International Lighthouse Weekend

Who knew this was ILLW, or International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend?

Well, in Greece the Navy has opened 30 Lighthouses to the public, who can visit and find out about their history and the way they work.

 

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Lighthouses are used to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, reefs, and safe entries to harbors. They can also assist in aerial navigation. However, the number of operational lighthouses has declined due to the expense of maintenance and use of electronic navigational systems.

Older lighthouses, especially half-ruined ones, are romantic structures, having about them the whiff of history – stories connected to lonely lives, pirates and derring do at sea.

Before the development of clearly defined ports, mariners were guided by fires built on hilltops. To improve visibility, the fires were placed on a platform, a practice that led to the development of the lighthouse.

The most famous lighthouse structure from antiquity was the Pharos of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom between 280 and 247 BC. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it was between 120 and 137 m tall, and one of the tallest man-made structures in the world for many centuries, until badly damaged by three earthquakes between AD 956 and 1323.

 

Drawing by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909)
Drawing of the Phoros of Alexandria by archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1909)

So if there is a lighthouse near you, perhaps today would be a good time to visit.

I did it!

We are on the last day of July, otherwise known as World Watercolor Month. I joined the challenge of making one painting each day, and I’m happy to say I managed it, with very little cheating! (I only posted a couple that I’d actually started before…) I’m rather pleased with myself, and also glad that Charlie O’Shields, whose brainchild this is, egged me on.

 

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Charlie’s great at encouraging people to join in, and also at showcasing the work of other artists. If you haven’t been to see his blog yet, go check it out, it’s fun even for people who don’t paint. It’s called Doodlewash (click here).

 

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This has been a fun challenge – it made me try different things, and also get on with my dog alphabet. Only three to go now, and that baby will have a cheerful wall to look at!

 

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It was also nice  seeing the work of the hundreds of other artists who joined in the challenge. I’ve followed quite a few. If anyone is interested in looking at all my efforts, I’ve posted them on Instagram, at @athensletters.

 

 

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World Watercolor Month

What’s World Watercolor Month?

It’s a month to inspire people to paint with watercolor (watercolour, aquarelle) while raising awareness for the importance of art and creativity in the world.  Anyone can join the celebration, from master watercolorists to artists just starting out with watercolor!

 

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Best of all, this first year of the celebration will be about raising awareness for children in need of art supplies and art education around the globe. Art is an important aspect of child development and paves the way for a successful future. What would the world be without art?

 

 

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How could I resist? I’m joining the 31-day challenge – a watercolor each day. Some might be just doodles, some only dabs (abstract dabs?), but it will be fun. It will be motivation to pick up a brush each day, to try new things; and an opportunity to meet other artists. I will be posting on Instagram(athensletters). Below is my first contribution:

Day 1: Sketch of flowers past their prime.
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Discovering Traditions: May 1st and the Making of the Wreath by M.L.Kappa

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Solveig Werner very kindly asked me to take part in her ‘Discovering traditions‘ series, so I wrote a piece about the first of May, when Greeks make a flower wreath which they hang on their balcony or front door to celebrate the coming of spring.

This year May 1st coincided with Easter, so we had an abundance of celebrations. I took some photos of our wreath-making process, and I encourage everyone to visit Solveig’s blog to read my masterpiece – and, mainly, to discover all the lovely stuff she posts there!

 

 

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Solveig Werner

Discovering Tradition

Today, is the first of May, a day that is widely celebrated and that has various traditions attached to it. I am happy to have M. L. Kappa as my special guest for Discovering Traditions. You can find a list of all guest post that have appeared on my blog so far here, and you can find the previous guest post for Discovering Traditionshere.

May 1st and the Making of the Wreath by M.L.Kappa

FullSizeRender May Wreath by M.L.Kappa

One of the most fun Greek traditions is the making of the May Wreath. We call it Μάης (pronounced Màïs).

May 1st is universally known as Labor Day since 1886, when the Chicago Syndicates rebelled, asking for better working conditions. But celebrating it is not actually a 19th century tradition—it has roots in Antiquity, when festivities were held in honor of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and

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Happy Birthday, Yayoi Kusama!

I’m a fan of Yayoi Kusama’s psychedelic eccentricity and gaily polka-dotted work. The Japanese artist is 87 today, and for the past 20 years has been living in a Tokyo mental hospital, from where she has continued to produce artworks in a variety of mediums, as well as launching a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection and an autobiography.
She famously said: “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see.”

