BirdLife: The Magazine June 2017 - Page 40

1 3 1 Roman relief Leda and the Swan, David Tipling 2 Leda and the Swan after Michelangelo 3 Study for Leda and the Swan, Leonardo da Vinci 4 Leda and the Swan, Paul Cézanne 5 Leda Atomica, Salvador Dalí 6 Leda and the Swan, Cy Twombly 4 2 5 FLIGHT OF FANCY Leda and the Swan The impossible love between woman and bird-God In Birds and People, Mark Cocker argues that the classical world “issued us with one of the most challenging of ideas, not only in relation to swans, but in relation to all birds – that of sexual congress”. He refers, of course, to the pairing of Queen Leda of Aetolia, and the Greek King of the Gods, Zeus, in the form of a swan. Quite apart from spawning Helen of Troy, this mythical tryst has inspired a remarkable cast of artists, authors and musician to imagine and create their own versions of the union. From early Roman reliefs, via a long-lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and others by Titian, Cézanne, an extraordinarily explicit version by Boucher, Dalí, and Twombly, this interspecific love-making has fascinated us for millennia. For most people, a cob swan is both a beautiful and intim- idating bird that defends his own mate, or pen, and their young with real ferocity. Contemporary copies of the da Vinci, notably by Cesare da Sesto, where the swan and Leda 40 stand above a clutch of eggs broken open to reveal hatch- ing babies, create a surreal atmosphere in which the rela- tionship between the bird-god and woman, however unreal, seem possible. Indeed, it is striking that Salvador Dalí’s Leda Atomica, with its seated female figure and awkward swan, was painted in 1949 when Dalí had re-emb raced classicism, and where even Dalí, with floating eggs, seems atypically ill- at-ease with the association. For me though, it is Cy Twombly, who, with his character- istic abstracted masses of paint and line, coaxes out a sense of the energy and sheer chaos of the encounter. With a pos- sible window above the scene, his work creates a blurring weirdness that, had such a happening happened, would surely have confronted any mad voyeur. John Fanshawe BIRDLIFE • JUNE 2017 6