Friday, October 5, 2012

Leda and the Swan by Heinrich Lossow

Knowing what we do of German artist Heinrich Lossow (1840-1897), it is perhaps not surprising that he would eventually tackle one of the most sexual myths of antiquity: the story of Leda and the Swan.

According to myth, Zeus seduced (or raped) Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus (King of Sparta).  The union bore several children, including Helen and Polydeuces, the children of Zeus, as well as Castor and Clytemnestra, the children of her husband, Tyndareus.  In some versions of the story, Leda laid two eggs from which the children were hatched.

The tale seemed to fire the Renaissance imagination.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) painted a picture illustrating the story – a painting which no longer exists.  (There is a copy, though, by Cesare da Sesto [1477–1523], which gives us a good idea of what it was like.)  Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 -1564) painted it in tempera – it, too, no longer exists, though copies were made from the cartoon.  It is not beyond supposition that both of these pictures were deliberately destroyed by later generations who found the story (and its graphic depiction) wince-inducing.

The power of the story outlasted the Renaissance – W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) wrote a version of the story in verse, and the image has also been coopted by Cezanne and other Modernists.

Lossow’s painting is not going to erase any daydreams we may have of lost Leonardos or Michelangelos, but it does have points of interest.  The composition is simple, but effective.  Starting with Leda’s boots, the central figure forms an impressive S, leading all the way to the bend in the swan’s neck.  The quality of the swan’s feathers is rendered with a few deft strokes in the dark hollow of the wing, and the animal’s head is (thankfully!) mostly obscured by Leda’s throat.

Leda, for her part, is clearly enraptured by the disguised god’s attention, and it is no mistake that a blossom buds directly overhead.  Perhaps what I find most interesting is that it seems probable that the model for Leda was the same model for the monstrous, sexually rapacious Enchantress that we looked at in a previous post – even the headdress is similar.

Again, I’m not quite sure that I am entirely comfortable with Lossow’s grasp of anatomy.  Surely Leda, when standing, would have dumpy piano legs for a glamour-puss; nor am I sure where the one visible wing of the swan drops to when obscured by her leg.

But Lossow wears his erotic obsessions on his sleeve.  In addition to the profusion of blossoms, it is not too much of a stretch to liken the rolling fields of grass to pubic hair, and Leda’s outstretched right hand is not warding off her attacker, but taut with ecstasy. 

Lossow’s Leda is an easy picture to study, but a hard one to like – which, in in the final analysis, may be my ultimate summation of his entire body of work.  There is a great deal going on in much of it – but not much of it is interesting or admirable.  My initial choice to close out this look at the artist was to examine A Precarious Game in some depth (see below); but looking at it closely, I didn’t think there was anything to say about it worth saying.

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