This year’s celebrations will be difficult if not nonexistent for a lot of people. Yesterday my thoughts were with the hundreds of truckers blocked on each side of the Channel who will not make it home to their families for Christmas. But it’s not only them: so many elderly persons living alone and unable to see family, so many families divided, so many displaced and homeless people. Those of us who have a roof over our heads and food in our plates already have a lot to be thankful for.
At a time when the news is relentlessly bad and the future is uncertain, what better way to celebrate than by listening to children’s voices, joyful and pure.
El Sistema is a social education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Dr. José Antonio Abreu, which aims to provide inspiration through music. It has expanded to more than 60 countries and, since 2016, El Sistema Greece has the goal of bringing music education to children and young people, including those in refugee camps in Athens and on the island of Lesvos. Thanks to music, these kids are given a platform for dialogue and togetherness across diverse communities.
One of the most fervent ambassadors of El Sistema Greece, world-famous Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has visited Athens many times, for performances and workshops. Now she joins her voice once again with the members of the El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra and the El Sistema Greece Youth Choir, who come from 30 different countries, in a virtual concert hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
I give you The First Noel, and wish you all a very happy Christmas!
Aiolou Street is named after Aeolus, God of the Winds, and is the first street to have been paved in Athens in the 19th century. It it to this day a major shopping street in downtown Athens, and it is in its sewage system—which has been undergoing a maintenance overhaul—that workers discovered a bust of Hermes, herald of the gods.
The marble head is bearded and with his hair in strictly arranged curls. In good condition, it was found a mere 1.3 meters under the road surface.
The bust dates from around 300 BC, and is believed to have been part of a stone pillar serving as a street marker. These pillars were called Hermae, and were used as markers and also to impart good luck to travellers, and ward off harm or evil. They were placed at crossings, country borders, in front of temples or public buildings such as libraries, gymnasia, and palestrae, and also in front of houses. They were quadrangular and plain, with the head sitting on top; sometimes male genitalia were carved at the appropriate height. They were called Hermae because the head of Hermes was the most common, since he was the protector of merchants and travelers. However, the heads of other gods and heroes, and sometimes distinguished mortals, were also frequent.
Not to be cowed by the pandemic, the Greek National Opera turned to the Internet to present its Online Festival, curated by Giorgos Koumendakis, and under the aegis of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The Festival was a big success: each of its video performances attracted tens of thousands of viewers and many positive comments from across the globe.
The first part, entitled Exit: Spring,streamed from 17th May to 30th June 2020, and offered eleven new music, opera, operetta and music theatre video-performances created during the pandemic, as well as one recorded dance performance.
Below, a video of ‘When will, when will summer come’, by the GNO children’s chorus concert, conducted by Chorus Mistress Konstantinos Pitsiakou.
The 2nd part, titled Counterpoints, was streamed online from 27 September to 31 October, and its aim was to shed light upon the relationship between Greek music and architecture. Emblematic buildings of Athens were connected to great works from the historical repository of Greek music, from the Cretan Renaissance to the present day.
The Festival was filmed at some of the greatest buildings of Athens, such as the Church of the Holy Apostles at the Ancient Agora, the Gennadius Library, and the Athens Conservatoire, amongst others.
In one example, three of the most celebrated works of Greek art music written during the interwar period were performed at the Gennadius Library by mezzo-soprano Margarita Syngeniotou, accompanied on the piano by Apostolos Palios. These were: • Yannis Konstantinidis’ Songs of Anticipation • Manolis Kalomiris’ Should I Speak?set to poetry byKostis Palamas • Dimitri Mitropoulos’ 10 Inventionsset to poetry byConstantine Cavafy
The closing act, Zeitgeist, written for string quartet by distinguished Greek modern composer Christos Hatzis was performed by musicians of the Greek National Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Miltos Logiadis, at the Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos”.
Some of the videos of the performances are available on YouTube.
