The Morozov art collection

It was a great treat to visit the Morozov Collection at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The show, presented for the first time outside Russia, includes some 300 impressionist, post-impressionist and expressionist masterpieces amassed at the turn of the 20th century by the vastly wealthy Russian brothers Mikhail and Ivan Morozov,  before being swept away by the Russian Revolution.

 

Paul Gauguin

The brothers, born in 1870 and 1871 respectively, were the great-grandsons of a serf. With five rubles from his wife’s dowry, their ancestor set up a ribbon workshop, which he developed into a factory, and bought his family’s freedom. In a few generations, the family became wealthy, philanthropic industrialists.

 

Edvard Munch

Besides being fabulously wealthy, the brothers had very avant garde tastes, and built up the stunning collection which includes works by Russian as well as French artists. At the turn of the last century, the upper social echelon in Russia spoke French and the Morozov brothers created their collection on the advice of Parisian dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. Mikhail, who died prematurely from a heart attack at the age of 33, discovered Bonnard’s work in Paris and acquired the first paintings by Gauguin to enter Russia.

 

Picasso from the Rose period

His brother Ivan took over the family business, abandoning his dreams of becoming a painter, and kept adding more French impressionists, post-impressionists and Fauvists to the collection, his favourite artist being Cézanne. In 1912, he commissioned Bonnard to decorate the staircase of his opulent Moscow residence, resulting in wonderfully luminous panels.

 

At the same time, he became close to Russian artists of his generation who advised him on his acquisitions and contributed their own works to the collection. I discovered with great pleasure and admiration the lovely portraits by Valentin Sérov, a painter I did not know.

 

Valentin Sérov


In a twist worthy of fiction, it all ended with the Communist revolution of 1917 in Russia. Ivan was reduced to being ‘assistant curator’ of his own collection and his home became a state museum.

 

Claude Monet

In 1918, the Morozov manufacturing company, whose real estate value was estimated at 26 million rubles, was taken over by the state and later that year the collection of artworks was nationalised by official decree.

 

Matisse

In the summer of 1919, Ivan and his family secretly crossed the border to Finland and then emigrated to Switzerland. He died in Germany at the age of 49.

 

Van Gogh


When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, the paintings were sent to be hidden in the Ural Mountains, where they stayed fairly well-preserved by temperatures that often fell to -40 degrees.

 

Bonnard

It wasn’t until 1950s that the Soviet government decided to redistribute them among the Hermitage, Tretyakov and Pushkin museums.

 

Bonnard. The visitors give an idea of the scale of the work

One of the most unexpected paintings in the exhibition is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Prison Courtyard (1890), which he made while in the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence psychiatric hospital. The artist’s brother Theo had sent him a photograph of Gustave Doré’s drawing of a London prison’s courtyard which Van Gogh reinterpreted into a primarily greenish blue-hued painting, the conditions of the prisoners echoing his own

And finally, two more portraits, a self portrait by Alexander Golovine,

and a portrait of Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, which features one of his paintings by Matisse in the background.

Down memory lane: Sports Day

Since our school didn’t possess the necessary facilities, our annual sports day was held at the Athens Tennis Club, on one of the clay courts, which had a ‘grandstand’ from which the parents could admire their offspring.

For this occasion we wore white shorts and a white T-shirt, on which the letter of our class—Α, Β, Γ, Δ, and so on—had to be sewn by the mothers using blue ribbon. Every year we were issued with detailed instructions regarding the dimensions of this letter: the exact width of the ribbon, the height and width of the letter and its position in the middle of our chest. Each year most parents totally disregarded these instructions, so that some kids had a tiny letter attached to their left shoulder, some had a huge one going from neck to waist, and so on. No two T-shirts looked the same! My mother, needless to say, obeyed the instructions to the letter, and we were the proud wearers of the perfect specimen.

First there was a display of Greek folk dancing—for girls only—for which we pulled a blue skirt on over our shorts. Each class formed a circle, supposedly led by the best dancer. In our case, however, since both my sister and I were very tall for our age, and it would have looked strange to place us in the middle of the circle, we were made to lead our respective class, despite our evident lack grace and talent.

My mother, stifling laughter, once overheard the following conversation, between two ladies sitting in the row in front of her.

‘Why are classes Α and Γ led by older girls?’

‘They can’t be older, they have the same letter on their T-shirts as the others.’

‘Actually, I’ve heard there are two sisters in the school who are huge. It must be them.’

After the dancing, we pulled our skirts off and were joined by the boys to do basic gymnastics. Some of the exercises meant our backs came into contact with the clay court, so that when we stood up our back view was covered in red clay.

 

After the show was over, we were all treated to sour cherry ice lollies dispensed by a little man with an icebox on the front of his bike. These rapidly melted in the heat and dripped down our front—so that a little later, in the streets around the Tennis Club, groups of parents could be spotted going home with children who were plastered with red clay down the back, and stained red down the front.

