David Hare, The Swan's Dream of Leda

David Hare, The Swan's Dream of Leda, 1962. Bronze with stone base, 53-3/4 × 33-1/2 × 9-3/4 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 1963 (63.83ab). Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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audio transcript

Valerie Fletcher: David Hare was born and raised in New York City and he did not originally intend to become a sculptor. He did not indeed originally intend to become an artist at all. As an undergraduate, he studied Chemistry and Biology. It was only afterwards that he became interested in photography. Like many other artists of his generation, he became interested in surrealism, a movement in art and literature that emphasized the importance of imagination and intuition in art and writing. He also believed in the importance of Freudian free association.


Hare’s sculpture, The Swan’s Dream of Leda from 1962, refers to a classical Greek myth in which the patriarchal lead god, Zeus desired a human woman, a beautiful female. He, therefore, came to her in the form of a swan. Often this subject was treated through the history of Renaissance and post-Renaissance art as an excellent excuse for portraying a beautiful, usually nude female. However, in this case, Hare did not depict that so much as the swan dreaming of Leda, not the actual encounter.


In this sculpture, you have basically abstract forms, linear, fluttering about, some of them with very thin, delicate elements in them as if they are perhaps the wings, the feathers. This then is an evocation of an event, not a depiction of it. It’s more suggestive of the fantasy of dreaming about a sexual encounter, not the encounter itself.

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David Hare, The Swan's Dream of Leda, 1962.

American, 1917-1992


After earning degrees in chemistry and biology, David Hare began experimenting with photography, using his previous education to explore techniques that manipulate and distort images. In the early 1940s Hare befriended several European surrealists who had moved to New York seeking refuge from the ravages of World War II. He adopted many of their ideas, including an enthusiasm for the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis. In 1942, after meeting the self-proclaimed leader of the surrealist movement, André Breton (1896–1966), Hare acknowledged the importance of free association in the creation of art.


Beginning in 1944, Hare began to sculpt, seeking to create works that blend elements from reality with different “relations of memory and association.” As the surrealist movement faded in the 1950s, he adapted his style to a more abstract mode in keeping with the emergence of formalist aesthetics, but he retained the surrealists’ principle of suggesting a subject and relying on viewers to draw meaning from the work with freely associated insights.


Hare worked in a variety of media before settling on metal at a time when other sculptors sought out the material for its symbolic reference to the industrial Machine Age. Instead, Hare preferred the medium for its malleability and durability. He gravitated toward fragile, slender forms with spindly accents that were supported structurally in bronze. 


The Swan’s Dream of Leda refers to the classical Greek myth in which Zeus desired a beautiful human woman named Leda. In order to seduce her, he tricked her by appearing in the guise of a swan. Little more than a paean to male lust, the tale enabled popular portrayals of sensuous female nudes in Renaissance and post-Renaissance art. To an artist steeped in surrealism and Freudian analysis, the subject offered rich possibilities for sexual innuendo. Yet rather than the literal sexual motifs frequently portrayed by many male surrealists, Hare’s forms, such as the flapping of the swan’s wings, are more metaphorically suggestive. 

David Hare, The Swan's Dream of Leda, 1962. Photo by Ben Aqua.
David Hare, The Swan's Dream of Leda, 1962. Photo by Ben Aqua.

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