Essays

Leda and the Swan

by christos1

Karl Weschke - Leda and the Swan

Karl Weschke’s Leda and the Swan depicts a scene between Queen Leda of Sparta and Zeus (disguised as a swan). This mythological episode is often referred to as “the rape of Leda”, and whilst this painting is charged with aggression, the predator/prey relationship is unclear. It is possible that Weschke is attempting to play with commonly held conceptions of the myth by placing Leda herself in a position of power over a swan of questionable divinity. The tension caused by the straight black outline of Leda’s back and the motion in her right hand suggest she is on edge and about to move, possibly in an act of violence against the swan. It is easy to imagine that her left hand, blocked from view, is about to reach out for the swan’s slender, vulnerable neck. This idea is reinforced by the fact that it is the swan, not Leda, who is trapped against the wall of foliage in the background. Conversely, it is possible that Leda’s obscured hand is shielding her modesty. Moreover, the swan’s neck could be seen as a phallic symbol, which often represents masculine power. The fact that Leda’s expression is not seen leaves this aspect of the painting ambiguous, especially as the viewer is left to speculate as to whether or not there is eye-contact between the two figures.

Tradition states that Zeus came to Leda by the Eurotas river and raped her, but the scene portrayed by Weschke appears to precede any sexual encounter. Also, the lack of ripples or movement in the water, it can be assumed that the two figures have been motionless for a considerable amount of time, in an emotionally charged deadlock. The vertical lines throughout the painting lead the eye upwards to a disturbance in the otherwise flat sky. It is possible that this disturbance is a hole created by Zeus descending from Olympus, a notion reinforced by the faint rays of light streaming from the hole, light having divine connotations.

The mood invoked by this scene is incongruent with traditional; representations of Leda’s encounter with Zeus. Despite the fact that rape is normally an abhorrent crime, artists such as Leonardo di Bottega have used flowing lines and light golden colours to evoke a pleasant mood and stress the divine aspect of the meeting. Weschke, conversely, uses predominantly dark greens browns and greys which produce an entirely more depressing scene. This is reinforced by the fact that the swan (the brightest object within the painting) is not as brilliantly white as a real swan, let alone one which is supposedly divine. A possible way to interpret this is that the swan/Zeus is tainted by both the act he is about to commit as well as similar sexual acts in the past, thus the colour white (which carries pure virginal connotations) is dirtied. The angular, vertical lines of Weschke’s work give the painting a certain hostility, as opposed to di Bottega’s painting in which flowing lines give a sense of gentleness and space. Furthermore, although the painting contains many empty areas, the vertical lines in the background are reminiscent of prison bars and the fact that they curve out towards to viewer gives the painting a claustrophobic layer despite its numerous empty areas and large scale (183 x 137 cm).

Robert Hancock

 
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