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Modern Sapphics

The discoveries of new poems by Sappho in 2004 and 2014, particularly the near-completion of the Tithonus poem, excited both scholarly and worldwide audiences. Sappho’s poetry appears to be as greatly admired today as it was in antiquity – from the seventh century BC onwards, she was known as the ‘Tenth Muse’ and the ‘The Poetess’, and was a popular character in Athenian comedic plays and vase decoration. From the nineteenth century, Sappho adopted her current cultural role as an icon for women’s rights, becoming a model for the ‘New Woman’: independent, educated, with social and sexual autonomy. By the 1960s, her feminist caricature was firmly entrenched in popular culture. However, this ran parallel to a patriarchal reading of her: one obsessed with her supposed hypersexuality or nymphomania, and one arguing against evidence for her lesbian tendencies while simultaneously rejecting her because of it. She’s often a lynchpin for laments on the female condition, as in The Picture of Sappho by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, the earliest modern feminist reading of Sappho, which ends on an affirmation that regardless of her genius, her gender is still the main consideration:

‘One grief and one alone

Could bow thy bright head down--

Thou wert a WOMAN, and wert left despairing!’

Modern scholars are fascinated with digging up any information regarding her life – in 2016, astronomers even used the constellations described in her ‘Midnight Poem’ to date the work to the year of her death. Artistic exploration shares this intrigue in the mystery of her life. Rereading Sappho through the guise of modern twentieth and twenty-first-century art fascinates me; the loading of modern concepts of femininity, womanhood, love, and sexuality onto an archaic source lends itself to a decontextualized discourse on the human condition. Judy Chicago’s 1974-79 Dinner Party setting for Sappho is ripe with vulvic allusions, with the abstracted labial petals glazed in greens, blues, and dark indigo purples, suggesting the Aegean Sea surrounding the Island of Lesbos (Fig. 1). A pearlescent Doric temple is embroidered into the back of the tablecloth, with waves of blue, green and red flowing down to where Sappho’s name is embroidered in bright colour. The ancient motifs and gold reflect the romanticism of Sappho’s works that transfixed poets such as Byron and Baudelaire.

Figure 1. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (Sappho place setting), 1974–79, ceramic, porcelain, textile, Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Other artists focus on the physicality of what remains of her life; the fragments of her poetry, and the chiasmic absences between them. Julie Mehretu’s collaboration with Arion Press in Poetry of Sappho alternates twenty prints by Mehretu with pages of Sappho’s poetry in Greek and English. Her accompanying prints, titled Sapphic Strophes, are immediately identifiable as her own, with a mess of lines exploding from a central vanishing point. However, these works border on the calligraphic, reducing the colour palette to monochromatic zero and deconstructing the poetess’s scripture into an unknowable language, fragmentary and broken. In Sapphic Strophe 3, untranslatable handwriting covers an upside-down pink triangle, a nod to the horrors dealt to gay men and women since Sappho’s time – the pink triangle representing the badge of shame given to nonconforming men by the Nazis (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Julie Mehretu, Sapphic Strophe 3, 2011, pen and ink on mylar, Arion Press (Photo: Arion Press)

By contrast, Anselm Kiefer’s Sappho is more of a constructed apparition of Sappho as a present, corporeal form in history (Fig. 3). Kiefer, who often uses his work to excavate and re-identify heroines of the past, described this work as 'a monument to all the unknown women poets'. The startlingly anonymous plaster wedding dress almost seems like an ancient marble sculpture, but it also aligns Sappho with women of our recent past - bringing her down from the almost non-female pedestal of genius.

Figure 3. Anselm Kiefer, Sappho, 2002-5, steel, plaster, polyester, lead books, 198 cm, Private Collection (Photo: Artnet)

The mysterious portrayal of Sappho the Poetess on a Pompeian fresco places her amongst the goddesses rather than among mortal women (Fig. 4). This transference from past perceptions to the current reception of ordinary twenty-first-century women defines how she has recently been perceived. The city of Chicago’s ‘Sappho & Sweat’ classes, described as a queerfeminist experimental movement seminar or dance party, sees participants reciting fragments of Sappho’s poetry while dancing to Nicki Minaj and Kate Bush.

Figure 4. Sappho Fresco from Pompeii, c. 50 A.D

One of my favourite pieces that I chanced upon while researching for this article is Julio Larraz’s Flower Storm over Sappho’s House (Fig. 5). Usually a painter with De Chirico-style surrealist depictions of everyday life in the Caribbean, a bleak and empty landscape, and an out-of-place cyclidic Greek temple brings to mind the difference between Sappho – or what we believe her to be – and us. Her graceful handling of the affections of the heart bring her into the room with us when we read her poetry, the romantic idealisation of the flower storm seeming fit for the ancient Greek world it describes – ‘For by my side you put on / many wreaths of roses / and garlands of flowers / around your soft neck….’. Yet, this startling absence of any knowledge of her life, her femininity, and her experience of love aligns to a sensation of loss and emptiness more equitable to a Rothko, or a Cy Twombly: we are staring into a fragmented abyss, pieced together forcefully by human hands to resemble our idea of a love poem, fabricating the nymphomaniac, swooning lesbian as in Laurence Koe’s Sappho, or the strong, powerful, burning intensity of Charles Mengin’s Sappho. Sappho’s position as an ancient authority on womanhood makes her an apt canvas on which to project the affectations of our own femininity.

Figure 5. Julio Larraz, Flower Storm over Sappho’s House, 2016, oil on canvas, 152 x 172 cm, Contini Art Gallery

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