Saturday, 2 February 2008

COMMENTARY: 'Sappho' by Charles August Mengin (1877)

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, February 2008  

If you enter the first floor of the Manchester Art Gallery, you will soon find yourself facing the dark and mysterious painting of Sappho by Charles-August Mengin. Though Mengin has never been a particularly well-known artist, the woman he depicts is strikingly enigmatic.

Sappho, a Greek female poet who lived around 600BC, is widely recognized as the earliest surviving female writer of the west. Her poems of love, loss and reflection have given her, as Ellen Green tells us, ‘an intense and lasting presence on western imagination'; she is an almost mythic figure within the arts.

Mengin shows us Sappho alone and fierce, standing on precarious rocks. We are shown the moment just prior to throwing herself into the sea out of desperate and unrequited love for Phaon, an old ferry man, who the Goddess Aphrodite turned in to youth so beautiful and desirable, that she herself fell madly in love with him. 

This myth of passion and tragedy is the scene that Mengin portrays to us in his painting. A tale that can be sourced to Menander’s play ‘The Leukadia’ and the lines:

Where they say that Sappho was the first
Hunting down the proud Phaon
To throw herself, in her goading desire, from the rock
That shines from afar

Looking at the image, you are struck by the burning intensity that seems to emit from Sappho and her surroundings. Very dissimilar from the cupid like young women who fill the other paintings in the room, Sappho is intimidating and strong. Her hair, dark and long, flows into the black cloth, which transparent clings to her sensual body. As Simon Goldhill, states she is ‘not the Greece of light and purity, sunshine and rationality, but the physical embodiment of a dangerous passion’. 

The grey sea and clouded sky have an ominous tone, which along with the wind, seem to represent her emotional turmoil. In a highly sexual and daring act, Mengin has exposed her breasts and shoulders, the clear whiteness of her skin contrasting to the rest of the canvas and making them an unavoidable focal point. Her breasts seem to illuminate her face, as if they show us the burning love that we would be able to see in her down cast eyes. 

This woman is shown, without doubt, to be a sexual being. The colour of her robes and self-possessed demeanor suggest experience, rather than innocence. Something which is enhanced by her imminent act of jumping or falling into an abyss, which was seen in the 1800’s to represent falling into a swoon or the experience of sexual relief.

In many ways this is a painting by and for men, the pornographic elements of the image being unavoidable. We are given a direct invitation to take pleasure in her exposed body, the classical references legitimizing her nakedness. However the other side of this image presents a historically important woman, intelligent, independent and proud of her female desire.

The force that emits from Mengin’s Sappho makes it a great shame that the painting never entered mainstream culture, and with this in mind, I strongly recommend those inclined to go and experience its mystery for themselves.

'Sappho' by Charles August Mengin can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.

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