Leda and the Swan and The Illuminating Gas

This is the first painting I completed after arriving to Brazil. It bridges a long journey I have taken since first discovering Carl Jung’s writings about alchemy when I was in graduate school. Alchemy was a language I understood from my early studies of Eastern philosophy. The purifying and transformative process of alchemy, i.e., the notion of celibacy and controlling one’s desires, was quite different from what I was experiencing as a twenty-something-year-old. In graduate school I was introduced to Marcel Duchamp’s alchemical writings.

Duchamp’s concept of androgyny, from a spiritual perspective, points to the need to go beyond sexual arousal and identification. The first step is to recognize women as equal to men (probably superior in many aspects). The idea of the Androgyne is the attainment of a cosmic consciousness where there is an awareness of the unity of all human beings beyond gender and skin color. As Duchamp himself said, “The Androgyne is above philosophy. If one has become the Androgyne one no longer has a need for philosophy.”[1]

“Leda and the Swan and The Illuminating Gas” was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage, Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas)”. My interest in Duchamp comes largely from his representations of androgyny, both in his feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, and his work in general. Some have pointed out that the awkward presentation of the genitalia of the woman in “Étant donnés” is a reference to androgyny.  The waterfall is associated with the Bride’s deflowering and the gas with the Bachelor’s arousal.

Inside view of Étant donnés by Marcel Duchamp [2]

The mythological rape is not always violent, at least that is how men want us to remember the stories. If the story is of a god impregnating a woman with a spiritual gift, then the message is more of a lesson of Eros—of attaining a spiritual perfection consisting in rediscovering the androgynous nature within ourselves.

I have included Zeus as the swan, who rapes Leda, as a symbol for the waterfall and the rape itself. I want to believe that the ancients had a more insightful reason for passing down these stories. I don’t believe the stories necessarily reflect a misogynous culture as the gods were known to rape both men and women. Since mythology often stands in for one archetype or another, I want to explore the idea that stories of rape were born out of a soul-level trauma. That is, when our soul is raped by a god it refers to the beginning of a material world journey. In mythology, there is often a powerful and important person born from the conception. Leda, for example, gave birth to Helen of Troy, who became the catalyst for the Trojan War and resulted in the Golden Age of Greece and the dawn of modern history. The birth may also reflect a new birth into higher levels of consciousness or self-awareness or a release from a creative block.

Leda and the Swan and The Illuminating Gas, 2019
185.4 x 216.3 cm, oil on canvas.

[1] Duchamp in conversation with Lanier Graham, 1968. Quoted in Graham, Marcel Duchamp: Conversations with The Grand Master (New York: Handmade Press, 1968).

[2] Image source: http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_2/Notes/pop_2.html

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