Despite the lockdown we’ve been having quite a busy time what with one thing and another, and I’ve found it difficult in the last few weeks to work on any larger paintings. Especially since my studio is in the kitchen, and larger paintings have to go on the kitchen table, then the lot must be cleared away before meals if we are to be more than two using it. Is it any wonder that I work with water-based media? Oils would be impossible, what with the smell of turpentine and the permanent drips everywhere.
I’m not complaining, though, because I do love to work on paper. Often I just make a series of drawings.
Can you see the lovely deckled edges?
I treated myself to a bunch of sheets of handmade paper from Nepal, Bhutan and India. I found it on Etsy, at a marvelous shop called TornEdgePaper, which has a huge selection at very reasonable prices, should anyone be interested. They’re all different shades, and thicknesses and surfaces, and, although some are so thin and delicate as to be almost transparent, they are impressively strong.
I’ve been using ink, pencil, graphite, gesso, watercolor and collage.
Trying out different effects.
The one below is a floral study on tinted paper, using aquarelle pencils. Irises make such weird and wonderful shapes.
An ink drawing, this time on normal watercolor paper, featuring a raven with a gold leaf background.
Last but not least, a pencil drawing with origami paper collage. It’s titled ‘Boy on horse with birds’, and I imagined him as a kind of young samouraï.
Fred Boissonnas (18 June 1858 – 17 October 1946), a Swiss photographer from Geneva, made several trips to Greece between 1903 and 1933, documenting all aspects of the country using notes, drawings and especially photographs. He published 14 photo albums dedicated to Greece, many of which belong to the thematic series entitled L’image de la Grèce (The Image of Greece). He travelled around the country, visiting archeological sites as well as remote villages—the first foreign photographer to do so. His aim was to contribute to the identity of Greece in Europe.
Boissonnas persuaded the Greek authorities that his photographs would enhance the country’s political, commercial and touristic image abroad.
Looking at these pictures, one can be forgiven for asking, how?
Certainly, they are wonderful and picturesque daguerreotypes, but they portray a poor though beautiful country, where the traveler could hardly expect to find many comforts.
Cities with roads still unpaved.
Barefoot village children.
Mostly small and unprepossessing houses.
Because the photos are in black and white, they cannot show the pure blue skies, the sunny landscapes.
The people in the photographs are unsmiling, being unused to posing, so the natural friendliness and hospitality of the Greeks is difficult to discern.
Also at the time people did not lounge on beaches in bikinis, getting a tan, so these are as far from contemporary travel photography as one can imagine.
However, they are a document of those years, and as such fascinating. The clothes, the landscapes with few signs of human intervention, the simplicity of life.
At the time the photos did serve the purpose of promoting Greece to foreigners, and Boissonnas was financially aided and personally supported by prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, to whom his publications were dedicated. These were sent to all Greek embassies and the prominent political personalities of the era.
Paris, 1985: I will never forget walking by the Seine with my French cousins on a moonlit night to see the Pont Neuf wrapped up like a parcel. Built in 1606, the Pont-Neuf has joined the left and right banks and the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, for over 400 years.
The temporary installation (lasting for 14 days) was completed by 300 workers who deployed 450,000 square feet (41,800 square meters) of woven polyamide fabric, silky in appearance and golden sandstone in color. The fabric was restrained by 8 miles (13 kilometers) of rope and secured by 12.1 tons of steel chains encircling the base of each tower underwater.
The artwork was the brainchild of the artists Christo, who has sadly just died, and his wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009.
All expenses for The Pont Neuf Wrapped were borne by the artists (as in all their other projects) through the sale of preparatory drawings and collages as well as earlier works. The artists did not accept sponsorship of any kind.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were known for their large-scale site-specific installations wrapped in fabric. Their work took years of careful preparation, involving technical solutions, political negotiation, permitting and environmental approval, hearings and public persuasion. Their purpose: the immediate aesthetic impact; joy, beauty, and new ways of seeing the familiar.
The Pont Neuf was their only work I had the chance to see live, and it left an indelible impression. Reading of Christo’s death brought it all back as if it was yesterday, so I felt like talking about it, even though I’ve just said I wouldn’t keep writing obituaries.
