An old tobacco factory

I am aware I have been absent for a while, the summer has been unusually busy and I lacked inspiration. However, I did manage to take in a few exhibitions, and I will now regale you with some art—beats news of wars, wildfires, hurricanes and funerals, which I’m sure everyone has had enough of.

I’m always on the lookout for new exhibitions curated by NEON, a nonprofit organization that works to bring contemporary culture closer to the public. In the past they have put on many interesting shows, in locations that one rarely gets to visit. I have written about them before. (here, and here.)

The exhibitions are usually excellent, so I went to their latest one, in an old tobacco factory in downtown Athens.

 

The Greek Public Tobacco Factory, in the area of Kolonos, was the second public tobacco factory in Athens. It was built by the Greek State at the time when the cigarette manufacturing industry was booming. The idea was to house the tobacco processing and packaging companies as well as the tobacco traders’ warehouses with the main purpose of fully controlling tobacco taxation. In its heyday it employed around 3000 workers, and included a customs office, a restaurant for the employees, as well as a house for the guardian of the building.

Today, the old building has been entirely renovated by NEON, who financed the work and gifted it back to the state for public use, as a permanent cultural and social space, while a significant portion is currently occupied by the Hellenic Parliament’s Library and Printing House.

The building itself was interesting, painted on the outside cheerful red and yellow ochre, with a large courtyard paved with flagstones.

 

However, the art was, in my opinion, underwhelming. The exhibition was entitled ‘Dream On,’ because ‘Large-scale intallations is where artists go when they want to make their dreams come true.’

Of course art is subjective, and I do like contemporary art, including installations, but the ones in this exhibition mostly left me cold.

 


A car spilling its guts out in the courtyard.

By  John Bock, it is described as ‘the surreal combination of an American vintage car giving birth to a mutated octopus (or squid).


A Credit Card Destroying Machine, by  Michael Landy. This had various complicated meanings which I find too boring to allude to (referring to ‘the death knell of the consumerist society’),
 but  delighted the six-year-old who accompanied us. I suppose it is pretty cool, in a funfair kind of way. The visitor is required to sacrifice a valid credit card—this went through a mechanism that produced an abstract drawing.

 

A car, covered in pine needles, by Martha Dimitropoulou, who has ‘reconstructed that paragon of consumer culture, the Mercedes-Benz, into a different life.’

 


These are called Piss Flowers, by Helen Chadwick


However, there is always something to like, and in my case it was the drawings of a wave, by Alexandros Psychoulis—studies for an installation using plastic cord.

I thought the result was very interesting—of course in my personal opinion.

Party time!

Word press has lately informed me of my 7th blogging anniversary. Who would have thought the years would go by so fast? (At least in blogging terms…) Of course I knew it was seven years, because I started the blog during the big—and continuing—crisis we had in Greece in 2015. New readers can read all about it in this post. And some of the following ones.

June 2015: my friends from abroad kept calling to find out what was happening, we were spending a horrible summer stuck in front of the TV. I thought, rather than keep repeating things to each one, I would try and put it down in writing. After a while, I decided I did not always want to talk about the bad news and difficulties,  I also wanted to present the ‘good’ side of Greece—seeing as we were being stigmatised in the press, branded as a nation of feckless tax evaders, and worse.

Although we obviously were not without fault, it has since become apparent to many people that Greece got the short end of the stick, and a whole nation was made to suffer, and is still suffering, because of the usual misguided political and economic schemes and interests of more powerful countries.

 

I have been, since university, very pro Europe, but I confess I have been sadly disappointed. How a bunch of highly qualified (supposedly) and highly paid (by the taxpayer) people managed to make such a mess of things, beats me. And they are still doing it—viz their handling of the refugee situation.

Despite all this, I still feel a united Europe is  a good thing, in order to pull its weight with the huge empires that are the USA, China and Russia. 

To come back to the blog, it will not have escaped the notice of older readers that I have been writing less often of late. Well, I lead a very busy life, shared between Greece and France, since we have had to make big changes due to the above-mentioned crisis. So, my days are full: and, besides work, I have been doing a lot of drawing and painting, as most of you know—and writing, about which you don’t, since I never put any of it on the blog. I also volunteer for two refugee organisations in Greece, which I have not talked about yet—but maybe I will in future, since it has been a most interesting, although often heartbreaking, challenge.

