When a painting touches the soul for the very first time, how it lingers like a lover’s kiss in the caverns of the mind…
Two Sapphos, two artists (Miguel Carbonell Selva & Charles Auguste Mengin), one story…
Which is more compelling in depicting the raw emotion of a woman on the edge of reason? Which one embodies the woman behind the myth?
I have been unable to find out if either Mengin’s brooding or Selva’s sultry depictions of Sappho were posed by models. Did either have a real flesh and blood ‘Muse’ or was ‘She’ a composite formed in the mind’s eye?.
Perhaps Sappho stepped out of the mists of time and into their psyches to be immortalised on canvas?
Could an alluring voice from the past carry such power?
Mengin, for me, has captured an ‘essence’ that is soulful, deep and moody, those dark eyes! What secrets do they hide? What knowledge, what pain. I am intrigued.
Here are her own words, translated from Greek.
The poem is titled ‘Lonelieness’
Set are the Pleiades; the Moon is down And midnight dark on high. The hours, the hours, drift by, And here I lie, Alone
Those words echo from antiquity and are as relevant today.
Art, speaks the language of the soul, feelings. I posit that is why we have a strong emotional reaction to beauty on a visceral level. Some ‘knowing’ lays far beyond that which words alone can convey.
The Lady is indeed beguiling, both her myth and mystery still speak to modern minds. After seeing Sappho for the first time at Manchester Art Gallery:-
“I think it was the look. The mystique. The eyes and the draw that reminded me of someone I once knew. Yes, I read about her exploits in her life, but safe to say I couldn’t escape those eyes ! Did she jump or didn’t she? There were a few bits of art there in the Gallery, with her not so naked. All with the same follow me eyes. And I shamefully did. For a while. She got me.”A.N on his encounter with Mengin’s Sappho
What did Sappho’s paintings say to speak so deeply to capture and captivate those who gaze into deeply hypnotic eyes?
‘What do you see in me, that is in you too?’
I could be wrong. My fanciful question is purely rhetorical. Perhaps she said nothing at all.
The story behind the imagery is a legend that she committed suicide by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs over the unrequited love of a beautiful ferryman named Phaon.
I did some research. There is no historical evidence for this legend, rather scholarly thought suggests that she lived to old age. A less romanticised outcome to the visual narrative of both of the Artists.
Perhaps Sappho once stood on the precipice of her own unquiet thoughts and contemplated annihilation in the way that afflicts those of artistic temperament. Felt the pain and then stepped back from the edge. I am sure we have all been there. We have all felt pain, been hurt, caused hurt. It is part of the human condition. What we do with this understanding will either break or elevate us to a higher plane of ‘knowing’, understanding and integration of the ‘self’.
Just a thought…
To create, be it art, music, poetry, literature, they are all languages that speak from and to the soul.
I would suggest that an artist is ‘hard wired’ to feel deeply, to understand depth psychology in both self and others and face existentialist crisis head on. To see beauty in pain.
To stand on a precipice as Sappho did, and look deep into the abyss yet also reach up and touch heaven.
…and therein maybe just, there lies salvation …
Eily Nash (2021)
For further reading, I highly recommend this very interesting article by Joshua J Mark from World History Encyclopaedia https://www.worldhistory.org/Sappho_of_Lesbos/
Sappho by Charles Mengin and Death of Sappho by Miguel Carbonell Selva via Wikimedia