Sappho – The Misunderstood – posted in Boulder, CO November 14th 2022

All images: WIP Sappho Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been editing the images I made in Holland in October with Luis Branco.

And I have been thinking about you Sappho, the feeling of you, my feelings for you, embodying you . . .

Claude Cahun led me to you— your words, your songs, the fragments. Cahun called you “Sappho The Misunderstood” in her essay on you in their 1925 “Heroines” text.

I have been contemplating the rumors, the conjecture and the fictional histories written about you. These unaccountable stories about you have been going on for more than two thousand years.

Did you love women, did you love men, did you jump off the Leucadian Cliff because the beautiful boatman Phaon jilted you? Well of course you loved women and you loved men and you went for that young Phaon. But I don’t believe for a minute that you would jump  . . .

When I was shooting with Luis in the autumn landscape in Holland your words were kind of everywhere for me.  This is fragment 168 C – translated by Anne Carson in “If Not Winter-Fragments of Sappho.”

                                    spangled is

              the earth with her crowns

But the beauty, the colors, the roses, It can get a little overly romanticized with you. I like this one (I know I am overdoing the cigarette shots):

This following song/ fragment could have been written about any of your lovers or any of mine  . . . 

Sappho # 3 – Anne Carson’s translation “If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho.”

] to give

] yet of the glorious

] of the beautiful and good, you

            ] of pain.            ] me

] blame

] swollen

] you take your fill. For [ my thinking

] not thus

] is arranged

] nor

all night long ] I am aware

                           ] of evildoing

                        ]

                        ] other

                        ] minds

                        ] blessed ones

                        ]

                        ]

We did a series in the nighttime woods. I can’t decide between these two:

To read more about Sappho, her songs and her various histories and portrayals you can read my previous blog posts:

The Sadistic Judith? – posted in Boulder, CO November 14, 2022

All images: WIP Judith Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been editing the images I made with Luis Branco in Holland in October.

The night that Judith took the head of Holofernes began with a feast. Holofernes got very drunk.

There are many readings of Judith’s story: that Judith was doing “God’s will” to protect her people with her own hand; or that she was/ is a feminist super heroine taking revenge on the evil general Holofernes (or even for all woman against all men who have abused them); or as Claude Cahun portrayed Judith in her 1925 essay as “The Sadistic Judith.” I see all of these readings in my performance of Judith. The revenge angle or the “me too” angle is the most compelling to me.

“The Sadistic Judith”  is the 1925 essay by Claude Cahun’s in their Heroines text. Here Judith describes the fictional general Holofernes:

“ We have to believe that he despises women, and doesn’t hide it (after all, he himself says so); that he is coarse, as only a warrior can be. After he kissed his slave, he would furtively wipe his lips. He doesn’t remove his garments for fear of soiling his body more than absolutely necessary. During nights of love, his boots are stained with the crimson in which he wallows, symbolically dyed with the red poison of his victims, tracking everywhere, according to the season, the dust or mud of the roads, or worse. But as the cock crows, he has his bath, sends the girl away—and has the sheets changed (blood clotted on silk sheets).”

Here are a few of my representations / embodiments / drag portrayals of Judith after the slaying of Holofernes. This first one is after one of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith paintings.

This next one is after Jan Massys 1543 painting.

And this is after Giorgione’s 1504 painting. And the next three images show Judith’s ambivalence and horror the “morning after” after the act.

You can read my previous blog post with the stories and representations of Judith that I was thinking about before (and during) my own performances of Judith:

Besotted by Artemisia’s paintings of Judith and Holofernes – posted in Renkum, Holland October 7, 2022

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1611 – 1612, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

I am at the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum Holland preparing to embody and photograph my new but ancient heroines Judith and Sappho with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. I am relooking at Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1656) paintings of the ancient heroine Judith. Artemisia painted several portraits of Judith during her remarkable career as well as many other female heroines.

I have been studying the ancient fictional heroine Judith, who in the Book of Judith cut off the head of the (fictional) Assyrian general Holofernes. The Book of Judith is non historical fiction and can be seen as a theological novel or a religious parable (it is also considered to be a deuterocanonical book and/or apocrypha). It is not part of the Hebrew Bible, it’s canonicity in Christianity is complicated: however the story is well known in most Jewish and Christian religious traditions. The history of western art is filled with paintings of Judith— the Baroque painters particularly loved the gore and glamour of the story of Judith. You must recognize the magnificent painting by Caravaggio below that influenced Artemisia’s earliest paintings of Judith.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, 1598 – 1599 or 1602, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

I have been reading The Book of Judith, in one version titled “Apocrypha Judith of the  King James Bible 1611”. The original story was probably written sometime around the 2nd century BC. The story goes that Judith was a beautiful Jewish widow, told to be extremely virtuous and pious (the name Judith literally means woman from Judea). She lived near the fictional town of Bethulia ( supposedly near Jerusalelum). Judith spent her days praying in a tent on the roof of her house clothed in a widow’s poor sack cloth. The first chapters of the book tell of how the greedy (fictional) Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had sent his large army under the leadership of the general Holofernes to Palestine to conquer the Israelites. The Assyrian army camped in the valley near the town of Bethulia cutting off their water and food and ready to attack Bethulia and go on to take Jerusalem. The townspeople had no way of protecting themselves from the large army and they feared that their God would not save them. Our heroine Judith stepped into the situation and told the townspeople that they must not question God’s protection. Judith tells them that she will send prayers and messages to her/their God to “break down their (the Assyrian army) stateliness by the hand of a woman” to save the Jewish people. Judith made a plan which she did not reveal to the townspeople, and apparently God gave her the go ahead . . .

Then Judith took off her poor widow’s clothes and washed and anointed herself with precious ointments and dressed herself in her best garments:

“And she took sandals upon her feet, and put about her her bracelets, and her chains, and her rings, and her earrings, and all her ornaments, and decked herself bravely, to allure the eyes of all men that should see her.” {Apocrypha, Judith of the King James Bible 1611, 10:4}

And she went with her loyal maid Abra to the Assyrian camp (bringing with her wine and cheese and fine bread) and asked the soldiers to take her to their general Holofernes for she had a plan to help him to conquer the town of Bethulia. The soldiers were overwhelmed by her beauty and believed her words and led her to the tent of Holofernes who was also besot by her countenance and fooled by her words.

