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.

 

 

A bridge wrapped up.

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.

The horses of Susan Rothenberg

I don’t want this blog to be fielding a constant stream of obituaries, but I was sad to learn of the passing of Susan Rothenberg, 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.

Here’s a short video for those interested.

Wildlife and beautiful women

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.”

 

Zebra carpet



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.

 

Model Maureen Gallagher feeding a giraffe



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.

 

Writing in his 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.