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Love is Calling (2013) Image: M_Strasser via Flickr Creative Commons

 

In the sixties, Yayoi Kusama was part of the New York avant-garde scene, having her works exhibited alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and George Segal.

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008) Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

 

In her honor, Artnet News has published a lovely article entitled:

14 Yayoi Kusama Quotes on Her 87th Birthday (Article by Alyssa Buffenstein)

You can find it here. (I borrowed the photographs from them, many thanks.)

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinite Obsession (2013) Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Clean Monday: a sky full of kites

The pall of smoke hanging over Greek towns due to the Tsiknopempti meat orgy has hardly dispersed and people are already thinking about the next feast, on Clean Monday (Καθαρά ΔευτέραKathara Deftera). It is a moveable feast, which this year falls on March 14. Ironically, it marks the beginning of the 40-day fast for Lent, Σαρακοστή (Sarakosti). However, the need to avoid a wide range of foods (meat, fish, all dairy products and eggs) has spurred gourmets and cooks over the centuries into developing delicious recipes called nistisima (fasting foods) of which more details in another post.

 

A feast of lagana bread, octopus, calamari, shrimp, mussels, beans, olives, tarama and wine
A feast of lagana bread, octopus, calamari, shrimp, mussels, beans, olives, tarama and wine

 

For the devout, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on Sunday night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. Everyone present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness, so they can begin Lent with a clean conscience and renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week”, and it is customary to go to confession during this week, and also to springclean the house – after all, Clean Monday also marks the beginning of spring.

Clean Monday is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, where it it is celebrated with outdoor excursions, and family gatherings whose main purpose is the consumption of elaborate dishes mainly based on seafood and vegetables.

imageHowever, the day is not only associated with eating, but also features many traditional celebrations held all over Greece. Municipalities organize concerts and other festivities with free food on offer. In the Borough of Athens, Clean Monday is traditionally celebrated on Philopappos, a hill situated southwest of the Acropolis. A beautiful 173-acre park, it is home to many indigenous birds and small animals, and open to all at all times of day or night.

Different municipalities have their own local customs, but there is one tradition that is followed all over the country: kite flying. Young people and adults flock to open areas, so as to fill the skies with their kites. Many traditional workshops have been involved in making kites for over 70 years, although in many instances the wooden kites have sadly been replaced by plastic ones. Every kiosk, supermarket  and toy shop stocks kites for Clean Monday – there are even roadside stalls selling them.

imageIn my childhood, making your own kite was considered a very manly pursuit in some households. Fathers and uncles would carefully choose and cut their own bamboo sticks, split them lengthwise with their penknives and fashion them into a hexagonal frame with string. Over this would go glacé paper in bright colours (often in the colours of the maker’s favourite team), and then ‘ears’ and a tail made out of strips of paper. The trick was for the kite to have good equilibrium so that it would fly straight and true. A few balls of sturdy string would be carefully wound in a figure eight over a stout stick and the kite would be ready to go.

 

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Since Clean Monday is a communal affair, fierce competition ensues over the flying of the kites. Depending on the assembled company, I remember times when us kids would not be allowed near the kites. No, this was a man’s job, involving much drinking and banter, as well as practical jokes. There were – and still are – air battles where people try to get other kites entangled in their string in order to bring them down – some even resort to sending razor blades up the string to try and cut the competitors’ kites loose!

Despite yearly warnings by the Electricity Company, a number of kites always end up on the cables, where they remain for weeks, looking increasingly forlorn.

 

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The Epiphany

On January 6, the last day of the festive season, Greeks celebrate the Epiphany, the baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the Jordan River. We call it Θεοφάνια (Theophania) or Φώτα (Fota) – the Feast of Lights.

Celebrations start the day before, on the 12th day of Christmas. It is a day of fasting – the devout don’t eat meat, fish or dairy products, and not even olive oil is allowed. In Crete they make a special dish called Παπούδια (Papoudia) or Φωτοκόλυβα (Fotokolyva): wheat is boiled with different dried pulses such as lentils, chickpeas and beans, which they eat with salt, bread and maybe an onion and a few olives. They also used to  feed this to their chickens and other livestock.

After the morning church service, priests go around the houses in their parish in order to bless them by sprinkling holy water around the rooms. They are also asked to go and bless shops and offices and, in the countryside, stables and livestock. This is known as Μικρός Αγιασμός  (mikros agiasmos) or small blessing and, in the old days, it was thought to chase away the Kallikanzaroi, the malevolent gnomes who come out of their holes to plague households over the Christmas period. Now they flee before the priest, and disappear for the rest of the year. Until next Christmas!
Today also those who have burned the Χριστόξυλο (Christ-wood)  during the twelve days of Christmas will gather the ashes and spread them around the house, stables and fields to exorcise evil spirits.

