People love to be impressed by scientific advancement.
The 20th century was especially exciting. It rolled out a stream of new and mind-boggling stuff to wonder at: the subconscious, time and relativity, airplanes, television, nuclear bombs, computers, genetics, you name it.
As artists are known to have a higher sensitivity to the world than the average guy, their awe and amazement at scientific discoveries often get converted into inspiration.
The flip side of this artistic sensitivity is a certain lack of abilities when it comes to natural sciences. Few artists handle quantum physics and higher mathematics at a professional level. This is why science-inspired artists often produce artworks that become a shallow representation of the scientific discovery that inspired it in the first place.
Sometimes it works in a different way: inspiration helps an artist to produce something entirely new, for which the original discovery was just a distant starting point.
Dali is a good example here, regardless of whether you see him as a marketing genius or a genius artist.
Fortunately for us, he could create images which – regardless of their rather laughable link to real science – can leave a strong impression, just like in his “Persistence of Memory” (linked to the relativity theory, though he denied this link) :
Dali had always been easy to get impressed by something he didn’t really understand. Once impressed, he was producing something others couldn’t really understand. But regardless of what he was producing, he was packaging it in such a great way, you couldn’t resist loving the insides of the package without really seeing what was in there. And sometimes – but not always – science was inspiring him to arrive to revolutionary conclusions about fellow humans.
One of the best examples of mathematics and physics as inspiration can be found here, in Leda Atomica of 1949 (I will show it properly later, it is just a reminder of the painting and its actual size):
The original motivation though must have come from Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan:
The legend behind the story is simple. Zeus comes down to Earth as a swan and has a sexual intercourse with Leda, who is married to a Spartan king. Swans are phallic-looking creatures (that is unless you attempt to feed them*) so painting them permits the artist to play with a whole lot of sexual hints and visual puns.
Sensitive artists, being often rejected by people they fall in love with (heightened sensitivity comes at a price), have always felt the story was rich, and a valid excuse to paint a woman they desire, in the moment of taking this woman in the camouflage of someone poetic, clean-dressed, and with an impressive phallus. So, they explored the Leda-Swan topic all along the street of Eroticism, from its romantic beginning to the pornographic deadend.
This is Correggio, around 1531-1532:
A bit of a group fun in the back makes the viewer pay less attention to what the main swan is doing at the centre of the composition. And whatever it is, Leda seems to like it. The artist wants to focus more on the overall story than on the erotic act.
Around the same time (1530s) Michelangelo painted a different Leda. He wanted the intercourse in full bloom. And he got it, here:
The black wing covering the intimate parts of Leda, the curves of the swan and Leda’s body – if pornography could have ever risen to the state of Art, it was then and there. With Michelangelo as a starting point, we could arrive to a very sensual stuff instead of the magazines you can find at the top shelf of a newsagent.
Alas, it was a French artist who paved the road we keep treading on today.
François Boucher, two hundred years later (1740), came up with this foreplay version:
As he was friends with Mme Pompadour, we may need to excuse his decadent view of a relationship involving beaked fauna.
Dali must have known these artworks by the time Hiroshima was the main news. Apart from the bomb, the idea that inside an atom nothing really touches anything, and electrons never collide with the nuclei (though everything touches everything else as you go macro), left a peculiar imprint on Dali’s mind. Mix in Dali’s family penchant for watching people having sex and there you are: everything touches nothing, regardless of how much some of the subjects want to touch some of the other objects:
Everything touches nothing in this painting. Even the sea does not touch its bottom. Everything is suspended, but not falling apart. The swan doesn’t touch Dali’s wife, and Dali’s wife doesn’t touch the swan. Just like in our dreams we often see something we want to have, but we can’t get it because we can’t reach out for it, or it slips through our fingers, or it fades away, or we wake up.
Everything is suspended, but not flying away or falling apart. In terms of composition and colour, it is a work of a genius.
Dali asked a mathematician friend to run calculations for him and came up with the golden rule for proportions, which he accurately reflected in the pentagram composition that is holding everything together:
There’s no AIR perspective in the painting. As objects get farther from the viewer they should get lighter in tone. It doesn’t happen which puts Leda and the swan inside a theatre stage set. Real, but not realistic. A proper dream.
Now, apart from the funny take on subatomic physics, what is Dali’s contribution to the man/woman/rape concept?
Let’s look at his predecessors again.
Leonardo: Leda turned her face away from the swan as if she doesn’t want to even consider the idea of having sex outside of marriage. Yet, her body, her arms and hands speak otherwise. She gives her body to the swan, she caresses it, but pretends to be more interested in the kids by her feet rather than the macho with a big beak.
Summa summarum: Leda is not an innocent victim, her hands betray her. She is weak to resist the seduction.
Michelangelo: Leda seems to be doing nothing to provoke the swan. She does not embrace it, she does not invite it, but she does not resist and – let’s admit it – there’s that seductive lips-to-lips moment which all men interpret as their permission to come in and have coffee inside.
Summa summarum: Leda is not an innocent victim at all; deep down she’s the seductress, she is strong enough to provoke the swan and pretend she doesn’t notice.
Correggio: she is a modern woman who is a bit frightened at the beginning (lower right corner), enjoys the process (why not, for Zeus’s sake? And, darling, you can’t be seriously jealous about a swan!) and bids a romantic farewell (to the right of the centre) to her once-in-a-lifetime experience. Correggio made an erotically romantic movie, not just a painting.
I don’t think I need to analyse Boucher.
And, hear hear the drums, Dali again:
She opens up to the swan. She almost invites the swan to come in. The swan’s body language tells us it wants to embrace Leda, perhaps, even kiss her, but can’t. Its long neck can not get inside Leda’s embrace. Dream all you want, you can’t get it dreaming. As Leda is floating just like everything else, the swan loses its divine essense. It might have come down from Olymp, but Leda could have gone up just as easily, if she wanted. She’s nowhere near being a victim, or weak to resist temptation. And she’s not a seductress at the same time.
She looks into the swan’s eyes (though some may say she is measuring up the beak) straight and without any hint of seduction or romantic swooning.
So, she’s not a victim and not a seductress. She’s equal to the male swan, being a perfect woman (and she’s painted like a sensual woman who does not deny her sex).
She is the ideal feminist. And that was before modern feminism was invented (though some may say that the old testament of feminism, a book called the Second Sex, was published the same year as Leda Atomica, 1949).
Dali was inspired by nukes, but produced the portrait of a modern woman for the 21st century.
That’s what happens when a talented artist not just represents, but processes science into something new, into an artistic discovery.
* Swans can bite your hand off. Hitchcock got it wrong in his Birds flick. It should’ve been swans. Lots of blood, looking especially good on white feathers. Even in black and white.
See it for yourself in Paul Cezanne’s Leda and the Swan: