Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Swan's Way


 William Butler Yeat’s poem, “Leda and the Swan,” sets the theme for this post:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Long before this poem was written and long after it, artists made pictures based on this myth.  The swan depicted is not one you would see swimming in a pond in a nearby park or entice with breadcrumbs.

In the myth, the god Zeus takes the form of a swan, and he seduces, or rapes, Leda, a mortal. Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. According to many versions of the story, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched.  

Here are the two pictures we will study:

Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, c. 1880, Oil on canvas, Barnes

Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923, Oil on canvas, PMA
Let’s first get what the subject was out of the way.

For example, an undergraduate at West Chester University thought that Cézanne’s Leda looked bored and bewildered, as though she was thinking, “why does this silly big bird have my wrist in his beak?”

We are human, after all.  We will react to the subject, especially a subject that depicts an odd relationship between a nude woman and a swan.

Now, get a grip.  We want to discover the art in each picture.

This means we focus on the plastic means (light, line, color, and space), their relationships, and the qualities those relationships express.

First, list what you see in Cézanne’s Leda.  Answer this question: How do the relationships established among the plastic means (aka light, line, color, space) create “oneness,” a unity within the picture?

Barton Church describes Cézanne’s Leda as built “in a framework of regularly measured ‘beats’ of highlighted and shadowed areas, areas which one could call foursquare—broad, plain and uncluttered; so also does this provide a stable setting for Cézanne’s exploration of linear themes, of contrasts, of volumes twisting and curving, all with a dramatic intensity of a magnitude possible only because of the immense control this rhythmic regularity exercises in conjunction with the pervasive color tonality.”  (“A Sonata—A Painting,” The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring, 1972, p. 65).

Here is my list:

1.     The color volume that says figure moves diagonally across the picture and is decentered.

2.     Two color themes dominate:  a slate blue background, foreground, couch, and swan contrasts with the ivory figure.

3.     Within these contrasts, the golden-brown beak, hair, and tassel create a counter rhythm.

4.     The leaden-blue color functions as the key to all the curving, angular and straight line, volume and space in the picture.

5.     This creates dramatic contrast, weighty power, and density of volume.

6.     The fish scale brushstrokes build the volumes (look at how the knee of the bent under leg is constructed).


7.     The arabesque of the swan’s neck, the cloth rippling across the figure, the right arm, the curl of the hair—all the abrupt rhythmic curves and angles in the breasts, the hands, the arms and legs, the curving wings and head of the swan—all are resolved by the larger rhythm of the figure itself as it turns in space across the picture and joins with the swan in a massive, undulating counter curve.

8.     Areas alternate between light and dark, warm and cool, large and small. 

9.     The wrist caught in the grip of the close-pin beak finds rhythmic echoes in: Leda’s right arm pinned between the curl of hair and the cushion and swan’s wing; and Leda’s lower body pinned between the rippling cloth. 

10.  Leda’s left elbow indents a “pocket” of space in the cushion.

11.  One leg pins the other leg.

12.  The swan’s neck creates a “pocket” of space in the softness of the chest.

13.  The curve of the swan’s back wing counterbalances the limp hand.

Keep looking. 

In Cézanne’s Leda, a dominating color, a pervasive linear-volume idea, a stable rhythm of echoed themes and simple sets of contrasts repeat.  These lock in and hold the areas of volume and intervals of space within, establishing a unity of expressive quality.

Now study Laurencin’s picture.

If it helps, look at it upside down:

List what you see.

Send me your discoveries, and I will incorporate them into the next post.

Click here to e-mail them to me: Marilyn.bauman68@gmail.com