Anyone interested in photos of their other works (which included the Reichstag in Berlin, Running Fence in California, Surrounded Islands in Miami and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park ) you can click .here.
I don’t want this blog to be fielding a constant stream of obituaries, but I was sad to learn of the passing of SusanRothenberg, an artist who’s been a great inspiration to me.
Born in 1945 in Buffalo, New York, Susan Rothenberg was a pioneer, in that her figurative paintings of the ‘70s were in direct opposition to the Minimalist abstract art that was in vogue in the New York art world at the time.
The paintings she mostly became known for were those featuring horses. Rothenberg depicted equine forms in a pared down style, against monochrome, vacant backgrounds. Sometimes, the horses were bisected; at others, they were contained within uneven geometrical forms. They usually appear alone, or in pairs. “The horse was a way of not doing people, yet it was a symbol of people, a self-portrait, really,” Rothenberg once said.
After the horses, Rothenberg moved on to painting disembodied heads and hands, and various objects.
At times, the images border on the surrealist, such as her improbable 1985 portrait of Piet Mondrian dancing in diffuse golden light, below.
In 1989, Rothenberg married conceptual artist Bruce Nauman and moved with him to a 750-acre ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, near where Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin also lived and worked. They spent a lot of time in non-art-related activities, like horseback riding, walking the dogs, feeding the chickens, and were refreshingly uninterested in what was going on in the art world.
Rothemberg, in her own words: “I just don’t think there’s much stuff going on of the kind that I’m interested in, which is really just about painting. It’s not about issues, it’s not about politics, it’s not about process, it’s not about technology. I’m just a painter.” Her recent work featured subjects including the inside of her studio and the natural surroundings by her home, using “dirtied-down” colors and thick, gestural painted surfaces to reflect the topography of the region.
Some time ago, an elderly man with dementia wandered out of his house in Montauk, Long Island. After a three-week search, he was found dead in the woods, a fitting end for someone who loved nature as he did. The man was Peter Beard, 82, photographer and artist by profession, adventurer and playboy by nature.
In 1996, I came by chance upon his exhibition Carnets Africains, at the Centre National de la Photographie, in Paris. His works entranced me: huge photos of wildlife, in black and white, embellished all around with smaller pictures, ink drawings, diary and sketchbook pages, magazine cuttings, dried leaves, ticket stubs. Sometimes he’d drawn or scribbled over the central picture itself, with red or black ink, or colors. Each work was a whole, sometimes heart-rending, world into which you entered and wandered about. The artist himself was there in the gallery, walking around with a cane, since he was recovering from having been trampled by an elephant.
Born into wealth and privilege in New York, Peter Beard was possessed of an artist’s eye and a love of animals from a young age. He found fame as a photographer of African wildlife and of beautiful women, and also as a diarist and collagist of rare insight.
As a young man, Beard fell in love with Kenya where he’d travelled after being inspired by the book ‘Out of Africa’. He eventually bought a property named Hog Ranch, next to the estate of its author, Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen). He photographed the plight of elephants and other wildlife at Tsavo National Park, eventually producing a book called The End of the Game. In the second edition, he documented a massive population die-off in Tsavo of 35,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos as the animals succumbed to starvation, stress and density related diseases.
His main area of focus, and great cause of sadness, was mankind’s negative impact on the natural world. In his own words: “The beautiful play period has come to an end. Millions of years of evolutionary processes have been destroyed in the blink of an eye.”
Beard spent decades photographing Africa and its creatures, but he was a man of extremes: swimming in croc-infested waters one day, painted by Francis Bacon the next. Because he was also a bon vivant, party animal, and lover of beautiful women, befriending and photographing a wide range of celebrities and icons. He became well known for his hedonistic and flamboyant playboy lifestyle. Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair famously described him as: “half Tarzan, half Byron.”
For twenty years, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Peter Beard was the Golden Child of New York. He knew everyone and was friends with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Francis Bacon, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. He partied with models at Studio 54, and partook of any recreational substance available. However, he was liked and respected by all, because he was good-hearted and never put on airs.
