From most places in Europe, at least, Greece is a very accessible destination. A couple of hours on a plane (around four for the furthest countries) and you’re in Athens. Starting this month, there are even direct flights to some islands, such as Corfu and Crete.
June is an ideal month to visit: cool enough to wander about ancient sites, warm enough to swim. Still green, but with summer blossoms such as oleander and bougainvillea in full bloom. School’s not out yet, so it’s still pretty quiet and prices are lower than in the high season.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Athens itself, and there are many beautiful mainland sites worth a visit, such as the Meteora or Mycenae. However, one of the most fun things to do is catch a boat to an island.
Get a room by the beach.
Watch the sunset. Wispy clouds and lavender mountains.
Sit by an ancient olive tree.
These pictures are from Thasos, a large, wooded island in the North Aegean. But with a couple of hundred inhabited islands to choose from, there’s something for every taste.
Having been invited to Amsterdam for the birthday of a dear friend, a group of us were lucky enough to visit a temporary exhibition at the Rijksmuseum entitled High Society.
The exhibition features a collection of 35 full-length, life-size portraits of monarchs, aristocrats and rich citizens, by great masters in art history. It spans four centuries (from early 16th to the start of the 20th), and is styled as a party—featuring power, wealth, and massive egos. Because of the time and expense involved in painting such large canvases, this was a form of portraiture reserved for royal and noble subjects and, in later years, for what would now be known as ‘the one percent’.
It is also a timeless, fascinating, international fashion show, since people dressed in their best finery for the occasion. The paintings are full of symbols of the subjects’ wealth and power. Cloth of gold, lace, embroidery, large and intricate jewelry. There are also lots of accessories and plenty of dogs—lap dogs to show pampered luxury, fierce hunting dogs as symbols of strength.
See, above and below, how the painter Lucas Cranach (c.1472-1553) portrayed, for the first time in Northern Europe, a couple standing, life-size, and full length. They were Catherine of Mecklenburg (1487-1561) and Henri the Pious, Duke of Saxony (1473-1541), and the painting was commissioned in honor of their marriage in 1512.
He wears a wreath of red and white carnations to show he is a groom and, surprisingly, he’s neither clean-shaven nor bearded, but sports a very modern stubble.
Then there are Rembrandt’s wedding portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit – his only life-size, standing, full-length portraits. Painted in 1634, they were a joint 2016 purchase by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France from the Rothschild collection, and they have just been restored. They are not as handsome as the previous couple, but their wedding black is accessorized with the most intricate lace collars and matching flower belt buckles.
It must be noted that, at the time, the wearing of black showed ostentation, not restraint: black was the most expensive material, had to be laboriously dyed and was difficult to upkeep. It was therefore a symbol of status which could, moreover, show off silver buckles and lacework to advantage.
The most powerful man of Europe, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, (1500-1558), had himself painted life-size by Jacob Seisenegger (1505-1567), showing just how important this type of portrait had become. Note the very wide shoulders, another symbol of strength, and the hunting dog.
An austere and powerful portrait, of Don Pedro di Barberana y Aparregui (1579-1649) by Velázquez (1599-1660). Don Pedro moved in powerful circles in 17th-century Spain, was comptroller of the royal treasury and sat on the King’s secret council. Note the plain background, contrasting with others that are richly decorated, and the tip of the sword lifting his coat at the back.
In a looser mode, the enchanting portraits, by Veronese, of Count Iseppo da Porto (c.1500-1580) with his son Leonida. The Count was one of the most influential figures in the town of Vicenza in the 16th century.
And that of his wife, Countess Livia da Porto Thiene, also descended from a noble family, and her daughter, Deidamia.
They are portrayed in ‘everyday’ clothes, which, although luxurious, are not too showy. It is rare these portraits can be seen together, since, sadly, his is in the Uffizi Gallery, while hers is in the Art Museum in Baltimore. A great shame, since being displayed next to each other greatly enhances the emotional import.
Moving on to more recent times, the portrait, by the English artist Gainsborough (1727-1788) of the beautiful Mary, Countess Howe dressed in what would have been the height of fashion in the mid-1700s. Her pale complexion is enhanced by the black ribbon on her wrist and her arsenal of expensive accessories also attest to her aristocratic status. Gainsborough only yearned to paint landscapes, but these would not earn him a living, so he was obliged to paint the local gentry, moving to another town with all his family in search of more clients, once he had finished one lot.
This portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a rare treat, as it is domiciled in Los Angeles, where women are said to swoon before it. It depicts the exceedingly handsome Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi (1846-1918), who was the founder of modern French gynaecology and an incorrigible womanizer. Sargent, an American artist who moved to Europe, appropriately painted him in a scarlet dressing gown and embroidered satin slippers. Pozzi was killed by one of his clients, a man whose impotence he had failed to cure. He nevertheless had a long and distinguished medical career, and consorted with many creative people, such as Sara Bernhardt, who was briefly his lover and remained a lifelong friend, and Marcel Proust.
Giovanni Baldini’s Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound (1908) catches its subject in what is, for Casati, a relatively understated outfit: she once wore a dress of lightbulbs wired up to a generator. She was once described as the Lady Gaga of her day.
The card next to the painting says: Six feet tall and thin as a rake, and with bleached skin, heavily made up eyes and hair dyed either a fiery red or emerald green, Luisa Casati’s appearance was unforgettable. At the many legendary parties thrown by the flamboyant and eccentric marchesa the champagne flowed freely and there was no shortage of cocaine and opium. Boldini painted Casati wearing haute couture and accompanied by her favourite greyhound with his characteristic, ‘slashing’ brushstrokes.
A last highlight was the portrait, by Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), of Anna, Comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933), a writer and leading figure of Parisian society. The portrait was considered shocking, if not offensive, at the time, because of the plunging neckline revealing a hint of nipple, and the fact that she irreverently wears the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur (a great honor conferred by the state) as a choker around her neck.
It was a rare treat to see these portraits assembled in one place—and fascinating to compare the mores and fashion of each era. To finish, I wanted to share a video of the Museum’s wonderful Shylights, a light installation created, out of silk, by Studio Drift.
If you click on the video, it will magically right itself, for some mysterious reason.
I’m still working on my next post—but, meanwhile, I thought any foodies or cooks amongst you might be interested in this post on one of my favorite blogs, Evolving Life. Sampling the food of the Minoans—some of you may have read my post on the ancient Palace of Knossos in Crete.
Recently we were invited to attend a demonstration on Minoan Cuisine – appropriately held near the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Jerolyn Morrison, a trained archaeologist and one of the creators of Minoan Tastes, reenacted cooking techniques from ancient times. Minoan Tastes organises cooking events for people to (as she prints on her card) “experience the flavors of the land, sea, and sky of ancient Crete”.
The cooking pots she uses are custom made on Crete, based on pot shapes and ceramic fabric found in archaeological contexts – including the iconic tripod cook pot of the Minoans.
Before cooking, the unglazed pots are prepped by soaking in water, and charcoal is heated to the white heat stage.
The pots are then surrounded with the hot charcoal and diligently monitored, adding more coals when required to sustain the long, slow cooking process.
On this day, I would like to celebrate springtime, with flowers as a symbol of peace. My wish is for an end to warmongering.
Below find the two parts of a floral diptych – it is still a work in progress, but it is my offering for May first.
Also I wanted to share the latest remake of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War – no comments added.
Some of you might remember a post about Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (here for those who’ve missed it). This artist fascinates me both because of her work, which dislays a very original vision of life, and her history, about which I will say more later. I was therefore interested to come upon an article which described her relationship with another artist, Joseph Cornell, a man almost as strange as herself. Cornell, a reclusive who made the most exquisite collages and boxes, has also been an old favorite of mine, but I had no idea these two were connected in any way.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Tokyo in 1929, the daughter of a horrendously abusive mother who used to tear up her paintings. She suffered from hallucinations since she was a child and, although these developed into the mental illness that led to her spending her life in an asylum, drawing upon these experiences also served as a basis for her art.
Nurturing a fierce determination to move to New York, Kusama wrote to Georgia O’Keefe and, having received a reply, showed up in the city with no money and little English. In the beginning she was beset by loneliness and poverty, but eventually she became involved in an artistic community which included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Eva Hesse. She became an advocate of free love in 1960 New York, leading nude happenings for which she was reviled as a national disgrace in her homeland.
She became renowned as painter, pop artist, cultural activist, and experimented in various mediums including sculpture, painting, collage, film, performance, happenings, fashion design, and publishing.
