Thursday, December 28, 2017

Anatol Kovarsky: Leda and the Swan

In Greek mythology, Zeus disguises himself as a swan and seduces Leda. This union produces two offspring, Helen of Troy and Polydeuces. Two unpublished roughs on this mythological subject by cartoonist Anatol Kovarsky were certainly submitted to The New Yorker in the 1950s and, alas, rejected. Mr. Kovarsky's daughter provides us with the images and writes:

Mythology was one of my dad's favorite themes, and I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that he was European-born and raised, and before coming to the U.S. as a refugee studied art in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at the Académie Lhote. My dad relished the flights of artistic invention the myths had inspired through the ages. When I was a child, we would often go to the Greek and Roman vases section of the Metropolitan Museum as one of our favorite destinations. He would take me to the galleries with European paintings and we would admire the enormous scale and expressive details of various masterworks of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, many of which of course depict mythological subjects. I think the focus on human foibles was part of what drew dad to myths and fables. They hold the mirror up to human nature not unlike cartoons! Later in life, my father immersed himself further in the Greek and Roman myths, writing verses and creating accompanying drawings. He felt a kinship with other humorists drawn to such material, for example André Dubout, the French artist who updated the Greek myths and made the most of their ribald content.

I don’t know if a variant of my dad’s drawing ever appeared in print. Judging by the paper and style, it looks like he drew this idea around 1953-59, the years when he was publishing other myth-based cartoons in The New Yorker.

The first of these remarkable drawings renders the surface of a Greek vase as a framing device. Leda, we learn, has a vexing decision to make.

Anatol Kovarsky, Leda and the Swans, c. 1953-1959, unpublished
Images copyright the Estate of Anatol Kovarsky

It's clear from his pencil annotation on the second drawing of the Leda myth that Kovarsky considered presenting this one in a similar way, but really no vase is necessary this time. That incorrigible Zeus does have a wandering eye.

Anatol Kovarsky, Leda and the Swan, c. 1953-1959, unpublished
Images copyright the Estate of Anatol Kovarsky

What a beautiful drawing this is—and it's only a rough! It's a shame it wasn't taken by The New Yorker. These two cartoons featuring Leda, so far as we know, were never published anywhere and remained hidden from public view until now. And that's their story, save for one intriguing postscript.

A decade or so later, New Yorker cartoonist Frank Modell, a longtime friend of Kovarsky's, published a somewhat similar gag in the pages of The New Yorker. It is unclear, though, if there is any formal connection between the two drawings or if it is just one of those coincidences.

Frank Modell
The New Yorker, November 16, 1968, page 116

I asked Mr. Kovarsky's daughter about this Modell gag and she graciously replied:

Attempted Bloggery has discovered a similar gag by Frank Modell, published in 1968 in The New Yorker. I love the fact that despite the similarity, each drawing offers its own nuance in the gag’s take-away. In Kovarsky’s drawing, Leda notices with displeasure that Zeus’s attention has wandered, whereas in Modell’s, sweet innocent Leda is oblivious, her idyll undisturbed. Kovarsky’s version sets itself against classical depictions of Leda and the swan amorously entwined, and instead invites us to imagine a far more prosaic lovers’ quarrel-in-the-making. In Modell’s version, Leda’s idyll remains intact as far as she’s concerned—but the reader sees what’s what.

Note:  I am indebted to the artist's daughter for the two scans of Anatol Kovarsky's original Leda and the Swan drawings and for the informative commentary. These images remain copyright the Estate of Anatol Kovarsky.

"Kovarsky's World: Covers and Cartoons from The New Yorker" will be on view at the Society of Illustrators from January 4 to March 3, 2018. The exhibit is co-curated by John Lind and Gina Kovarsky with an appreciation by Mo Willems. How cool is that? There will be an opening reception on January 12 from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m. which your humble blogger is planning to attend. Incidentally, the forthcoming exhibition contains only drawings and covers from The New Yorker and will not include these two drawings.

On his blog Ink Spill, cartoonist Michael Maslin has been showing quite a lot of Kovarsky's unpublished work of late. If you missed it, you can catch up with it all

How much of Kovarsky's artwork has made it into private hands we can only guess. Still, if you happen to find original work of his hanging on the walls of your home, you might want to take a photo or two and send it this way with a few lines. You never know what might happen.

Perhaps you've seen a variant of Kovarsky's Leda drawings in print somewhere. Do tell. Of course, if you can add anything about the uncertain connection between the Kovarsky and Modell Leda drawings—if there even is any real connection—please give a honk.

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