travesty of the Giorgione-Titian tradition through serpentinata movement. In this case, the “vertical” torsion of the body is conveyed by exaggerating the the left hand crossing all the way over to the right knee. We also witness the break with the past in the placement of the nearer arm. Formerly resting on the pillow, it now hangs limply over it. By the double gesture of folding and twisting, do Michelangelo and Rubens represent the rape of the female body as the disfigurement of the academic past. [To be continued…]

Works Consulted:
Stefan Beyst,Yeats’ Leda and the Swan: An Image’s Coming of Age.”
Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods (Oxford UP, 2005).
John Shearman, Mannerism (Penguin, 1967).

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