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. 

How Odysseus traveled

There have been many depictions of the familiar story of Odysseus and the Sirens. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus (or Ulysses), following the advice of the sorcerer Circe, stopped his crew’s ears with beeswax so they’d be deaf to the sweet song of the Sirens, creatures half-woman and half-bird who lured sailors to destruction. He himself wanted to hear the song, but he had the crew tie him to the mast so he could not steer the ship off its course.

One such detailed depiction can be seen on the red-figure vase below, dated c. 475 B.C.

 

Amazingly, a ship which looks just like the one on the vase has been found by archaeologists using a ROV (remote operated vehicle) at the bottom of the Black Sea, off the Bulgarian coast.

The 23-meter vessel is thought to be a Greek merchant ship dating back more than 2.400 years. It is being hailed as officially the world’s oldest known intact shipwreck. The rudder, rowing benches and even the contents of its hold have been preserved  because at that depth the Black Sea water is anoxic, or free of oxygen. Lying more than 2,000m below the surface, it is also beyond the reach of modern divers.

 

The Anglo-Bulgarian team that discovered it used two underwater robotic explorers to map out a 3-D image of the ship and they took a sample to carbon-date its age. The vessel is thought to be one of many trading between the Mediterranean and Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast. As yet the ship’s cargo remains unknown and the team say they need more funding if they are to return to the site.

“A ship surviving intact from the classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said Professor Jon Adams, the principal investigator with the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), the team that made the find. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”

Described as the most extensive underwater archaeology exploration to date, the Black Sea MAP (Maritime Archaeology Project) not only discovered or rediscovered a total of 67 shipwrecks from the Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Modern Era found on the bottom of the Black Sea in Bulgaria’s section, but it also explored the once flooded coast with its submerged prehistoric settlements, and even offered insights into the hypothesis that the Black Sea was the site of the Biblical Deluge.

 

 

 

 

Yayoi Kusama, again

 

Spring is finally coming to New York, with an exhibition in the Botanical Garden guaranteed to cheer up the grumpiest souls.

Yayoi Kusama, I Want to Fly to the Universe (2020) at the New York Botanical Garden. Collection of the artist. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

 

Yayoi Kusama has done it again, producing a number of joyful and exhilarating works, which people will be able to enjoy amongst the daffodils and blossoming cherry trees, without having to queue up for hours, as they did to experience her Infinity rooms.

The artist’s passion for nature—nurtured in her childhood since her parents made a living from the cultivation of plant seeds—is expressed in explosive exuberance.

Yayoi Kusama, Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002/2021) Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Trees wrapped in polka dots lead the public from one work to the next

Dancing Pumpkin (2020) Photo by Robert Benson Photography, courtesy of Ota Fine Arts and David Zwirner.


Her iconic pumpkin has broken out legs and is dancing.

 

Yayoi Kusama, Starry Pumpkin. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Another is blossoming in a greenhouse .

The exhibition is entitled Kusama: Cosmic Nature, and will be on until October.

I remain awestruck by this 92 year old artist who, despite her complicated familial and romantic history, and chronic mental problems—she permanently and voluntarily lives in a psychiatric hospital—still has the creativity and zest to produce such joyful works.

 

Previous posts about Kusama  here and here and here. Photos from Artnet News article by Sarah Cascone, April 8, 2021.

Celebrating Greek Independence

Today Greece celebrates 200 years of her declaration of the War of Independence, which freed the country from 4 centuries of Ottoman rule.
The Greek Revolution was waged between 1821 and 1830 by Greek revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks were assisted in their efforts by Great Britain, France and Russia, while the Ottomans were aided by their North African vassals, particularly the eyalet of Egypt.

The start of the revolution. Photo: Benaki Museum



The annual national holiday of March 25th, despite being marred by coronavirus restrictions, is being touted as a new starting point after a very difficult decade. Years of painful austerity drove the country deep into poverty, making one in two young Greeks unemployed and forcing more than half a million people to leave the country to find work abroad. No sooner had the economy started to recover, than the coronavirus pandemic hit and Greece slipped back into recession. Greeks really need to herald a new, more hopeful era.

The entire world will mark the bicentennial, since the Greek Diaspora thrives in every corner of the globe. Iconic landmarks in all of those countries will be illuminated in blue and white in honor of the Greek people and their struggle for freedom 200 years ago.

 

The battle of Navarino. Photo: Wikipedia



It is sobering to think that, despite the weight of her history, modern Greece is still a young country which, having missed the Renaissance, has had to struggle to catch up with her European neighbours. At least we had the good fortune to escape being included in the communist bloc after the war, something which has cost our Balkan neighbours dearly.

