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.
Readers who are interested in my art know that I love to draw and paint animals and birds (see my post on Equine Art). Some of these are depicted in their natural setting, some are more funky or fanciful, such as my collection of hares on sofas.
One aspect of this animal art which I find fascinating is making portraits of animals I know personally, a practice I started as a child by obsessively drawing the family dogs (mostly when they were asleep!) One such portrait which I still have is the one below, of the family labrador, Brett, which I must have done aged about fourteen or fifteen.
The most interesting side of this is to observe the animal and try to give a hint of his or her character. I am of course aided by photographs, especially if I get a commission to paint an animal I have not met (however, usually I’ve heard a lot about them from the owners!)
So, without further ado, meet:
Eden, a feisty little Jack Russell
Valerie, a Weimaraner who likes to strike mournful poses, although she’s full of pep
Balou, a faithful Golden retriever.
A bunch of Norfolk terriers, hairy balls I cannot tell appart, in life or in photos. Here are the parents:
And the offspring
Java, another ball of fluff, chilling.
And a couple of cats. Goldie, striking a pose,
And Meli, peeping out of her bed.
Also a horse, Rubia, done in biro
And finally my own dog, Frankie. Dachshunds are difficult to draw, because you either have to lie down on the floor to get a good angle,
Yesterday we celebrated the Epiphany in Greece (new followers can read about it here), so it seemed like a good time to mention a wonderful discovery made at a church in the village of Tsivaras, 17 kilometers east of the town of Chania, in Crete.
The finding concerns a religious icon, which is believed to be an early work of master painter El Greco.
El Greco, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was born on October 1, 1541 in Heraklion, Crete. However, the artist spent the bulk of his life in Italy and in Spain, where he created his best-known works.
The finding was announced by Byzantine history expert MichalisAndrianakis at a recent archaeology conference. It concerns a double icon, of the Virgin and Saint Catherine, and Byzantine experts have been studying it for many years.
According to Andrianakis, “The icon was located at the apron of the temple of the church which was built in the 1880s. It was cut in half so it would fit on the temple and the bottom part where the signature of the artist would have been was discarded.”
He thinks that several elements in the icon are specific of the El Greco style, one of which are the pigments that were used.
Taking advantage of a couple of days in London a few weeks ago, I tried to fit in as many art shows as possible. After the Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy, I went to see the works of William Blake at Tate Britain.
When I was in school, I found Blake’s poetry a little grim, if not downright creepy: O rose, thou art sick… etc. But I was always intrigued by any accompanying illustrations, so seeing them in the flesh is always a real treat.
William Blake (self portrait above), born 1757 – died 1827, was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. He lived most of his life in London, at a time of great political and sociological change which greatly influenced his writing. He was largely unrecognised during his lifetime, but is posthumously considered one of the leading lights of English Romanticism.
The painting above is ink, graphite and watercolor, and has been named An Allegory of the Bible, which is not the artist’s title. The Bible, however, was always an inspiration for Blake, and in this composition he has started using more color than previously.
Blake was born into a modest family who, happily, encouraged his artistic leanings. He eventually went to work as an engraver, and at the age of 31 developed relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing; however, for his commercial work, Blake mostly used the more common intaglio engraving. He is a master of composition, as can be seen in the painting above. He also used oils, as In the painting below.
Between 1793 and 1795 Blake produced a remarkable collection of illuminated works that have come to be known as the Minor Prophecies, in which he examines the fall of man. In Blake’s mythology man and God were once united, but man separated himself from God and became weaker and weaker as he became further divided.
One of the best known paintings from this series is the one above, which, though small, is very powerful. Its central figure is Urizen, who, measuring the world beneath him with his golden compass, represents the scientific quest for answers. For Blake this action was a threat to what he thought of as the cornerstones of human happiness: imagination, creativity and thought.
Blake must have had fantastic eyesight to be able to spend hours writing out his poems in minute script before illuminating them. Blake also illustrated other people’s work, such as Thomas Grey’s lovely ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’.
And his engraving of Chauser’s The Canterbury Tales remains probably the best known image on this subject.
Although we are spoilt for choice in Athens as far as antiquities and Byzantine icons are concerned, up to now there were no permanent exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. This hole has just been filled with the advent of a new museum hosting a wonderful collection of modern and contemporary paintings and sculpture.
After 26 years of planning and six years of construction, the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation has opened its new space in a totally renovated neoclassical building in the Pangrati neighborhood of Athens. The museum showcases the stunning private collection of the late Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise, and boasts around 180 paintings, sculptures, and artifacts.
A shipping magnate whose shrewd eye and passion for art was equaled by his wife’s, Basil Goulandris collected unique pieces over the years, starting with a wonderful El Greco, The Veil of San Veronica.
The couple lived with the paintings on the walls of their houses and, in 1979, when the works of art had become too numerous to be privately enjoyed, they inaugurated the Museum of Contemporary Art on the island of Basil’s birth, Andros; this was, at the time, the country’s first institution devoted to the art of the present.
However, they always nurtured a dream to establish another art space in the center of Athens, which would offer broader audiences an opportunity to see contemporary art.
Now, 30 years after Basil’s death and 20 years after Elise’s, their vision has become reality. The original 1920s listed, three-floor building has been complemented by a modern extension hovering above the facade and now contains 11 stories (5 of which are underground to house the annex activities such as archives and storage) connected by a central stairwell made of white marble. The combination of the two styles on the outside is harmonious, and inside the different areas merge seamlessly into each other, giving an impression of spaciousness. In front of the building a little square, also renovated by the foundation, abuts the steps leading up to the church of Agios Spyridon, which was built in 1903 on designs by the noted German architect Ernst Ziller.
The museum boasts all the relevant amenities, such as a museum shop, a lovely restaurant, education spaces, and a library containing 4,500 volumes. There is also a 190-seat amphitheater, where screenings, concerts, and other events can take place. The foundation is headed by Elise Goulandris’ niece Fleurette Karadonti (President), and the museum’s director Kyriakos Koutsomallis, plus his daughter Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau (the collection’s chief curator). Their plan is to rotate the paintings of the collection on a regular basis, so that visitors can eventually get to see them all.
The collection includes lovely pieces of sculpture, such as the Giacometti below
And a little dancer by Degas, which caused major controversy in its time, being presented in a glass case and with the addition of tulle, leather and ribbon.
There is a luminous room of works on paper, such as the Matisse below.
And a floor devoted to major and rising Greek artists. See below two beautiful works by Tsarouhis.
Like many diaspora Greeks, Basil and Elise had a deep love for their motherland, and always wanted to give something back to Greece. Having no children, they dedicated themselves to art, and their Paris home became a meeting place for many personalities of the art world, such as Callas, Baryshnikov, Balthus and Chagall, whose portrait of Elise graces the entrance.
However, finding a site for the museum took several years because its original location, a plot next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, yielded an amazing archaeological find during construction: Aristotle’s Lyceum. After many setbacks, all obstacles were happily overcome, and the new museum is already teeming with visitors.
The collection is certainly unique, and I advise anyone planning to go to make time for lunch or at least a coffee and cake in the restaurant. The food is delicious and the waiters super friendly.
All photographs are mine, which is why they’re very moderate. The light in the museum was low, in order both to preserve the works but also to bring out their wonderful colors.