Beard was married three times, first to socialite heiress Minnie Cushing, then briefly to model Cheryl Tiegs, and thirdly to Afgan-born Nedjma, who survives him with their daughter, Zara.
His charmed life, however, suffered some serious reversals: he barely survived the encounter with the elephant, which left him with some serious injuries. Also in 1977 his house in Montauk burned to the ground, and with it it thousands of photos, a processing lab, a 20-year scrapbook diary, and more. Despite the huge financial loss, what hurt him most was the loss of the irreplaceable scrapbooks.
By the 1970s, Beard had created a unique series of artworks by combining photographs, text from his daily journals and various found objects such as dried leaves, insects and newspaper cuttings, and sometimes animal blood, or even his own. This body of work is his legacy: a far-sighted and deep commitment to the cause of reversing, or at least halting, an African ecological catastrophe. In the course of a Vanity Fair interview, he once declared: “We’re in deep shit.” And indeed, unfortunately he’s being proved right.
Now that hugs have become virtual, and meals with friends take place on Zoom, it’s an opportunity to rediscover the solace of poetry. Poetry can be an endless source of comfort and inspiration.
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.
Eugenia Ginsburg was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag for a horrendous 17 years. She was a teacher, and what helped her survive was reciting poetry—sometimes to herself, sometimes aloud, with other prisoners. Her favorites were Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaevna. Poetry speaks to the heart: how many displaced people wouldn’t identify with the lines above.
I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers And walk upon the beach I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each I do not think that they will sing to me.
T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I am of a generation who still had to learn poems by heart, and even though we all complained at the time, this has since been a source of endless pleasure.
I think educational methods have vastly improved since my time, with endless learning by rote, dusty lists of dates and translations from the Latin and Ancient Greek being replaced by more interactive systems, and more emphasis on thinking and creativity. However, I find it a pity that learning poetry by heart has mostly been discontinued.
A 12-year-old boy of my acquaintance whose English teacher at school made the class write poems produced some lovely stuff, something which he would never have thought of doing on his own. Poetry can be very modern, and fun for kids.
WE REAL COOL. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
—Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
As it happens, thousands of people still write poems, so this practice has not been discontinued at all. And I assume that those who write poetry, also enjoy reading it.
My favorite poet in my teens was T. S. Eliot, and he remains a favorite to this day, amongst many others. One I must mention today is Constantine Cavafy, the Alexandrian, Greek, poet-historian who was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Byzantine kingdoms, beautiful boys briefly glimpsed and never seen again. I think poetry is best read in the original, since a certain particular flavor or music is lost in translation; but the two poems below are quite close to the original.
Imagined voices, and beloved, too, of those who died, or of those who are lost unto us like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us; sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.
And with their sound for a moment there return sounds from the first poetry of our life– like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
Voices, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn
This room, how well I know it. Now they’re renting it, it and the one next door, as offices. The whole house has been taken over by agents, businessmen, concerns.
Ah but this one room, how familiar.
Here by the door was the couch. In front of that, a Turkish carpet on the floor. The shelf then, with two yellow vases. On the right― no, opposite―a wardrobe with a mirror. At the center the table where he wrote, and the three big wicker chairs. There by the window stood the bed where we made love so many times.
Poor things, they must be somewhere to this day.
There by the window stood the bed: across it the afternoon sun used to reach halfway.
…We’d said goodbye one afternoon at four, for a week only. But alas, that week was to go on forevermore.
The afternoon sun, translated by James Merrill
Most of us have the Oxford book of English poems or some other anthology lurking on our shelves, but most poetry nowadays can also be found on line. These days of confinement, dipping into them would make a change to bingeing on Netflix.
As for those stuck at home with children, kids love words that rhyme. I cannot count how many times I’ve read Room on the Broom, The Owl And the Pussycat, or Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. And for people who can’t be bothered with doing it themselves, there’s a site called poetrygeneration, where someone reads aloud a different poem every day. A great selection of poems, beautifully read.