For several days and nights Judith acts to seduce and soften Holofernes, though she never takes to his bed . . .  One night there is a feast in Holoferne’s tent and he gets very drunk and passes out on his bed. Holoferne’s servants and guards leave the tent and Judith takes this opportunity to cut off his head by her own hand with Holoferne’s sword. She smuggles the head out of the camp to Bethulia in the middle of the night aided by her maid Abra. When the townspeople see what Judith has accomplished they hang the head of Holofernes at the gate for all to see. They are amazed at what Judith has accomplished to save  the Israelites and word goes out to all. The soldiers and servants of Holofernes discover the decapitated body in the tent and are horrified and afraid and quickly take up their horses and flee. As the Assyrian soldiers run away, the Israelites take their spoils. Judith is the savior of Israel and a heroine forever more. I won’t get into the religious, political, historical, patriarchal and feminist implications of this story—there are many ways to interpret this story. I am not Christian or Jewish, I am a Feminist and I do love this story of Judith’s intelligent maneuvering, her courage and her careful execution of her plan. The the jewelry, the fine clothes, the food, the seduction, the sword: what’s not to love?

Judith and Her Maidservant, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613 – 1614, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

There are many paintings by many painters depicting Judith decapitating Holofernes and the aftermath. The several paintings that Artemisia Gentileschi painted of Judith over a period of 30 years always show Judith with her loyal maid servant Abra. As in many of Artemisia’s paintings, she often inserted her own visage in the place of the heroine and here she might insert herself as both Judith and Abra. All of these paintings captivate me! The story of Judith was most certainly originally written by a man. Artemisia’s viewpoint is, of course, reflective of a woman’s experience and perhaps even of Artemisia’s own experience negotiating and manipulating her career and life in a 17th century man’s world. Artemisia was most certainly a feminist as well as an incredibly productive and remarkable artist. She had suffered sexual violence, herself, at a young age by the older painter Augustino Tassi, who was a friend of her father the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Tassi was put to trial for the act but never really suffered any repercussions, while Artemisia suffered many consequences. Artemisia was a 17th century “me too” woman who managed to live a productive and creative life, though there is often a subtle element of violence in her paintings and there is most certainly an intense subjectivity that is not often seen in the paintings by men. Below is my personal favorite of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith.

Judith and her Maidservant, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1625, Detroit Institute of the Arts

A few of my favorite Judiths’ by men . . .

Judith, Giorgione, 1504, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, The Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Jan Massey, 1543, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

and some more contemporary performances of Judith . . .

Martha Graham Dance Company performing Judith, with Peggy Lyman, 1980

And I love this performance of Judith by Martine Guitierrez (from their Icon series made for bus stations in NYC), 2021

And finally one more by Artemisia—this last painting below was only recently found. A younger Judith (and an older Abra) look out of the frame, the head of Holofernes in the center of the painting. This is one of Gentileschi’s later paintings of Judith.

Judith and Her Maidservant and the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1639 or 1640, Nasjonal Museet, Oslo

I have many ideas and a sword to be wielded as I prepare to perform Judith (and also Sappho)! This blog post was written with some haste, please forgive the writing. I am working in Holland until the 27th of October.

Part One – Sappho’s songs – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

The line drawing above depicts the ancient lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho. This was drawn on an Attic vase that is attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. The ancient vase is housed in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munchen, Germany. The line drawing is by Valerie Woelfe

I have been studying the ancient lyric poet Sappho as part of the My Heroines project. I am getting ready to go to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland to work on my “embodiments” and portrayals of the great poetess in performative photographs with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco.

The drawing above is taken from an ancient Greek vase  (circa 470 BC) and it pictures the two lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho who both lived and performed on the island of Lesbos during the 6th century BC. This is one of the earliest representations of Sappho (that we know of) and it was created at least some 100 years after her death. The two poets (Alcaeus and Sappho) did live during the same time on Lesbos, whether they played together is not known. There are many unsubstantiated ideas about Sappho, one is that Sappho and Alcaeus were lovers. We do know that Sappho was born and lived on the island of Lesbos between 630 and 570 BC. She was born to a wealthy family. We also know that she was a prolific lyric poet and she was heralded and praised in her own time and on throughout the ages. Her works were composed to be accompanied by music, sometimes with a female chorus for groups of women and men. Some of her songs were performed solo. She sang in the Aeolian dialect (different then the dialect used in Greece and Athens at that time). It is not known if Sappho herself wrote down her words/songs. It is thought that her songs were written down in about 500 BC in Greece and that there were approximately 10,000 lines compiled in several “books” of her poetry (8 or 9 papyrus scrolls). These scrolls were housed in the great library in Alexandria in about 300 BC and in other places as well. These books/scrolls have been lost and today only approximately 650 lines of her large body of lyric poetry survive and have been compiled and translated. None of the music that accompanied these lines exists today.

This Attic red-figure vase above is from the 5th century BC and features a seated woman reading from a papyrus scroll with three women attendants. Some think the seated figure is meant to portray Sappho. It is housed in the British Museum.

I have been reading various translations (in English) of these famous remains of Sappho’s lyric poetry. I have also been looking into the reception and understanding of Sappho’s work through the ages—from Plato (who called Sappho the “tenth muse”) through to contemporary queer and feminist studies of Sappho as well as some of the most recent translations and scholarship on her work. This is a daunting task and I have only skimmed the surface.

Sappho has been portrayed in paintings, poems, operas, plays, performances and critical analysis as a brilliant poetess and musician, a priestess of Aphrodite, a teacher of young women and sometimes as a wanton woman. There has always been much speculation, invention and mythologizing about her love life and her sexual proclivities. Does she love men, or women or both?

Anne Carson wrote in the introduction to her wonderful translations of Sappho’s work: If Not, Winter‑Fragments of Sappho:

Controversies about her (Sappho’s) personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?”

