Friday, October 12, 2012

The Swan's Way: Part II

In the previous post, “The Swan’s Way,” we studied Cézanne’s Leda and the Swan. My analysis concluded with this statement: In Cézanne’s Leda, dominating colors, pervasive linear-volumes, steady rhythms of echoed themes, and simple sets of contrasts repeat.  The color motifs lock in and pin the areas of volume and intervals of space, establishing expressive unity.

I asked you to contrast Cézanne’s Leda with Laurencin’s, and I asked you to send me your responses to Laurencin’s picture.

Here is what one of you said:

1.     An obvious parallel of the cocked heads and necks of the major color units.

2.     Use of black color for eyes, Leda’s hair, and on the beak of the swan, moves the eye.

3.     Black again used in railing (parallel straight lines rigid and bold) compared to dreamy overall canvas.

4.     The bent arm cradling Leda's head and the arm resting on the wing of the swan do not evoke strength or vigor, but express gentleness.

5.     A variety of color in what appears to be white in background, flesh, and feathers reveals transparency due to color structure and produces the quality of delicacy.

Here is what another said: “My emotional reaction is so different in regard to the two paintings it is startling given the subject facts are the same. Perhaps social morays affected the expression of the interpretation.”

And another:  “Laurencin’s is lighter—both in weight and in brightness. She looks airy—like you could blow her away. The other is solid, typical Cézanne.”

And another:  “Laurencin’s Leda seems lascivious, as though she is seducing the swan, not the other way around.  She is clothed in a diaphanous cape held in place by a soft, ribbon tied into a flowery ornament on her right shoulder—like something a woman would buy in Victoria’s Secret to prepare for lovemaking.  She caresses the swan as if to entice him.”

In a blog post by Liz Hager, I found this statement: “Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.”

On the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, I found this statement:  Leda caresses the swan's feathered neck and back, yet the black railing that separates them suggests an insurmountable division between the sexes, perhaps reflecting Laurencin's own position as one of the few female artists within the French avant-garde.”

Here is Laurencin’s picture: 

Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923, Oil on canvas, PMA
This is a work of art.  My emphasis is on the word work.

Let’s go to work.

1.     The color is soft, light, and dry, a pastel-like quality.

2.     A series of arcs and soft curves create rhythms: look at the curve of the swan’s neck as it joins and turns with the swan’s wing;  look at the relationship between Leda’s left arm (to our right)and the swan’s neck and the background; look at the repetition of the shapes created by Leda’s “cape” with the subtle recession of the blue/green “background”;  look at the repetition of the shapes in Leda’s hairpiece with the shapes at the right background, the shape of her left hand, and the shape of the swan’s feathers in the lower right;  find all the beak-shapes (don’t miss the green one right under Leda’s breasts);  look for the repetition of the slits that say “eyes” in the blackish mass in the upper right;  find all the small circle variety of those repetitions on the swan’s back, in the green-beak shape, in the tiny rectangle and small triangle at the base of Leda’s cape, and in the projections on her cape (in fact, keep looking, because they occur other places as well); look how the black mass in the upper right hangs in the picture space; examine how the beak shapes created by the intersection of the “foliage” in the lower right with the black mass reasserts the subtle space recession of the left side.

 If turning the picture upside down makes your scrutiny more productive, here it is:


This detail may prove helpful as well.  Ask yourself: is this a swan?  Are those hands?  If not, what are they?


Subtlety, not power and drama, defines Laurencin’s picture.  The ivory/gray central volumes gently intersect and envelope.  The transparent, pastel-like colors overlap and recede gradually in space.  Curvilinear, airy, color volumes create repeated arc-shaped or circular motifs moving the eye through the picture.  Softness, lightness, delicacy, fragility, and haziness invite us to enter this quiet, still color world.

Information abounds about Laurencin’s life.  Some of that information produced the speculation I quoted in the first part of this post.  Laurencin moved in the circle surrounding Picasso and Juan Gris.  Apollinaire praised her work, and he became her lover (not sure in what order).  Her work was included with many artists admired for their originality: Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Juan Gris, Delaunay, and Marcoussis.  She claimed Picasso used her as a model for one of the nude figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Her first sale was to Gertrude Stein. She ably resisted the pressure of her surroundings, the abstraction and intellectualism of the Cubists and later the Dadaists.  She maintained and expressed her unique, visual interests, her world as it appeared to her, throughout her career.

That said, as with any picture, if you want to appreciate it, you must look at it.  The tools you have learned will always assist you in uncovering the art in it.  The process of doing so, hard work as it is, allows you to experience the pleasure that accompanies aesthetic understanding.









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