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Cy Twombly. Leda and the Swan. Rome 1962

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Cy Twombly (American, 1928–2011)

Leda and the Swan

Date:
Rome 1962
Medium:
Oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas
Dimensions:
6' 3" x 6' 6 3/4" (190.5 x 200 cm)
Credit Line:
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (both by exchange)
MoMA Number:
612.1994
Copyright:
© 2014 Cy Twombly Foundation
Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

, 2008

Director, Glenn Lowry: Sculptor, Richard Serra in 1994, speaking about the work of Cy Twombly.

Richard Serra: Every line he makes counts. This is really about a sense of the space of writing. Its not about brush stroking, like one after the other. It is a kind of exaltation in his own activity and he celebrates it right in front of you. And there's something very seductive about it.

Curator, Anne Umland: Thinking about seduction is a wonderful way to begin looking at this work by Cy Twombly painted in 1962. The seduction goes very literally to the title, Leda and the Swan, which refers to a myth from classical antiquity. In the myth, the god Jupiter assumes the form of a swan in order to ravish the beautiful Leda.

Twombly has been consistently associated with the language of graffiti, with street art, with scrawling, with writing on the walls. If you look down in the lower right corner of the canvas, you can see in fact that Twombly has written the title in with the swan scribbled out energetically.

One of the ways to enter into Twombly's unique pictorial space is simply to begin to follow some of the lines, lines that loop, that are thick, that circle around each other that cross each other out with this frenzied back and forth, top to bottom energy, all intertwined every now and then with forms that seem vaguely recognizable.

In the upper right hand corner there are a series of what might be read as hearts. There is this odd little rectangular shape right up at the top of the canvas, which evokes a window through which someone can peer down on this scene or conflagration that is taking place below. Into all of this, of course, Twombly works this lush pigment, these pinks and whites and reds, and over on the left hand side, all different sorts of ochers, that from a distance can read as graphic contrasts of lights and darks. The closer you get to it, the fleshier, more palpable it becomes.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 280

Interest in the mural form was widespread among the Abstract Expressionists, who often worked on a scale far larger than that of most easel paintings. Twombly, a member of a younger generation, transposed that interest in the wall into a different register: no painter of his time more consistently invites association with the language of graffiti. His scrawled calligraphic markings may recall the automatic writing of Surrealism, another inheritance passed on to him through Abstract Expressionism, but they also evoke the scratches and scribbles on the ancient walls of Rome (his home since 1957).

Rome supplies another touchstone for Twombly through his fascination with classical antiquity. Here he refers to the myth in which Jupiter, lord of the gods, took the shape of a swan in order to ravish the beautiful Leda. (This violation ultimately led to the Trojan War, fought over Leda's daughter Helen.) Twombly's version of this old art-historical theme supplies no contrasts of feathers and flesh but an orgiastic fusion and confusion of energies within furiously thrashing overlays of crayon, pencil, and ruddy paint. A few recognizable signs—hearts, a phallus—fly out from this explosion. A drier comment is the quartered, windowlike rectangle near the top of the painting, an indication of the stabilizing direction that Twombly's art was starting to take.

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