Heroes of the Greek Revolution. Photo: Google


🇬🇷 Footnote: A well-known Greek actor has proposed that, in order to properly celebrate the bicentennial, Greek men should grow moustaches like the ones above.

Random thoughts (and drawings)

January and February have never been my favorite months—it’s still SO DARK! Usually I’m a morning person, but I find myself feigning sleep so the dog doesn’t ask to be let out at 7 a.m. She also has to be dressed, alas. See below the latest in dachshund winter fashion…


We have been deprived of many little pleasures of normal life: sharing a bottle of wine and a nice meal with friends (preferably prepared and served by someone else!), wandering around an art exhibition, taking in a show…Moreover, in any wanderings we are surrounded by people wearing masks, so even exchanging a smile is not the same.

We are lucky at least that we can enjoy some entertainment at home. I really enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit (about chess) and Dickinson (a very amusing takeoff on the poet’s early life), and a wonderful documentary called My Octopus Teacher. Remember I wrote about An Octopus in my House (A strange Pet)?Well, this one is even more remarkable, since it is filmed in the wild, underwater, in a kelp forest. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, it has quite put me off eating octopus, which I used to love. But, it inspired me to make an ink drawing.



There is only so much screen time I can take, but I’m a bookworm, so I’ve devoured some of my TBR pile: Where the Crawdads Sing,  by Delia Owens, about a girl growing up in a swamp—wonderful), two cozy mysteries: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Oscan (very entertaining) and The Guest List by Lucy Foley (a page-turner), a thriller called Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (another page-turner). On a totally different note, Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (about a woman caretaker of a cemetery). And finally a memoir called The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay, describing his journey, as a twelve-year-old boy, from Afganistan to the UK (mind-boggling). 

I do love to have a couple of books on the go, so now I’ve started Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize for writer Bernadine Evaristo, together with The Mirror and the Light, the last in the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel (a huge slab, but I loved the first two, so I will persevere). I’m also dipping into The Lemon Table, short stories by Julian Barnes. Hope this list will inspire some of you.

Apart from chilly walks wrapped up in layers like an onion, I’ve also been drawing. I finished up a few Christmas present comissions.



The ones above inspired me to make a large elephant pencil drawing.

 



I find I’m more in the mood for drawing than painting at the moment. I added a couple of drawings to my ‘Travelers’ series.

 



My resolution for this year is to include more human figures in my work, and even, dare I say it, some portraits. I find I always collect portrait photos because I so admire the capability of artists to reproduce likeness and expression. I’m also drawn to portraits in museums because they show so much about each era. So perhaps it’s time to try for myself.



Celebrating Christmas

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!

https://youtu.be/ilqrly3FBWo






Athens turns up another treasure

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.

 

Photos from Google

Music will not be stilled

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.

 

Source: GNO/Andreas Simopoulos

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.

 

Photo Credit: G. Domenikos

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 by Kostis Palamas
• Dimitri Mitropoulos’ 10 Inventions set to poetry by Constantine 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. 

Drawings

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.

 

The Image of Greece

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.

Parga, 1913


Boissonnas persuaded the Greek authorities that his photographs would enhance the country’s political, commercial and touristic image abroad.

 

Shepherds on Mount Parnassus, 1903


Looking at these pictures, one can be forgiven for asking, how?

 

 

Boissonnas being pulled up to a monastery in Meteora, by net.


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.

 

A street in Plaka, Athens
Market street, Andritsaina, 1903



Cities with roads still unpaved.

 

Metsovo, 1913

Barefoot village children.

 

View of the Parthenon, 1908



Unrestored antiquities.

Interior in Lakkoi, 1911

 

Village street in Elassona, 1903



Mostly small and unprepossessing houses.

The 17th-century bridge of Arta, to which an ancient legend is attached.



Because the photos are in black and white, they cannot show the pure blue skies, the sunny landscapes.

 

A courtyard in Akrata, 1903


The people in the photographs are unsmiling, being unused to posing, so the natural friendliness and hospitality of the Greeks is difficult to discern.

 

A wealthy man’s house in Kastoria, 1911


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.

Interior with loom, Andritsaina, 1903
A A celebration in Corfu, 1903


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.

 

Ermou Street, 1920. This is now one of the busiest shopping streets in downtown Athens. Note the Byzantine church of Kapnikarea at the end of the street.
A view of the Acropolis, with grazing sheep, 1903


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.