Therefore the blog has taken a back seat, and not only because of the above.  The fact is, I have not been feeling very inspired: the situation, both in Greece and worldwide, is depressing, and who wants to hear any more about it? We read enough in the papers. Art is a solace, but I am wary of overload.


I admit there are days when I have thought of giving up the blog, but what keeps me going is you guys, my dear readers and bloggy friends. Over those seven years there are people who have stuck with me through thick and thin (Yes, you, Pete, Goeff, Jennie, Franklin, Anne, Derrick, Bruce, Deborah, Ellen, Eha, Bea, Mick, Sue, Jacqui, Anne, Kate, Tialys, Mona, Jack, Willowdot, Mariella, Pamela—and countless others). I could not bear to lose touch with you, or stop following your own blogs and exchanging remarks and comments. Also here I must mention the few who have, in the course of those years, sadly left us—I think of them often.

So thanks, everyone, keep checking in, and let me know if there are things you particular want me to write about. In return, and since this is, after all, an anniversary, I offer you cake!

Tuscan painting trip

An old friend whose husband is Italian organised a painting trip at their house in Tuscany and I got an invitation which I could not, as one can imagine, refuse. The house is on remote hillside near Pisa, with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. This was still mostly green, with patches of yellow slashed by the dark green spears of cypress trees. The weather was brilliant throughout.

 

 

Sketchbook drawing

The painting experience was spread over two weeks, in order to accommodate all aspiring artist friends, and sadly on the days I was there, the artist who was to teach us was absent—leaving me in the position of being the most experienced guest.

Still life on the terrace

However, while I did not get the opportunity to learn from someone else as I had hoped to do, it was so much fun to paint—and eat—with others in such beautiful surroundings that I really could not complain.

One day we took the opportunity to drive to Florence, where we went around the Palazzo Pitti. I had visited this museum years ago and I can report that nothing has been done to it since. With the new style of curating now prevalent, I found it extremely old fashioned. Rows and rows of dark paintings of the Virgin Mary against a wallpaper of dark red stripes. More rows of Allegories in the next room. Rows of portraits of unattractive people. Heavy frames with the names of the artists on tiny bronze plaques—I had to lean right in to be able to read them and, every time I did so, I set off the alarm!

However, the views from the windows were stunning.

Florence rooftops seen from the Palazzo Pitti windows

We went through a multitude of rooms, one after the other, badly lit and even more badly ventilated, which tired me out and made it hard to seek out the treasures—for, of course, the Palazzo Pitti is full of treasures-

 

-such as frescoes to die for around the ceilings, and, above all, the incomparable Titians.

 


After lunch in a small tratoria hidden away in a side street, we walked in the Bardini Gardens.

And I cannot finish this post without a mention of the food—Italian food being, to my taste, the pinnacle of deliciousness.

A view of the Ponte Vecchio
Another hillside

In Dublin’s fair city

Dublin is a lovely city. On a recent short trip I walked around the Merrion Square park, which was full of wonderful spring flowers. A cheeky sculpture of Oscar Wilde sits atop a large rock.

Oscar Wilde Memorial (1997) by Danny Osborne

Luckily I had time to visit the National Gallery, but only the ground floor—still, there was some beautiful art to be seen.

Here’s a few highlights:

Large panels by Hughie O’Donoghue


This monumental work is called Original Sins, and was presented as part of the the National Gallery’s contribution to the Decade of Centenaries. It comprises six large panels in mixed media (paint, photo trace, industrial tarpaulin), which the artist likes to compare to tapestry.

 

I found a detail of this portrait of Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte by Thomas Frye fascinating: namely the powder which has fallen from his wig onto the shoulders of his coat.

Detail


The Opening of the Sixth Seal, by Francis Danby, looks like a scene from The Lord of the Rings!

I put the photos of the wonderful stained glass works by Evie Hone and Michael Healy RHA  into a previous post

 

Finally, an absolutely stunning sculpture by young artist Joseph Walsh. It was made from olive ash, and even from close, the seams in the wood were invisible. You can tell the scale of it by the person standing beside it. I would love to visit hos studio and see how he does it—he also makes furniture. 