I don’t think it is possible to “leave the matter there” for any of us as Ms. Carson suggests. We all read into the words of Sappho what we want to. We project onto Sappho our innermost sensibilities and questions: of identity, of sexuality, of love, of subjectivity, of female power and the repression there of. It seems to me that even the scholars and translators who have devoted their lives to her study aren’t entirely objective either. Sappho’s effect on all of us is sensorial and transformative‑her words ignite us in various ways.  These words and poems were originally performed with musical instruments and often accompanied by a chorus of young women singing and dancing. I feel the urge to insert myself into these songs, these performances and complete them. And many others have felt the same.

I have selected several poems and fragments that I intend to work with in my own “performances” and embodiments of Sappho. I begin, here, with the most complete extant poem of Sappho. This translation is by Anne Carson from her book If Not Winter, Fragments of Sappho. This is known as poem #1, or Prayer for Aphrodite or Ode to Aphrodite.

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind

child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you

do not break with hard pains,

O lady, my heart

 but come here if ever before

 you caught my voice far off

and listened left your father’s

golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,

quick sparrows over the black earth

whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,

smiled in your deathless face

and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all

in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)

to lead you back into her love? Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.

If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.

If she does not love, soon, she will love

even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard

care and all my heart longs

to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.

Sappho #1 (translation by Anne Carson, If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)

This is a call to prayer for Aphrodite—the goddess of love, sexual love, passionate love, married love, all love. Here Sappho calls to Aphrodite in a very intimate way. Aphrodite arrives flying her golden car with sparrows and says: “Who, O Sappho, is wronging you?” Aphrodite (Sappho) uses (now again) three times in the poem. It is as if Aphrodite has heard Sappho’s complaints and heart aches many times before. Here Sappho emphasizes the universal experience of pain when you are deserted by the one you love.  Aphrodite’s advice to Sappho is somewhat ambiguous: “For if she flees, soon she will pursue. If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. If she does not love, soon, she will love even unwilling.” It is not clear if “she,” the object of Sappho’s affection, will pursue Sappho or if “she” will pursue another. The point being that none of us has any control in this situation of love. Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her “ally” in this heart wrenching situation. Sappho calls on Aphrodite in several of her other poems as well, Aphrodite and Sappho are forever entwined.

The sweetness and the bitterness of erotic love and desire or “eros” is one of the themes that permeates Sappho’s surviving work. Fragment #130 (Sappho’s poems have been numbered over time) is one of Sappho’s most famous fragments. Here she brings to us the term “sweetbitter.” I have posted three different translations of the lines. It is interesting to note how Sappho’s lines are translated so differently.

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—

sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

Sappho #130 (translation by Anne Carson in  If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)

Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,

bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,

seizes me.

Sappho #130 (translation by Diane J. Rayor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)

That impossible predator,

Eros the Limb-Loosener,

Bitter Sweetly and afresh

Savages my flesh.

Sappho #130 (translaton by Aaron Poochigian in “Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments)

Above is an image of the fragments known as the “Cologne papyri” which are fragments of Sappho’s poem # 58 also known as the Tithonus poem, dating to the third century BC, these fragments preserve twelve lines of the poem. Published in 2004, the finds drew international media attention.

One of my favorite songs is Sappho #58, also called the “old age poem” or the “Tithonus poem.” This beautiful song appears to be a very personal song about Sappho’s aging process and it is believed that she sang this song with a group of younger women. The poem has been the subject of much excitement and discussion in the 21st century because new (but ancient) papyrus fragments were identified in 2004, making this song one of the few substantially complete poems of Sappho. In this song Sappho alludes to the story of the goddess Dawn’s (Eos’) love for the mortal Trojan prince Tithonus. Eos requests that Zeus make Tithonus immortal and Zeus does so. However the goddess forgets to ask Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal youth. Thus Tithonus lives out his long life (with Eos) and ages into an old shriveled man. According to some stories Tithonus eventually turns into a cicada. I love this song of Sappho’s and feel it in my bones. Here I have posted the translation by Diane J. Rayor from her book “Sappho A New Translation of the Complete Works.

[I bring] the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses, girls,

And [I love] that song lover, the sweet-toned lyre.

My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age

[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].

My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle

That once could dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?

Impossible for humans not to age.

For they say rosy-armed Dawn in love

went to the ends of earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age

seized even him with an immortal wife.

                                    . . . believes

                                    . . . may give

Yet I love the finer things . . . this and passion

for the light of life have granted me brilliance and beauty.

Sappho #58 (translation by Diane J. Raynor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)

Please read my recent blog post (Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances) https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2022/09/17/part-two-sappho-projections-portrayals-portraits-and-performances-posted-in-boulder-co-sept-17-2022/ to see some of my favorite portrayals of Sappho in paintings and performance.

Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864, Simeon Solomon, watercolor on paper, 33 x 38 cm, The Tate Gallery

The painting above by British artist Simeon Solomon pictures the famed ancient lyric poetess Sappho (on the right with the laurel leaf crown) with another ancient poetess Erinna. They are posed in an intense embrace on a bench in a garden in Mytilene, the ancient capital of Lesbos. Is this “lesbian” love or the ardor of one female artist/muse for another? What is Solomon striving for here? Little is known of both poetesses lives but we do know that Erinna lived a few hundred years after Sappho and Errina was definitely not from the island of Lesbos. In the painting there is a statue of Aphrodite near Sappho, as well as her lyre. The palette is muted, feminine, roses abound. Sappho embraces Errina passionately as a lover and as a fellow poetess. This gorgeous painting adds romantic fodder to the mystique around the great poetess Sappho. Simeon Solomon was himself a closeted homosexual who was later jailed for attempted sodomy.

Please read my previous blog post  “Part One – Sappho’s Songs” to learn more about Sappho’s remarkable lyric poetry. Sappho is the woman /the heroine / the artist I am currently studying as part of the “My Heroines” project. Here I have been researching ancient women heroines. I immerse myself in these women’s stories and representations in texts, writings, paintings, sculpture and critical discourse. I then reimagine and revise these figures in my own visage in performative still photographs that I have made and will continue to make with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Over the last year we have manifested Eve, Salome, Aphrodite and Helen of Troy in my sixty-something year old form in images that are weird, powerful and sometimes funny. You can see some of these performative works on my previous blog posts and also on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/sherrywigginsart/. In October (very soon) I will return to the residency at OBRAS Holland to work with Luis on the embodiment and performance of the great poetess Sappho and also the biblical heroine Judith (I will write more about Judith later).

