A small but fascinating exhibition is currently on at the Benaki Museum, in Athens, of the kind that really should happen more often. “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed lives in Greece” explores the friendship and shared love of Greece and everything greek, of three important creative figures in the post-war years, spanning over half a century, during time spent on Hydra, Corfu, Crete and in Kardamyli, Mani, between the Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and his British friends Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton.
Ghika first met writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and painter John Craxton in London in 1945. Leigh Fermor, or Paddy to his friends, was already at home in Greece. Also known as “The Man who Walked” – for having walked through much of Europe at age 18, in the ’30s – he had ended up spending a long sojourn in Greece, to which he returned as a Para major in World War II. A public school drop-out, a peripatetic polyglot, a back-packer before it was even a notion, and a war hero on Crete, where he masterminded and executed the kidnapping of the German commander, his writings on Greece show an astonishing understanding of the place and people, and a willingness to explain them to the world that is both illuminating and unapologetic.
Soon he would cross paths with many of Athens’ intellectuals, both the locals as well as their Anglo-American associates: Durrell, Seferis,Henry Miller, George Katsimbalis (the Colossus of Maroussi), Steven Runciman to name but the most prominent. In a way, it was through this circle that Greece was able to re-imagine itself in the post-war years. The Saronic isle of Hydra played a key role, as the ancestral home of Ghika and a dazzling hotspot for local and foreign intellectuals. Paddy called it a source of joy, and used his friend’s house as a refuge for a couple of years while writing his tome on Mani.
Ghika has been called a cubist, but I have always thought his work only became cubist because his island was. There is a lot of light in his work, and a delicate atmosphere. I suppose what he shares with other cubists is the way he creates a visual vocabulary. There is lore there, but without the folkiness. Craxton shared a similar sensitivity, and the interplay between the two painters is evident.
Later Leigh Fermor created his own private paradise in Kardamyli, Mani, a place I visited while he was still alive, though I did not catch a glimpse of him. Ghika was so enchanted by the place that he would paint landscapes there, and also provided some of the art that decorates the house that Paddy and wife Joan built together. John Craxton was Joan’s close friend, and when he visited he instantly fell in love with Greece. Craxton also followed this pattern of first using Ghika’s Hydra house as a haven until the time he discovered his own slice of heaven, in Hania, Crete. Their 50-year friendship proved enduring and creative. Shared by family, friends and guests from abroad these houses were idylls, and individual private universes, and arenas for the meeting of minds. When the family property on Hydra was destroyed by fire, Ghika transformed an old olive press into a home, in Sinies, Corfu to enjoy with his friends.
The exhibition was funded by the Leventis Gallery here in Nicosia, where I saw it. It is currently on at the Benaki Museum in Athens, and I believe will be in London this fall. Well worth a visit.