Fire…

A terrible catastrophe is taking place in Greece, where a large number of wildfires, caused by the worst heatwave in years, are destroying the natural environment to an unprecedented extent, while also causing untold damage to personal and state property.

The fires are raging in the suburbs of Athens, where they have destroyed the pine forests of Varibobi and Tatoi, up the slopes of Mount Parnitha,  on the island of Euboea and elsewhere.

Photo Reuters

The situation is still at this moment far from being brought under control. Our neighbouring Turks are also fighting serious fires, so we are unable to come to each other’s assistance as we would normally do. Both countries have even been obliged to enlist the help of civilians. However, we have had assistance from Cyprus, France, Roumania, Sweden, Croatia and others, who have sent planes, helicopters and firefighters.

I will not go into details, which can be read in any newspaper. I would just like to express my gratitude to the firefighters; it is a real hero’s job in the worst possible conditions, especially since there are strong winds making everything inconceivably harder.

Wildfires have got much worse worldwide in recent years, which should certainly give us cause for thought. It is lamentable that governmental reaction to obvious phenomena is so slow, and always led by political and financial considerations rather than public benefit. The destruction of nature is really the saddest thing.

The passing of a music legend

ITolis Voskopoulos (Τόλης Βοσκόπουλος) who has passed away aged 81, was one of the legends of modern Greek music.

Born to immigrant parents from Asia Minor, he was the 12th child and first boy in his family. His father, a well-known and popular greengrocer in the working-class neighborhood of Kokkinia, was so overjoyed to get a boy after so many attempts that he immediately changed the sign on his shop to ‘Haralambos Voskopoulos & Son.’

Tolis grew up following his father everywhere: in the street markets, at the shop, and observing his business dealings. However, he felt early on that the job was not for him and, aged 15, found the courage to tell his father that he wanted to be an actor. He expected to be ‘slaughtered,’ but his father just said, ‘Let’s go.’ He took him to be enrolled in the National Odeon of Manolis Kalomiris, which taught music and drama. It was the first time Tolis had left his neighbourhood and he was awestruck to see Athens.

He learned to play the bouzouki, got married at 20 for the first time and quickly found tremendous fame because of his looks, empathy with his public and attractive voice. He was called The Prince by his many admirers.

 

He wrote songs (both the lyrics and music) that he included in his personal albums but that were also performed by other artists, most famously his duet with Marinella “Me and you” in 1974 which made record sales and is still sung today. He collaborated with a wide range of the best Greek artists of his time, including George Zabetas, Akis Panou, Mimis Plessas and many others.

 

As an actor, he starred in multiple films including the 1974 hit ‘Oi Erastes tou Oneirou’ (Dream Lovers) opposite Zoe Laskari, with whom he had a torrid affair, and who remained close to him thereafter.

 

Among his admirers he counted people from all walks of life, from the world of working-class neighborhoods to the financial elite of shipowners and industrialists, and of course the late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

Tolis Voskopoulos was adored and surrounded by women—he married four times, his last wife being Angela Gerekou, an actress and politician. They had one daughter, Maria.

 

With his last love, his daughter Maria

A repeat visit

It’s so lovely to be able to go to shows and museums again, albeit still with masks on. And let’s hope we will not be shut in again…

For now, though, on a hot and windy day in Athens, I took the opportunity to revisit the Eliza and Basil Goulandris Foundation, a museum about which I have written before.(here).

The couple’s collection is so extensive that it would take multiple museums of this size for everything to be exhibited at once, so there is a certain amount of rotation. It was an opportunity to see some new works as well as to bask in admiration of jewels such as this dreamy still life by Gaugin. The colours glow even in my moderate  iPhone photo. 

 

Gauguin, Bowl of grapefruit

I’m also posting a few different photos this time.

A large sculpture be Igor Mitoraj, in bronze with a brown patina, called Luci di Nara.

 

 

Two lovely jade reindeer from  the 17th-century Ming Dysnasty.

 


Some cool drawings by Francesco Clemente, always a favourite.

 

 

A sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

 

 

An interesting monochrome by François Rouan.

 


And, last but not least, a mixed media abstract by Jean Fautrier. It’s called Manhattan, and represents an aerial view of the city at night. 


Enjoy! 

Mountains of plastic

 

The pandemic has had a  lot of unpleasant side effects, one of which is the amount of plastic that is being discarded on a daily basis.

Over the last few years, supermarkets and many other shops abolished plastic bags, and people have started using bamboo straws and other recyclable objects.

Sadly this trend has suffered a reversal: at the moment one can hardly go for a walk without spotting a mask or two embedded in the bushes, or lying in the gutter.

 

Hospitals also are consuming veritable mountains of protective equipment: a friend who works as a doctor in a covid ward tells me she has to wear no less than three pairs of disposable gloves daily (as well as the mask, whole body suit etc.) When I visited the dentist, both she and her assistant looked like astronauts, covered from head to foot, including plastic bootees. I too was asked to don a pair, which went in the trash when I left.