Sappho and Phaon, Jacques-Louis David, 1809, oil on canvas 225 x 262 cm, Hermitage Museum

The Jacques-Louis David painting above portrays Sappho with another one of her mythological lovers Phaon. Aphrodite/ Venus’s loyal messenger Cupid accompanies them. According to the ancient myth Phaon was a ferryman who served the isle of Lesbos. He was supposedly old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat in the disguise of a croan. Phaon ferried her across the waters and would take no payment. Aphrodite was grateful and gave Phaon a special ointment in payment. When he rubbed himself with the ointment Phaon became young and very handsome. In the subsequent story Sappho, as an older woman, had an intense love affair with the beautiful young Phaon. However, Phaon eventually grew to resent her and rejected her love. Sappho was so heart broken that she decided to throw herself in the sea to either cure herself of the love affair or die. Thus the idea of the “Leucadian Leap”. According to this ancient legend, Sappho did die.

Mythical stories, paintings, performances and writing about Sappho (who lived during the time 630 – 570 BC) abound throughout the millennia along with the adoration of Sappho’s songs. Everyone loves Sappho but whom did she love? Did she love men? Did she love women? Or both? And why has this legend that Sappho committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs persisted throughout the ages? In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a major resurgence of interest in Sappho amongst artists and poets as well as an exploration and acknowledgement of Sappho’s love of women. In fact, the word “lesbian” (which in previous times meant someone who came from the island of Lesbos) came to be used to describe the homosexual love and sexual relationships between women. Sappho and “sapphism” became a part of the cultural dialogue even when homosexual men were being persecuted and jailed (think Simeon Solomon, Oscar Wilde and others). Operas and plays with Sappho as the main character abounded. Sappho also came to the fore amongst lesbian artists and poets—there were the famed gatherings in Natalie Barney’s home in Neuilly, France where women dressed in Greek togas and danced around the garden. In the late 20th and early 21st century the term “sapphism” has also become an umbrella term describing the attraction or relationships between women—whether they identify as lesbian, bi, pan, asexual, trans or queer. Sappho is one of our most famous queer icons.

Above and following are some of my favorite 19th and early 20th century paintings and portrayals and performances of Sappho.

Sappho, 1893, Ary Renan, oil on canvas, 56 x 80 cm, Museo Ernest Renan

The Death of Sappho, 188, Miguel Carbonell Selva

Sappho (at Sunset), 1893, Gustave Moreau, location unknown
The Death of Sappho, 1873-4, Gustave Moreau, 81 x 62 , oil on canvas, location unknown
Sappho, 1852, James Pradier, marble sculpture, Musee d’Orsay
Sappho, 1873, Charles Mengin, 230 x 151 cm, oil on canvas, Manchester Art Gallery
Sappho, Julius Kronberg, 1913, oil on canvas, private collection
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in  Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
Production photo of Régina Badet as Sappho. Le Théâtre 319 (1 April 1912)

I too have come to Iove Sappho—both her songs and all her mythical manifestations throughout the ages. I am excited (and nervous) about my project with the great poetess. I am traveling to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland (where I worked on the project THE UNKNOWN HEROINE in 2019) in a few weeks to work on performing and embodying the great poetess with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Wish me luck.

Looking Back – The Helen Series, posted in Boulder, Colorado July 17, 2022

WIP – The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592

I have been editing the works I accomplished in April with my collaborator Luís Branco in northern Portugal. I had rented a stone house with a waterfall, a swimming pool, and a beautiful garden. My intent was to embody Helen; Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta—my own interpretation of this mythical woman with a contemporary 66 year-old feminist bent. I had done my research on Helen ahead of time. I had read much of the text and mythos surrounding Helen, and I had looked at how Helen has been “painted” over time.

I began with this question – how would Helen look back on her fabled life and her epic reputation, as an older woman, when all was said and done?

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Did she fall in love and lust with the sexy Trojan prince, Paris, and leave her husband King Menelaus to sail off for Troy? This would imply a certain amount of agency on her part, which I am all for. Or did Paris abduct her— initiating a violent journey and her long captivity in Troy?

The Loves of Paris and Helen, c. 1788, Jacques-Louis David

As either a ravishing seductress or a gorgeous victim, Helen has been blamed for the devastation and destruction of the Trojan War. Euripides, in his play titled Helen, portrays her as both a phantom temptress and a loyal wife. According to him (and others too) the Helen who stayed in Troy during those ten long years of the Trojan War was an eidolon / a ghost. And, while the ghost or the phantom of Helen was in Troy wed to Paris, the “real” Helen was waylaid in Egypt and remained a steadfast wife to Menelaus.

Helen at the Scaean Gate, c. 1888, Gustave Moreau

I love this Gustave Moreau image above of Helen at the main gate of Troy. Of all the Helens in all the stories, I relate most to this eidolon Helen, this doppelganger of Helen and these images below were inspired by her and by Moreau’s painting . . .

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Then there are the “recovery” stories of Helen (whether she is the real Helen or the ghost of Helen) from the burning ruins of Troy by Menelaus. Euripides describes this reclaiming of Helen in the aftermath of the war in the play titled Andromache. Lord Peleus insults Menelaus thus:

“When you took Troy you failed to put your wife to death, though you had her in your power—on the contrary, when you looked at her breast, you threw away your sword and accepted her kiss, caressing the traitorous bitch, you miserable wretch, born slave to lust.”

Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BC. by the Amasis Painter depicting the Recovery of Helen by Menelaus. Now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen

The beautiful amphora above displays one of the earliest figurative depictions of Helen of Troy as she is being led back to the ship with Menelaus after the Greeks conquer Troy.

Helena and Menelaos, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1816.

The “recovery” story is reenacted in Dutch painter Johann Tischbein’s painting above. Notice the dropped sword of Menelaus and Helen’s lightly draped and beautiful breasts. Menelaus intended to slay her for her infidelity but was so struck by her beauty (and her boobs) that he took her back to Sparta.