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The next morning, January 6, after a special service, a procession is formed through towns, starting at the church and leading to the sea, a river, or even a reservoir.
The priests lead, followed by the the local authorities, the villagers or townspeople, schoolchildren and, in large towns, the army. Sometimes there is a band. The size and brilliance of this procession is in accordance with the size of the town, the most impressive ceremonies taking place in ports. In the port of Pireas, the procession is attended by members of the government.
When the procession reaches the water, the priests recite a blessing, and white doves are released. Then a large cross is thrown in the sea, to symbolize the blessing of the waters. A band of local men,  the Βουτιχτάδες  (voutihtades – divers) plunge into the icy waters to retrieve it. It is considered both a great honour and a sign of good luck to be the one who brings back the cross to the priest.
The church bells ring, the ships’ sirens boom. The faithful drink a few sips of holy water, and take some home to bless their houses and livestock.

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This ceremony symbolizes cleansing, purifying and, in a dimension that has its roots in ancient, pre-Christian times, riddance from demons.

During the Epiphany, other customs are revived that go back to Dionysian festivals or to the Turkish occupation.
Groups of people, wearing costumes and masks and holding wooden swords and bells, wander the streets or go from house to house singing and demanding money in return for chasing away evil spirits. The costumes and routines vary from place to place, as does the name of this custom. Μωμόγεροι (Momogeroi), Ραγκουτσάρια (ragoutsaria) , Ρουγκατσάρια (rougatsaria) are all different manifestations of this tradition.
In the town of Galatitsa in Halkidiki, they even construct a camel, activated by six men, to commemorate the 19th century story of the abduction of a beautiful young girl by the son of the local Turkish official. Her fiancé and his friends thought up the camel costume with which they gained entry into the Turkish household, hiding the girl inside the camel to sneak her out and back home where she married her intended before the Turks could get her back!

In some places, there is a custom called ‘the washing of the icons’: people take the icons they have in their houses and wash them in the nearest river.

Later, everyone repairs home for another festive meal, usually of pork, which can be baked with celery, or with quinces. On the island of Skyros, housewives make traditional pies filled with spiced pumpkin, called μαρμαρίτες (marmarites). They bake them on tiles inside the fireplace, taking care they are not stolen by the Kallikanzaroi, who have the ability to make their arms as long as they like, and can thus reach down the chimney to steal the pies!

 

Ringing in the New Year in Greece

On another TBT, I thought I’d repost this blog for newer readers who are interested in seasonal Greek customs.

Christmas may be over but the festivities are far from finished. In Greece the New Year celebrations are considered more important than Christmas, and are connected to Saint Basil, whose nameday falls on January first. This is when gifts are opened, since our Santa Klaus or Father Christmas is Aghios Vasilios or, familiarly, Aï Vasilis.

These are the main festive customs:

Βασιλόπιτα – Vasilopita (Basil’s cake)

After midnight on December 31, with the ushering in of the new year, there is the cutting of the Vasilopita, which is either tsoureki, a kind of brioche, or a cake – usually flavored with orange and sometimes containing candied fruit and nuts. A coin we call a flourí is slipped inside and, once the cake is distributed, the person who gets it is supposed to have extra good luck for the rest of the year.
In older days and in affluent households the coin used to be gold (usually an English gold pound) but nowadays it is mostly some kind of gold charm with the year etched on. Sometimes there can be a gift associated with it.

The simplest, most delicious - from last year, the new ones are not ready yet!
The simplest, most delicious pita – from last year, the new ones are not ready yet!

The Vasilopita has to be entirely distributed so it is divided equally amongst those present – the family, visitors and anyone working in the house are included. Tradition varies, but the first slice is usually reserved for Christ, the second for the house and the third for the poor. Then everyone gets their piece according to age, the eldest being first (or sometimes the householder). In my home the youngest child has to choose which piece will be cut first and then we proceed in a clockwise direction. People must not look for the coin until everyone has had their piece. Then there is usually a silence – often the person who has found the coin says nothing, to prolong the suspense – and the ‘discovery’ is followed by applause, congratulations and good wishes: Χρόνια Πολλά (Chronia Polla – Many Years) or Καλή Χρονιά (Kali Chronia – (May you have a) Good Year).