We have also gone back to disposable cups, plates and cutlery, not all of which are recyclable. I find all this very depressing, because big efforts were being made to get people and companies to reduce plastic use, efforts which now seem to be partly wasted.

Beaches, and even the ocean floor to a great depth, are littered with plastic; and we are already consuming micro particles which have been found in the flesh of fish, so the future looks grim.

 

Scary, isn’t it?                                   Photo:Google

What could be a solution to this problem?

Scientists have discovered a kind of bacteria which eats plastic (anyone interested can read about it here), but I think the results are still quite modest. It’s a sad fact that humans litter wherever they go: the pristine beauty of Everest is nowadays marred by discarded oxygen bottles and other rubbish (even abandoned corpses) and even space is now getting to be full of trash.

 

Let us hope that human ingenuity can find some answers before the natural environment is destroyed for ever.

Mystras, a Byzantine city

A silver lining of the pandemic has been the lack of visitors in historic sites, and May is a perfect month for exploring Greece, since it’s not too hot yet.

The view of the fortified town from the road

A recent road trip to the Byzantine city of Mystras involved a hike up to the fortress during which we only met a handful of other visitors.

 

Mystras is a fortified town in the Peloponnese, built in 1248 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. In 1259, William of Villehardouin was defeated and captured, along with many of his nobles, at the Battle of Pelagonia, by the forces of the Nicaean Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Two years later, the Nicaeans recaptured Constantinople, putting an end to the Roman Empire and establishing the Byzantine Empire. At this point, the emperor concluded an agreement with the captive prince: William and his men would be set free in exchange for an oath of fealty, and for the cession of Monemvasia, Grand Magne, and Mystras. Thus henceforth Mystras served as the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which period the city prospered, culturally as well as practically, producing silk, citrus fruit and olive oil which were exported to Western Europe.

 

The view of the church of Pantanassa  from above

Wild flowers and butterflies were abundant, and the only sounds  were the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees.

 

The view of the Palace complex from the top

It is a magical site, like so many others in Greece.

 

The Palace complex is being restored

The city contains a number of beautiful churches, in different states of preservation.

Icons in the small but beautiful church of Aghia Sofia

Looking out

And a view of the lovely Monastery of Pantanassa

Photo: Wiki commons

An old map of the city

Photo: Wiki commons

The hike made us hot and thirsty, so we descended to the village. After ice cold drinks under the shade of mulberry trees in the village square, we repaired for lunch to the village of Kastori. A small taverna with a garden full of roses at the back provided us with an excellent Greek salad and a simple meal followed by a bowl of cherries from their tree. This fortified us for another, this time shady, hike by a stream in the forest at the feet of the majestic Taygetos mountain.

 

The start of the Greek summer

May is a beautiful season in Greece. Not too hot yet, brilliant sunny days interspersed with the occasional shower, a pure transparent sky.

 

The sea is still a little chilly but, once you’ve warmed up in the sun, the initial shock only lasts a few seconds. And the sense of well-being afterwards lasts for hours.

 

The sun is good for replenishing Vitamin D, and the heat seeps happily into the old bones.

Below, fishermen mending their nets

Athens, too, is showing its best side. Cafés have opened their terraces, although people are still wearing masks in the street. And the bougainvillea is out in all its glory.

 

I’ve been volunteering to teach Greek online to a bunch of boys (unaccompanied minors in a refugee shelter belonging to the Home project, about which I posted a while ago) and we finally got a chance to meet in person, which was lovely.

Philopappos monument. Photo: Wikipedia commons


We went for a hike on Philopappos hill. This large park, which is known for the beautiful landscaping and stone pathways created by architect Dimitris Pikionis, is the home of many indigenous bird and a great variety of plants and trees. It is a favorite promenade of Athenians and presents the visitor with great views of the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens and the Aegean Sea that surrounds Attica. In 115 AD, a monument dedicated to the exiled Roman Prince Gaius Julius Antichus Philopappos of Commagene (a region in ancient Armenia) was erected on top of the hill. 
After his exile, Philopappos settled in Athens, became an Athenian citizen and held religious and civil offices. He was considered a great benefactor and was highly esteemed by the residents.


Best of all, the backdrop: the Parthenon, under a  brilliant Attic sky. 

I can draw a cat

Here’s a post from the blog of Michael Richards, an artist after my own heart.

A Certain Line

Mickey (A5 Prismacolor indigo blue pencil 2020)

Axel Scheffler, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the Gruffalo, once said in a radio interview that if you can draw, people think you can draw anything. There are, he continued, so many things he wouldn’t even attempt.

As a young man this used to bother me enormously. Why can’t I draw a passable bicycle? If I can draw a dog why do I struggle to draw a horse? These days I simply avoid drawing bicycles or horses, but if my life depended on drawing a bicycle for some odd reason then I’d draw it like Quentin Blake.

I’ve also regretted never learning to play the guitar – or the acoustic bass. Why didn’t you then? you might ask. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I never wanted to be a mediocre musician and I was daunted by the amount…

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