Sappho and the Patriarchs

Who speaks for Sappho? I was reminded of this question this morning when I saw this post on Hans Urich Obrist’s Instagram feed depicting a work by Kasper Bosmans (an artist whose engagement with antiquity I blogged about on the first day of 2017):

Bosmans’ drawing imagines the smoke of incense somehow ‘speaking the name Sappho. What does this mean? In antiquity, several Roman poets, including Catullus, Horace and Ovid, claimed to speak for Sappho, while in modern and contemporary art, male artists like Cy Twombly, continue this tradition.

While modern poets like Anne Carson have revised the literary mediation of the ancient Greek poet, in the visual and performing arts there have also been more direct challenges to ‘mansplaining’. For example, Jane Montgomery Griffiths (who I had the pleasure of meeting in Brisbane last year) wrote the one-woman play Sappho…in 9 fragments in which the poet resists the male voices that claim to interpret and present her work.

Within the visual arts, my favourite is Louise Lawler’s 1984 work Sappho and the Patriarch. The power of this work comes from its simplicity and subtlety, as well as for its ambition in scope, expanding the question of Sapphic ‘mansplaining’ within the compass of the subtitle of the work: “Is it the work, the location or the stereotype that is the institution?”. In other words, echoing the cries of the thousands on the Women’s marches of two weeks ago, how can Sappho smash the patriarchy?

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