In any case, Helen does survive the Trojan war and, according to Homer in the Iliad, she returns to Sparta to live a harmonious life with Menelaus. I find this story line hard to believe. In another account by Euripides Helen is flown to Olympus by the gods after the war to live out her life as an immortal. This must have been the story line for Gustave Moreau’s Helen Glorified below.

Helen Glorified, c. 1896, Gustave Moreau

Whether Helen is portrayed as a shameless queen, a brilliant specter or a virtuous wife—she has been constituted and reconstituted as a figment of patriarchal perception throughout millennia. If I were Helen (or her doppelganger) after all these journeys, wars, husbands – I would be exhausted . . . and want to live out the remainder of my life in a quiet fashion alone by the pool in Sparta (or wherever).

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

The image below is perhaps my favorite of The Helen Series.

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Finding My Aphrodite: the practice, the process, the images—posted in Boulder, CO June 21, 2022

All images are from the My Aphrodite series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been looking, sorting, making sense of and editing the MANY images that I took with Luis Branco on the Costa Vicentina in Portugal at the end of March. It is good to let the images breath . . .  you become attached to the images when you first shoot them and look through them. The shooting process was arduous . . . Luis and I worked many days clambering down the cliffs on the Costa Vicentina—shooting hundreds of images on the beautiful beaches at first light and at last light. And the ocean at the Costa Vicentina is almost too gorgeous, too vast, too poetic— it was overwhelming. I also had to figure out the right fabric (it was the cheesy diaphanous blue fabric I bought at Joanne’s on a whim), the right dress, the right make-up (but not too much) and most of all the right Aphrodite Attitude. 

I have also realized that it took a good amount of hubris and courage to beckon the goddess of love, lust, beauty, desire and procreation. I had done my extensive research on her ancient mythos read her hymns and her lore and looked at her long history. You can read all about it on my blog post from early March: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2022/03/03/%ef%bf%bcmy-aphrodite-posted-in-boulder-colorado-march-3rd-2022/

And then I just had to let go of the concepts, the ideas . . .  and I had to take on a “what the f…” attitude with confidence. I was embodying the immortal goddess in my 66 year-old mortal form.  And Luis had to get every shot . . .

This all came together during our last photoshoot in the evening light at the Praia da Carreagem—My Aphrodite emerged. These are my favorite images from that last photoshoot and from the whole week of shooting on the Costa Vicentina. These are the My Aphrodite images.

I am happy with these images (I need to get some processing and printing done) and Luis wants to convert some of the images to black and white. I will go on to sort and edit the series we shot of Helen of Troy and Sparta in Northern Portugal in April. And I am looking forward to researching and enacting more of My Heroines (Sappho, the Virgin Mary? And many more…) Happy Summer!!

Walk through the exhibition and the inauguration of “The Mirror Between Us” at the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal, posted on April 26, 2022

opening night at the Igreja de Sao Vicente, all installation images by Pedro Barral

The Mirror Between Us is an exhibition of performative photographs made by Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco in the Alentejo region of Portugal between 2015 and 2019. The exhibit is installed in the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal and will be on view April 16- June 4, 2022. This exhibition was curated and supported by Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the OBRAS Foundation and artist residency in Evoramonte, Portugal. The Municipality of Evora and Margarida Branco have provided the beautiful space in the church in the historic center of Evora. Andreia Vaz played her own composition on the violin, please look for the link to the video near the picture of her warming up on her violin.

Woman Standing, Still, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital b&w print, 120 x 80 cm, 2015
Seat at Evoramonte, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 80 x 120 cm, 2019
Woman in the Pego do Sino, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital b&w print, 120 x 80 cm, 2016
Andreia Vaz warming up for her performance.

Andreia Vaz played her own composition at the inauguration, here is a link to the video of Andreia’s beautiful performance on my Facebook page, Pedro Barral made the video:

https://www.facebook.com/sherry.wiggins.14/videos/1167609360447550

River in the Mirror, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
Foot in the Mirror, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
Primavera I, II, III, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color prints, each 50 x 75 cm, 2019
Primavera II, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 50 x 75 cm,
2019
 
Outside Woman, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital b&w print, 80 x 120 cm, 2019
 
Performing the Drawing I,II,III,IV,V,  Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco with Rui Fernandez (drone photographs), digital b&w printa, 60 x 60 cm, 2015
Performing the Drawing III,Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco with Rui Fernandez (drone photograph), digital b&w print, 60 x 60 cm, 2015
Woman in Black, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital b&w print, 50 x 75 cm, 2015
 

Woman at the Bridge, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
25th of April, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 75 x 50 cm, 2017
Mirror at Santa Susana, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, digital color print, 80 x 120 cm, 2017

Thank you to the many friends who have supported this work and this exhibition!! Margarida Branco, Senhor Mosco, Luis Pintassilgo, Pedro Barral, Andreia Vaz, Fatima Alvarez, Conor and Fiona Power, Martine de Kok, and all the many others in Portugal and in the US and around the world, and especially Ludger and Carolien! And my dear collaborator Luis Branco who only stands behind the camera, it is an honor and a joy to make work with you and we will keep making it!

THE MIRROR BETWEEN US / O ESPELHO ENTRE NOS – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Branco, (essay by Cydney Payton), posted March 17, 2022

Woman at the Bridge, 2017, 80 x 120 cm

The Mirror Between Us, an exhibition of performative photographs by Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, will be installed at the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal, April 16- June 4, 2022. This exhibition was curated by Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the OBRAS Foundation in Evoramonte, Portugal. Cydney Payton wrote the essay for the exhibit, originally scheduled for 2020 and rescheduled for 2022 due to the covid pandemic.

MIRROR IMAGE

Essay by Cydney M. Payton

“The camera is the ideal arm of consciousness.” —Susan Sontag

Mere scattered light and atoms make photographs. A photograph multiplies the self into another dimension, a rotation in the vector of two objects to create a mirror image of the other. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, the camera allows one to lay claim to another reality. Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco’s collaborative project The Mirror Between Us / O Espelho Entre Nós presents us with questions about female agency in such reality creation.

