Azure, cobalt, cerulean. Ochre of the earth and of limestone, a fragment of white marble blinking ferociously into the sunlight. Long shadows, jagged cliffs. Olive green and pale rose. One more week of August, but Summer still reigns in glorious Cyprus colour palettes. There is still time to take off, be a culture vulture or a beach bum. And on every adventure, out of the corner of the eye, an oleander: white, garnet, peach or pink, the quintessential flower of Cyprus. Unwilting in heatwaves, and forgiving of negligence. Anthropomorphised as heroine in distress, and sung of in medieval ballads. Deceivingly fresh looking, and treacherously toxic. Rosebay or Rhododaphne in greek, Arodaphne in the local dialect. Nerium Oleander, the laurel-rose of the ancients.
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.
A ship sails into shore, a rusty well pulley moans A blue plume of smoke on the rosy horizon The image of a crane’s broken wing Armies of swallows await to welcome the brave Bare arms raised with anchors tattooed in the armpits …
And a distant church bell saturates the sky with indigo
Amorgos, by Nikos Gatsos, 1943*
I’m glad I’ve been keeping sketchbooks. I wish I had painted more of these, but I am never going to wish I’d painted fewer. Some were done in cheap children’s water colours, some in fancy W&N. They are mostly from summers in the Aegean, and some from Cyprus. Here’s hoping the marine theme will get me in holiday mood. Two more days of school, for us teachers! Unwinding is a long process…
The translation of the poem (fragment) by Gatsos is my own. It’s from the rather long poem Amorgos. I couldn’t find the lines I wanted to quote online, so I translated as it suited me. Some of the vignettes here are scenes from Amorgos, the island. The cubist villages, geometric pigeon coops and stark whitewash around cobblestones,
…the eyes of the seaweed are turned to the sea …
Big black sea with so many pebbles around your neck, so many gems in your hair*
I am not even going to qualify the above statement: I don’t care how talented, or whether there’s some hierarchy; creativity is part of human nature, some might say our most defining trait. We are not born skilled, this is why education is needed.
I am having these thoughts as I watch my students take their last exams. With one eye on the blue Mediterranean — 27°C today and the beach just a stroll away!— and the other on their concentrating faces, if I could distill an essence, it would be this: Stay Original!
Art education helps in this, when it instills the things it’s supposed to:
Refusal to accept the first solution as the best solution. This is the quintessence of a creative life. To approach the same problem from another angle, and another, and another. Not just the opposite of Learning by Rote – it’s very annihilation! Amen.
Organisation of projects and of self, understanding that creating is a process, and planning it out– what a life skill! I know many adults who will never grasp this. Courage in self-presentation and therefore accountability: if you are going to show your work and/or speak about it, you need to be able to justify your process. The rewards of accepting good or bad criticism are invaluable to a person’s emotional intelligence and growth.
Eschew the Copy-Paste Mentality. It’s almost embarassing to repeat this, because it really should be covered by the other two points, but we live in a world where access online is practically a human right, and we need to understand the responsibilities that follow. The internet is a tool; we are the craftsman. We cannot blame it, disclaim it, or abuse it. Everyone goes online for help, verification, inspiration. We are still responsible for how we present to the world!
Graduates! Though they may try to stifle you, mislead you by example, swamp you with questionable facts and methods: Stay true, stay original, stay creative!
What an intense month it’s been (obviously not in my blogging activity, as you may have noticed)! I know I should be blogging about summer, and the beach, but soon enough. I’ll get to it!
Sping has been super busy -as usual- full of projects, paperwork as well as the Easter break. Catching up just as it is about to expire, here is one of the things that has kept us busy: a project we had been working with in my class of seniors (17-18 yrs).
Our piece began as an attempt to cut down costs: we couldn’t afford supplies, but wanted something large and three-dimensional. Using recycled materials isn’t just better for the earth, it’s cheap, and the materials are readily available.
Drawing from previous experience, we came up with the idea of creating animals out of plastic bottles and papier mache. We were given the subject “Bridging Cultures”, for which horses and their relationship to humankind seemed the obvious leap (no pun intended). Gradually we thought of a board to anchor the pieces to, so the idea of a modified chessboard came about, with horses form Art History painted in the squares. We kept the pieces to a minimum, with a castle (or rook), a pawn and a queen.
The art history influences were: cave paintings, pottery from the Archaic period in Cyprus and Greece, the Parthenon Marbles, Byzantine icons, Nordic carvings and Degas! The model for our Rook (formerly a large juice container) was Kolossi and other Cyprus castles. Our Queen was inspired by various paintings, and was meant to allude to any one of the queens of Cyprus, actual or legendary.
Plastic parts were put together with duct tape. Recycled printer paper was glued in strips to create volume, magazine paper and tissue paper for more delicate work. Tissue paper is excellent for creating a “skin” on top of the finished horses. The painting was done in acrylics, our only luxury!