The park was full of tulips

A lovely Greek Easter



Greeks love Easter—even the agnostics and atheists. The rites surrounding it are lovely, at a time of the year when nature is at its best.

The culmination of a week of special church services is the mass celebrating the resurrection, at midnight on the saturday. Unfortunately, at most churches celebrations are riotous, with fireworks and crackers going off even during the service—and cars going past sounding their horns.

Thus we were delighted to discover a completely different atmosphere at a nearby church where we’d never been before. Families and friends had gathered and small children ran about despite the late hour. Everyone sang together.


The holy light passes from one candle to another, and each family carries one lit candle home, to bless their house.

And of course, Easter involves lots of food: lamb cooked in a variety of ways, red eggs to be cracked against each other, a special sweet bread called tsoureki. (I had wriiten about Easter customs in a previous post:

https://athensletters.com/2016/05/01/celebrating-greek-easter/.)

To all Greek friends, Χριστός Ανέστη.

Happy Easter

For Easter, let me share images of lovely stained glass panels seen in the National Gallery in Dublin (more about this in a future post). They will put you in the right mood.

 

This is a detail from the work below, by Michael Healy RHA (Dublin, 1873-1941)

 

The works below are by Evie Hone (Dublin 1894-1955)

So modern for her time.

The work above is titled Resurrection, so very apt for Easter.

Greek Easter is next week, but this post is for all of you, whatever your beliefs or geographical location.

Happy Easter!

Drawing

On Mondays I attend an art workshop, where, appart from the creativity, there is good conversation to be had, in a congenial atmosphere. Art is soothing, it distracts from the harsher realities of life (i.e. the news).

Lately we have been doing pencil drawing, which is interesting since it obliges you to look closely at the subject, whether live, or taken from a photo or a painting—and notice multiple intriguing details of light, volume and texture.

 

We started with studies of hands, from Renaissance paintings. It is amazing what beautiful hands these men had—I prefer men’s hands to women’s, because they have more character. Women’s hands in paintings of this era are softer and more bland, I suppose to denote their owners had no need to do manual work.


The study below is from a photo of a 17th century sculpture by Bernini, The 
rape of Proserpina, which depicts the abduction of Proserpina by the god Pluto . I can never get my mind around the way these sculptors managed, out of a block of marble, to produce something so closely resembling human flesh. Again, his hands are beautiful, at odds with the violence of the scene (he was dragging her to the underworld).

The photo below is different from the one I used, which was black and white and taken from another angle, but it shows the likeness of stone to flesh even better.

Photo: Wikipedia


We progressed to a human figure, and I chose the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who I’ve had the privilege to watch live, in the magical setting of the ancient Herodotus Atticus theater in Athens,  under a rising moon (here). He really could defy gravity, like Nureyev and Baryshnikov.

 

Then a still life, trying to reproduce volume as well as shape.

 

Now we are onto portraits, and my first is of the pre-Raphaelite artist Marie Spartali Stillman. She was the daughter of a wealthy Greek merchant who was the Greek Consul-General in London. Her mother was also Greek and she was early on introduced to an artistic milieu. She studied with Ford Maddox Brown but, due to her beauty, also sat for many famous artists, including her mentor and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. She produced an oeuvre of 150 works.

 

Next on my list are the writer Margaret Atwood and the actor Tilda Swinton. Both have, in my opinion, very interesting faces, which defy mere beauty. Stay tuned.

 

Collateral damage

The  papers these days make for grim reading. The war in Ukraine is raging, with scenes familiar to us from WWII films. Rubble everywhere, dead bodies, crowds of civilians trying to flee. Endless talk of sanctions, strategies, freezing of assets…

Beyond all this, there already are huge collateral damages. Family left behind: the grandparents who are unwilling, or unable, to travel—and in such conditions. Do you stay, or prioritise your children? Animals left behind: we keep seeing people clutching a dog or a cat, but what do you do with a large dog, who does not fit in the car with four adults and their suitcases? Turn him out in the street? What do you do if you have horses? Or goats and cows?

At least spring is here

Large European companies with offices in Moscow were warned by their governments to close them within days. Some had hundreds of employees, who have been fired at a moment’s notice. Even the oligarchs’ super-yatchs that were seized had crews, who will now perhaps not be paid. And there is a long supply chain of businesses who will take a hit.