Today, the general nature of self-representation has become complicated by the full-throttle world of image manufacturing and collection—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, news cycles. We are overburdened with sorting not only pictures but their implied histories and meanings. It is clear that making artistic work is far from the immediacy of a snapshot. So, when we look at the Wiggins/Branco photographs what are we to look for? The subject, easily identified as the artist Wiggins, is a woman of a certain age. Yet, it is in the broader subjects of landscape and nature that the narrative splits from that preconception. Amid lush fields and ancient cork trees, an artisanal past comes forward in idyllic even aggressive presentations of womanhood in nature.

The collaboration between Wiggins and photographer Luís Filipe Branco began in 2015 when Wiggins entered a residency at the rural OBRAS Foundation near Evoramonte in Portugal. Arriving from her home in Boulder, Colorado, Wiggins was already committed to a long-term investigation that she termed Searching Selves, a conceptual process whereby she would delve into the artistic practices of other artists. The aim was to challenge her studio practice by studying then traveling to locations where the artists lived to make work that conceptually spoke about her art and its relationship to those she was excavating. For Wiggins, intellectually and artistically embodying other artist’s work has become a unique methodology to confront ideas about female (re)presentation. At OBRAS, she had chosen to investigate the late Portuguese artist Helena Almeida who, like Wiggins, had a history of making performative photographs.

Two Chairs, at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015, 50 x 75 cm
Two Sherrys at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015, 50 x 75 cm

Initially, Branco came to OBRAS to document Wiggins’ Almeida-adjacent performances. For this work—performance, photographs, drawings—Wiggins entered into an Almeida-like emotional space. Where Almeida sought to arrange the body as a performance of painting, Wiggins would arrange the body against a material structure. Branco’s first photographs of Wiggins show a woman almost dancing on an overblown abstracted red flower designed with fabric. Branco, known as a photojournalist but trained as a fine artist, wanted the chance to make his images using Wiggins in a classical sense as an artist’s model. However, once their work began things quickly changed; the making of images became more of an exchange between the two artists, a mirroring, as seen in Two Chairs, at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015 and Two Sherrys at Herdade da Marmeleira, 2015. Over the following four years, Wiggins/Branco would create five projects with Wiggins in the roles of creative agitator, model, and director and Branco as producer and image-maker. The Mirror Between Us represents work from four of those collaborations all produced in Portugal. The most recent project, inspired by the French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954), began in the Netherlands in 2019 and is planned for production in 2021.

By creating a process of collaboration built on sites and ideas—some of which followed Wiggins continued Searching Selves investigation and others which evolved from their mutual interest in the landscape—Wiggins/Branco have generated several bodies of work largely gripped by issues of feminist presentation. By this I mean, that we cannot look at these photographs without impressing upon them the various histories of how women have been, and are, looked at. To some viewers, the largest consideration might be Wiggins’ age. By examining it, weighing it against notions of youth and beauty, we can see the agency that an older female body can have when captured by the lens against the landscape.

Seat at Evoramonte, 2019, 80 x 120 cm

As we know, the notion of landscape is a modern invention. Historically, it was a word that came to represent the way gentry borrowed views thus cultivating and often stealing both image and land. In this regard, landscape implies acts of aggression, theft of property. The term arose in isolation from a true understanding that woodlands, hills, plains can never be truly owned. Landscape provided the means for nature to be lawfully bartered, traded, occupied. Borrowing a view might seem noble but it also suggests gendered exploitation of boundaries as property rights were for generations the domain of men. We can easily imagine that Seat at Evoramonte, 2019, suggests a kind of occupation by an unwanted figure on someone else’s land or expulsion of the woman in the frame from inside a home to the wilds outside. We see the body in this image precariously situated on a chair that tilts against the horizon with a single, almost skeletal tree, her hair echoing its loosely structural form. Branco has given the image weight by pushing the dynamic between the two objects—body and tree—with a sparseness that relates his work to Portuguese photographer Paulo Nozolino known for high-contrast black and white images with raw yet poetical graphic power.

In the series Outside Woman I & II, 2019, there is a reversal of this historic reading of the feminine body and nature. Until the nineteenth century most women, those without wealth and status, were held captive by domestic roles that led them to be rarely seen unaccompanied outside. Even peering from a window was seen as dangerous; the female body uncontained and being of nature posed a threat to male sexuality and power. In the photographs Outside Woman I & II, the woman is not only literally outside the window but she is draped in sheer flesh-colored fabric seemingly autoerotically possessed, drawing us into a conversation about statuary and ancient goddesses. Aphrodite comes forward but it is pre-Hellenic goddess Astarte in her aspect as the “Queen of the Evening Star,” a goddess of love, who resides in Wiggins’ provocation.

Outside Woman I, 2019, 80 x 120 cm
Outside Woman II, 2019, 80 x 120 cm

A more contemporary view suggests that the female form in Outside Woman I & II, being released from the bondage of domesticity, finds its natural footing unbound in nature while the camera with its implied maleness—to aim and shoot—remains trapped inside. Still, it has to be acknowledged that there is an edge of voyeurism to the images, a tilt of the power toward the lens and its operator. However, the woman appears unaware of the presence of being viewed—being shot—deferring the position of power to an external body of viewership such as us.

The coupling of these two artists—female and male, artist and cameraman—court criticality. Issues of power and sexuality are entwined with any reading of the work. These are issues in this era not to be overlooked. The bargain that is being struck between informed audiences and the image makers is that the work holds value in the presentation of the very ideas and concepts that might be objectionable in feminism; that we can gauge the power that is being brought into question, seeing it lob back and forth between the two artists.

Ultimately, the structure of this collaboration is directed by Wiggins’ incisive pursuit of self through reflection. It becomes evident in the repetitive figuration and performative practice that is being worked. However, Branco’s role is more than one of an absorptive responder, it requires attunement and mediation of technical and ephemeral factors. From Sontag, we also learn, “Photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject.” If this holds, then the images from the Wiggins/Branco collaboration move beyond a gendered platform into a more open conversation about dialogue in artistic practice, something that is often overlooked by a continued interest in the preciousness of production as largely an individualistic form to be codified as genius, even today, and especially in photography. Regardless, the photographs are not moralistic, but more representative of the oft-overlooked subjects—women and age.