The Vasilopita is considered so essential to the start of each year that one is shared out not only in each and every home, but in the workplace – in offices, shops, public organizations – and even sports clubs and other associations. Because of the difficulty of getting everyone together, pitas are cut well into February and sometimes even March!

The story behind this custom is the following, although some versions existed in even more ancient times: In the 4th century, Aghios Vasilios was the Archbishop of Caesarea, an area of Cappadocia. A local tyrant was threatening to conquer and loot the town, so all the citizens gave their valuables to Aghios Vasilios, to give the tyrant in lieu of ransom, so the town would be spared. The tyrant, however, was deflected from his goal by the intervention of another Saint, Aghios Mercourios. Vasilios had the hard task of returning the valuables to their owners, but he had no idea what belonged to each. So he asked the townspeople to bake small loaves, inside which he hid the valuables, and which he then distributed at random. Upon breaking open the loaves, the parishioners were astounded to see they had each got their rightful belongings!
The Vasilopita was not the same in every part of Greece. In many places it was a savory pie, containing different meats and vegetables, such as leeks. Various spices and flavorings were used in both sweet and savory pies.
The surface of the cake or pie bore many decorations, according to local custom and the occupation of the householders. For example, in Asia Minor, the top was decorated with the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Byzantine Empire. Elsewhere, housewives etched the top with Saint Basil’s and the householder’s initials,and with barrels of wine, sheaves of wheat, lambs and goats, plows and boats, or anything else they wanted blessed for the new year.

There is still a large variety of Vasilopita to be found, but nowadays most are sweet.

 

Another festive and seasonal delicacy - κυδονόπαστο (quince paste)
Another festive and seasonal delicacy – κυδονόπαστο (quince paste)

 

Καλή Χέρα – Kali Hera (good hand)

Gifts of money are traditionally given to children on New Year’s Day. In some places, the custom was to give a gold coin, especially by grandparents to their grandchildren.

 

Σπάσιμο Ροδιού – Smashing of pomegranates

Another tradition thought to bring good luck for the coming year is the smashing of a pomegranate on the threshold of each house. The pomegranate is a fruit with a history going back to ancient times and figures prominently in mythology. It is widely revered as a symbol of regeneration, fertility and prosperity.
imageThe pomegranate smashes to the floor and the red grains scatter in all directions, spreading good fortune in the household, office or shop.

 

Κρεμύδα – Kremyda (Onion or squill bulb)

A squill bulb, or even a plain onion, sometimes wrapped in foil to deflect bad spirits, is hung above the front door on New Year’s Eve. Because of its many layers and ability to sprout even when removed from the earth it is meant to symbolize regeneration and growth; this custom is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. On New Year’s Day the bulb is brought into the house and kept for the rest of the year.

 

Ποδαρικό – Podariko (First Footing)

The person who first steps into a house on each New Year’s Day is supposed to bring good luck for the rest of the year. That’s why a child, innocent and pure of heart, is often chosen to walk in, always stepping in with the right foot first. This ‘right foot’ custom extends to anyone coming to a house for the first time, especially if it is a new house.

 

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The feast

Most people gather with family and friends to celebrate the New Year, and in some houses an extra place is set at the table for Aghios Vasilios. Another rich meal with a main dish of lamb or pork, cooked according to local tradition, followed by the same festive sweets as Christmas.
In many places the feasting was – and still is – preceded by the killing of a pig, with everyone joining in for the confection of sausages and other delicacies.

 

Gambling

To while away the time until midnight, decks of cards are brought out since Greeks think it’s good luck to have a flutter on New Year’s Eve. All sorts of games are played but especially black jack and rolling dice; some people even have a roulette wheel. Non-gamblers, but not only, take the opportunity to invest in a national lottery ticket.

 

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Cologne and Fireworks

Many Greeks party the night away on New Year’s Eve and in town centers the traffic is likely to be as dense at five in the morning as it is on a Saturday rush hour! In some places people walk around holding bottles of cologne, with which they spray each other. Often the municipality will put on firework displays for the enjoyment of those out and about.

Kalanda – Carols

If you’re at home on New Year’s Day you have to keep running to open the front door, as children arrive to sing the Kalanda. These are different to Christmas carols, since they celebrate the feast of Saint Basil and the start of the New Year. You have to reward the kids with some coins and maybe a melomakarono or two!

 

Happy New Year to all!

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The photographs of food are courtesy of Cake & Cookie Co, who make delicious goodies! 