I even read an article of people who were finally picking up a child they had adopted, only to be stranded in a war zone.

European countries are proudly talking about increasing their defence budget. So more of our taxes will go to guns and missiles instead of food and housing for the poor, or improving the roads…

Inspiration

And another kind of collateral damage: the refugees from non-european countries have now found themselves at the back of the queue again. Someone else has stolen the limelight, dim as it was in the first place.

It is not good news

I haven’t written a post in a while, because all I had to write about was the marvelous art exhibitions I’ve seen, and I didn’t want to have an overload of those (in case you all started rolling your eyes!)

Mixed media painting. Detail

And now, everything is overshadowed by the situation in the Ukraine. It beggars belief that this is happening so close to us. Children in schools are talking of a third world war. 

However, one must not forget that this is one more war in a series of wars. Syria or Afghanistan might seem further to us, but people are people, all over the world. When my Afghan student said to me, ‘I can’t concentrate today, because the Taliban are in my village and there’s fighting in the streets,’ he was no different than any of us would be in the same situation. A few days later his mum, dad and two little brothers moved to safety in Kabul—then Kabul fell. I still live in dread of bad news every time I talk to him.

Mixed media painting. Detail

 

The Bosnian wars, if anyone remembers them, only ended in 1995.  At the time I knew various people in Greece, both Serbs and Croats, whose relatives at home were watching bridges being bombed from their kitchen windows. Who knows how many friends and relatives they lost.

 

 

What is it about men and guns? And why is always some megalomaniac allowed to rule?

This is already resulting in more population movement, more refugees, more children who suffer.

 


Meanwhile, I was shocked by photos of people being denied access to trains going to Poland because—unbelievable—they are black. Are we still in the 21st century?

 

Pencil study of Bernini sculpture, The rape of Proserpine

There is some consolation to be found in poetry:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. ”

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Botticelli’s women

The Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris was a family house for years, having been created from the private home of Édouard André (1833–1894) and Nélie Jacquemart (1841–1912) to display the art they collected during their lives.

Edouard André, the scion of a Protestant banking family, devoted his considerable fortune to buying works of art. He married a well-known society painter, Nélie Jacquemart, who had painted his portrait 10 years earlier. Every year, the couple would travel around Italy, amassing one of the finest collections of Italian art in France. After his death, Nélie bequeathed the mansion and its collections to the Institut de France as a museum, and it opened to the public in 1913.

Madonna Campana by Alessandro Filipepi called Botticelli

It is a lovely, intimate space, reached via a courtyard hidden behind large dark green wooden doors. It holds eclectic exhibitions and the current one, of works by Botticelli (1445-1510) exceeded expectations.

Botticelli painted wonderful society portraits.

Portrait of Julien de Medici, commemorating his assassination in 1478

A master painter of the Renaissance in Italy, Botticelli’s career attests to the economic development and profound changes that transformed the rule of the Medicis.

Portrait of warrior and poet Michele Marullo Tarcaniota, who died by drowning when he fell from his horse while crossing a river

Botticelli excelled in painting women, whether as different incarnations of the Virgin Mary, or depicting allegorical goddesses such as the famous Venus Anadyomene painting (which is at the Uffizzi Palace in Florence.)

Madonna de Guidi de Faenza

There are few people to touch him for the purity of his lines or the expression in the eyes of those lovely faces.

Madonna al libro

Perhaps it is just me, but I tend to find, in images of the Virgin, that the artist always catches the right expression of purity combined with maternal love in the mother, but the baby Jesus always looks disgruntled, like a little old man with an infant’s body. This is true in Byzantine icons, too.

Allegorical figure of La Bella Simonetta. Made a few years after her death.

And of course, those wonderful nudes depicting Venus. The black background brings out the luminosity of the subject.

Botticelli made a few, all different.

 

Something I didn’t know is that, in later years, Botticelli came under the influence of the monk Savonarola, and that gave his work a not-so-pleasant dimension. Of course, by then he was old for the standards of the age, and perhaps he could not see very well, so much of the work was made by assistants.

The details of this painting are so much coarser that it is almost a shock

As a whole, an exhibition to fill one with joy. There were many little treasures to discover, such as drawings on silk, or this little jewel, a small panel, part of a series.