Mirror at Santa Susana, 2017, 80 x 120 cm
Dying Waters at Santa Susana, 2017, 80 x 120 cm

This mirroring between the artists lends complexity to the Wiggins/Branco photographs as they are seen against the contemporary gloss of pictures created and consumed today. In Mirror at Santa Susanna, 2017, a woman holds an oval mirror refracting a blot of sunlight. It blinds the viewer from seeing the reflection of the camera lens, the photographer, and the artist in the mirror. This blast of light directs us to look in more detail at the background where arches of an ancient aqueduct run alongside a lake, now almost emptied by severe drought.

Civilizations’ first mirrors were pools of water—ponds, lakes, streams, oceans. Searching for a reflection of self in the surface of water, metal or glass is as ancient as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Yet, even to this day, mirrors like cameras, are seen by some as instruments that trap the soul negating individualism and soulfulness. It is as if the artists have chosen Santa Susannaas a site for their project to speak about its lost abilities as a soul-catcher since a lake without a watery surface is a lake abandoned by its phantasmagorical language. Wiggins/Branco’s Mirror at Santa Susanna bids us examine the connections between Santa Susanna and her lost art of reflection.

Reflection by definition throws back a body or surface of light without absorbing it. What makes us want to see ourselves in such a transitory dimension? Philosopher Jacques Lacan posited that “mirroring” is necessary to the primacy of development. Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage theorized that our earliest recognition of selfhood through reflection creates a way for the individual to define self against the spatial objectness of all that is around us. With the title, The Mirror Between Us, Wiggins/Branco have suggested that a mirror need not be directly situated for self-image. That it is in the middle space, between two objects, two reflections, that we are bound to what is timelessly feminine, axial and a vector, for the self and others.

The last word from Sontag on what appeals to us about looking at such images as those in this grouping and questioning what gives them artistic grounding. “Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age.” She continues by stating, that to look back at a photograph of oneself or of anyone, famed or ordinary, artist or not, “is to feel, first of all, how much younger (she, he) was then.” No matter how long ago the image was made it still sits in the past. This is the experience, putting a gage on mortality, that attracts us to photography in general but it is also what attracts us to The Mirror Between Us, as we are witnessing a historic event, a past encounter, some kind of documentary evidence of the subject’s age made ageless by its photographic transcription.

—Cydney M. Payton

Notes

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). iii-lxx

2. A listing of Wiggins’ project Searching Selves to date, by order of production, includes Russian-American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren; Indian minimalist Nasreen Mohamedi; Portuguese conceptualist Helena Almeida; Brazilian multimedia artist Mira Schendel; and French writer and photographer Claude Cahun.

River in the Mirror, 2017, 80 x 120 cm

This essay occasions The Mirror Between Us / O Espelho Entre Nos, an exhibition of performative photographs by Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco at the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal, April 16-June 4, 2022. The opening is Saturday April 16th at 5 pm.

Other projects by Wiggins/Branco include the exhibitions Meeting Her Again/ Reencontrando-a for the Palacio dos Marqueses de Praia e Monforte, Estremoz, Portugal and Michael Warren Contemporary, Denver, Colorado (2017), Selected Works for The Month of Photography, Redline Contemporary Art Center, Denver (2019), and THE UNKNOWN HEROINE (2021) for Michael Warren Contemporary accompanied by a limited-edition artists book.

SHERRY WIGGINS lives in Boulder, Colorado. Her artistic practice addresses feminist relational processes and enactments. Over three decades her work has taken multiple forms such as drawings, installations, performances, photographs, public art, sculptures, video and writing. Wiggins has exhibited extensively in the U.S. and internationally in Brazil, India, the Middle East, and Portugal to name a few. She is represented by Michael Warren Contemporary in Denver, Colorado.

LUIS FILIPE BRANCO lives in Lisbon, Portugal. Luis began his career as a photojournalist at the Jornal Publico in Lisbon. Since then, Branco has worked as a freelance photographer, documentary filmmaker and fine art photographer collaborating with numerous musicians, poets and visual artists,

CYDNEY M. PAYTON lives in Monterey, California. She is a contemporary art curator and writer.

The artists wish to extend their sincere gratitude to the curators of The Mirror Between Us, Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the Foundation OBRAS in Evormonte, Portugal. In addition, the artists thank the Municipality of Evora and Margarida Branco for providing the beautiful exhibition space in the Igreja de Sao Vicente in the historic center of Evora, Portugal. The artists also extend a special acknowledgement to Joseph Logan for the design of this booklet.

Encarnado, 2017, 120 x 80 cm

Who was Helen— of Troy, of Sparta, an eidolon, an elaborate male construction? – posted in Boulder, CO, March 14 2022

Helen Glorified, c. 1896, Gustave Moreau

I love this painting above by Gustave Moreau of “Helen Glorified.” I have immersed myself in the mythology and representation of the ancient Greek heroine Helen. I have chosen Helen as one of my heroines to study and consider and to soon embody in performative photographs (as I have recently embodied Eve and Salome). I am leaving in a week for Portugal to start my performance and work with Luis Branco on the Greek heroines Aphrodite, Helen and Sappho.  Helen has been portrayed as “the most beautiful woman in the world” from ancient Greek times in countless poems, plays, paintings and artworks throughout history to contemporary times. Helen has also been presented as an original femme fatale— a seductress and enchantress and the main cause of the Trojan war. I am especially fascinated by her portrayal as an eidolon; a phantom, a ghost, a replicant of Helen sent to Troy with Paris while the “real” Helen was sent to Egypt.  I am interested in how this figure / character of Helen has shaped ideas of beauty, sexuality, power and of womanhood in Western European culture. Here I will discuss and post some of the images, text, mythology and critique of Helen that interest me as I try to decipher how the mythos of Helen has helped to shape historical and contemporary notions of female agency or lack thereof.

I introduce a quote from Ruby Blondell, a contemporary classics scholar, on the idea of female power in ancient Greek culture as it relates to Helen:

“Female power poses notorious problems for ancient Greek culture. Because Greek ideology and cultural practice both place severe restrictions on female agency, it is difficult for women to exercise power without transgressing the norms constituted to regulate their behaviour. Since the control of female sexuality lies at the heart of these norms, sex—more specifically, the active female pursuit of an object of desire — is typically implicated in women’s transgressions and hence in the danger posed by the female as such. Insofar as female danger is wrapped up with sexual transgression, then, so is female power. And insofar as sex is bound,up with beauty, Helen of Troy — by definition the most beautiful woman of all time — is, also the most dangerous of women. Her godlike beauty grants her supreme erotic power over men, a power that resulted in what was, in Greek eyes, the most devastating war of all time.”