Athenians love the theater

Long queues formed again in central Athens on a recent October afternoon. But for once they weren’t leading up to an ATM machine, or to a national insurance or tax office. They led to the ticket office of the Greek Art Theater, where something very appealing was on offer: they were selling 2 tickets per person for every performance of the winter season, for the astounding price of €3 each. All the performances had to be booked in advance, with a choice of convenient dates.

3,500 people lined up around the block, even crossing over to the next street, to avail themselves of this. Men and women, young and old, all waited patiently, sometimes for hours, holding the program they’d printed out and discussing available dates. Many had a book in hand to help pass the time. The theater had never anticipated such a response – there was an overflow, and they had to apologize for not accommodating everyone.

imageThe Art Theater is not the only one trying to adapt to the crisis. Many other venues are offering reduced tickets of €10 or less – usually they go for around €20 – as well as special offers for the unemployed.

The crisis has certainly affected the theater, but it has not cowed it. On the contrary, there’s a reckless feeling in the air, a notion that ‘In a crisis one must advance, not recede,’ and ‘We’re not going to make any money anyway, we might as well have some fun.’ The public is sometimes invited to enter venues that until recently functioned as night dives or warehouses, where they might have to sit in velvet chairs or perhaps on wooden benches.

I went to a play downtown, in a basement under a bar, where we sat on plastic chairs and the props consisted of an old sofa, a lamp and a bit of carpet. The audience was warmly enthusiastic about the comedy on offer, which was admittedly very funny, with great acting. Before and after, everyone went for a drink. My sister even attended a show where the performers ‘acted’ the props, turning themselves into trees and furniture!

In contrast to that, there are lush productions, such as those in the superb Badminton Theater, where a children’s play about Theseus involved fantastic sets. Theater district neighborhoods are resounding with the music and laughter of rehearsals, as all the most popular musicals, including Mamma Mia, are being put on with casts of talented young Greek actors.

In 2014 there were more than 400 shows on. I haven’t seen this winter’s program yet, but at the moment there are 91 performances on, spread around 58 theaters. Usually there’s something for every taste: comedy, farce, drama, Ancient Greek tragedies, stand-up, Shakespeare, musicals, performances for children, puppet theater. Also political satire, plays in verse, plays involving dance, and monologues.

Sculpture update: Tony Cragg in Athens


imageThe little girl standing next to me was counting faces.
‘There’s one,’ she pointed. ‘And another!’

imageThe sculpture before us was made of sheets of plywood glued together in layers. Three twisted pillars that reminded me of rock formations – or stalagmites (see photo on left). But as we circled it slowly, human profiles revealed themselves: some impassive, some stern, some faintly smiling. The little girl got excited, and so did I. If you look at the photo above, and the close-up below, you will see what I mean. This was one of the most deceptively simple, yet, upon inspection, incredibly complex pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
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When asked if some of the faces somehow ‘appear’ when he’s creating the piece, Tony Cragg is firm. Everything is meticulously planned. He takes pencil to paper and sketches out every facet of a new idea before converting it to 3D. Sometimes this proves impossible – his imagination has run away with him. Some ideas never evolve beyond the drawing stage, but if the drawings themselves are lovely, the completed sculptures are breathtaking.

On September 8, a cosmopolitan and mostly young crowd gathered at the Benaki Museum for the opening of Tony Cragg’s sculpture exhibition. Cragg, 66, born in Liverpool, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1988, has never shown his work in Greece before. He appeared happy to explain his thought processes as he stood in the auditorium, looking relaxed in an open-necked shirt. The audience enjoyed his engaging narrative which was accompanied by a slide show, and afterwards plied him with questions and requests to sign their catalogues.

Wandering amongst the works after the talk, my overwhelming urge was to touch them. Their curved, smooth surfaces cried out to be stroked.
imageCragg uses natural materials such as wood, polished stone and bronze as well as mirror-finish steel and even plastic.
The sculptures are very different. Some are squat and grounded.
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Some seem to be leaning into the wind, their surface eroded into the outlines of human profiles. Others soar upwards. Yet they all emit the same energy, their shapes shifting depending on where you’re standing.

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As I was leaving, I stopped to admire a few of the bigger bronze sculptures dotted about the museum’s wonderful courtyard.

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The exhibition was curated by Xenia Geroulanou of the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery,  who has represented the artist for 20 years; the Benaki Museum; and the artist himself, who loaned all the works from his own foundation.

*For anyone interested, below is the link to an article about Tony Cragg written by Vanessa Wildenstein for Athens Insider Magazine.

*For those in Athens, the exhibition runs until November 8, 2015.

Opening hours are Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 2102.345.3111, http://www.benaki.gr