  • Ruby Blondell “‘Third Cheerleader from the left’: from Homer’s Helen to Helen of Troy”
Leda and the Swan – bas relief, c. 50 – 100 AD, British Museum

Mythos and legend (and violence and lust) surround Helen a plenty. She is said to have been born a daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus. Her mother was generally considered to have been queen Leda, the mortal wife of the king of Sparta, Tyndareus. Zeus took the form of a giant swan and in some stories befriended and seduced Leda, in other stories raped Leda. Leda bore a giant egg from which Helen came forth. In other versions the goddess of divine retribution Nemesis, in bird form, is named as Helen’s mother still with Zeus the father and the egg was then given to Leda to hatch. There are several other important children born of this mythical egg. I prefer the story of Zeus taking the form of a swan (a symbol in ancient Greece of; light, transformation, intuition and grace) and then seducing the Spartan queen Leda. Alternately, in Greek literature and myth, the gods are always having their way with mortal women. In any case there is a beautiful bird, a god and a goddess, a queen, a possible rape or seduction and a giant egg involved in the conception of Helen.

The gods and goddesses (and Aphrodite and Helen specifically) are also involved in one of the presumed reasons for the Trojan war. In the story of the “Judgement of Paris” the handsome prince of Troy, Paris, is asked to judge / choose the most beautiful of the three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. All three goddesses offered Paris various bribes—Aphrodite offered Paris “the most beautiful woman in the world” Helen of Sparta. Paris gives the beauty prize (a golden apple) to Aphrodite and ultimately Paris goes off to find Helen. This story is memorialized in the painting below by Peter Paul Rubens. There are many repercussions from this original beauty contest . . .

The Judgement of Paris, c. 1636, Peter Paul Rubens

What happens next has been told in many different versions in ancient Greece texts and throughout the millennia. The famed Trojan war, if it ever really happened, would have taken place around the 12th century BC. The ancient Greek poet Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey sometime around the 8th century BC. Homer writes of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey in one of her earliest portrayals, though much was already known about Helen in Greece at that time. The Iliad takes place during the 10th  and final  year of the Trojan War and Homer places Helen there. It is not clear how Helen came to Troy; did Helen fall in love with the handsome Paris and leave her husband and country for her lover? or did Paris abduct and or rape Helen and take her to Troy? This is never made clear—is she a treacherous slut or a hapless victim? I vote the treacherous slut, at least she has some power and choice in the situation.

And what did Helen really look like?

Female or Goddess Head from Mycenae, Greece, c. 1300 – 1250 BC, National Archeological Museum, Athens
Helen of Troy, c. 1898, Evelyn De Morgan

And did she go happily or was she abducted /raped?

The Loves of Paris and Helen, c. 1788, Jacques-Louis David
The Rape of Helen, c. 1533 – 1535, attributed to the circle of Francesco Primaticcio

In this story of love and seduction and/ or rape and abduction Helen is taken to Troy and suffers through the epic 10 year-long Trojan War (hated by most everyone). Paris is killed and many many others die and ultimately the forces of Menelaus (Agamemnon, Odysseus et all) deal a final blow to Troy with the Trojan horse ploy. Helen survives the war. Menelaus enters into the burning remains of Troy to kill her but is so struck by her beauty (and apparently her breasts) that he drops his sword and takes her back to Sparta. In Homer’s  Odyssey Helen is back as the queen of Sparta and she and Menelaus seem to be ok.

Recovery of Helen by Menelaus, Attic black figure amphora from Vulci, c. 550 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

The ancient Greek author Euripides in his play Helen (and several other ancient and modern authors) tell an alternate version of Helen’s locus and behavior during the Trojan War. Euripides tells the story that the goddess Hera was upset by the “Judgement of Paris” (when Paris declared Aphrodite the most beautiful). Hera created an eidolon, a phantom, a replicant of Helen and had the messenger god Hermes whisk the “real” Helen off to Egypt.  The Helen who escaped with Paris, betraying her husband and her country and initiating the ten-year conflict in Troy, was actually an eidolon, a ghost, a look-alike. In Euripides play, the “real” Helen stays seventeen long years in Egypt remaining loyal to her husband Menelaus. The “real” Helen remains virtuous and true. The phantom Helen, the eidolon, the virtual Helen (who by the way breathes and has sex) is the treacherous slut who runs off with Paris to Troy and suffers the 10 year Trojan war. I love this idea of the double Helen, it speaks to the concept that Helen is really a construction, an idea (created by men). The idea of Helen exemplifies these constrasting values placed on women of virtue and fidelity versus sexual proclivity and treachery. Many of Gustave’s Moreaus’s paintings allude to this eidolon of Helen at Troy.

Study of Helen, c. 1890, Gustave Moreau
Helen at the Scaean Gate, c. 1888, Gustave Moreau

And lastly, I look to contemporary conceptual artist Eleanor Antin and her project “Helen’s Odyssey.” Eleanor Antin is a feminist fairy godmother artist for me and I admire her work tremendously, she is 87 years old now and still going strong. In her 2007 major project “Helen’s Odyssey,” Antin constructed elaborate photo tableu’s depicting various scene’s from Helen’s mythological life. Antin depicts two Helens also; one a blonde kind of ditsy fun loving Helen and the other a dark and more demonic Helen. The image I love most of all in this series is the image titled “Constructing Helen,” where various tiny male artists (poets, sculptors, painters, writers) construct a giant sculpture of Helen laying prone in all her glorious beauty. Of course, this alludes to the eidolon of Helen, the mirage of Helen, the idea of Helen, the art of Helen and her construction as a giant male fantasy.

The Judgement of Paris, c. 2007, Eleanor Antin
The Construction of Helen, c. 2007, Eleanor Antin

And I am off to Portugal March 21st to create my version, my embodiment of Helen.