She gained recognition for her sexually charged public performances in Central Park protesting the Vietnam War, her large-scale infinity net paintings, psychedelic mirror room installations, and the ‘Narcissus Garden’ which was shown at the 1966 Venice Biennale.
Despite presiding over orgies, Kusama had a fear of sex, perhaps because she had suffered from her father’s philandering, and remained abstinent throughout her life. So it was that when she met Joseph Cornell, an odd-duck loner 26 years her senior, who lived with his domineering mother in Flushing, Queens, the two struck up an intense, albeit platonic relationship.
In the basement of his mother’s house, Cornell spent his days dreaming and making delicately detailed glass-covered boxes. These are small imagined worlds made up of found objects where a ping pong ball becomes the moon, or wooden animals and cutout birds are suspended over a landscape of newspaper clippings and little stamps. He often used star maps, small machine parts, pebbles and corks, along with text from old newspapers and magazines, to create collages. Into these he channeled all his longings and dreams of romance, vanished European cities, and travel to faraway places.
Cornell hated selling these precious objects, frequently changing galleries and dealers so that no one could gain too much control over his work. But he loved to give them away, especially to women. A deeply romantic man, he adored women but was crippled by physical reserve, accentuated by the behavior and influence of his jealous and possessive mother.
Cornell became besotted by Kusama, flooding her mailbox with letters and personalized collages, and calling her on the phone constantly.
They became close, often spending time at Cornell’s mother’s home in Queens, passing the day sketching each other in the nude. Of course his mother deeply disapproved of this, and apparently once poured a bucket of water over them as they sat kissing beneath the backyard quince tree.
After some time Kusama took a step back, feeling the situation had got claustrophobic, but the two isolated, driven, visionary misfits remained close until his death in 1972.
Kusama was deeply affected by Cornell’s death. She returned to Japan, and in 1977 checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital ever since, going to work in her studio only a short distance away. Cornell’s influence did not end with his death, however, since he had given her boxes of magazine cuttings and other materials which she subsequently used to make a series of luminous collages. These feature elements of his style including surrealist cutouts, layered with her signature pattern of polka dots and infinity nets.
As I mentioned before, Kusama was also involved in publishing a number of works; and while I’m not about to pick up a book entitled ‘Love suicide at Sakuragazuka’, I remain entranced by her unique, delightful weirdness.
Any Greeks still doubtful about climate change are becoming more convinced as yet another cloud of dust from the Sahara hits Greek skies.
Athens, known for the pure blue of its Attic sky, is covered in a yellow haze, and people are going around coughing or hiding their mouths behind handkerchiefs.
Things have been even worse in Crete, because its proximity to Africa means the dust is denser, turning the atmosphere bright orange.
We have always had this phenomenon when certain climatic conditions prevailed, but it would occur only occasionally. In the last few years it is becoming more common and happens several times per year. According to scientists, it will probably continue increasing with time, as climate warming becomes more intense.
The dust cloud is not toxic, but it is extremely unpleasant and can cause breathing problems in people suffering from lung conditions such as asthma.
This is what the sky should look like at this time of year!
When I wrote about the wonderful community of the Estia Agios Nikolaos, (click here if you missed it) the post became too long for me to include anything about the town of Galaxidi. In fact, this picturesque little town, with its fine natural port nestled in the gulf of Korinth, has a very interesting history.
Before Greece had acquired good roads, seaways were essential to trade, and, by 1775, the Galaxidi port, under the tolerant eye of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of Ioannina, was fourth in strength in Greece, with 60 large ship of a total tonnage of 10.000 and crews numbering 1.100 souls. The fleet operated on a system whereby each member of the crew owned part of the ship or its cargo – this fostered a spirit of active entrepreneurship, but also cultivated economy, frugality and common sense. The crews’ daily diet was dry bread, olives, salt fish and a little wine, and they were known for their endurance in adversity.
The captains of Galaxidi contributed greatly to the War of Independence of 1821 and, after liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the fleet was quickly rebuilt.
After 1840, there was a rapid rise in prosperity, with the shipowners of Galaxidi founding their own insurance companies, and shipyards which built around twenty vessels a year. In the 1870s, more than 350 sailing ships crisscrossed the Mediterranean, travelled to the Black Sea and as far away as the Atlantic.
Sadly, by the end of the 19th century there came a steady decline , since the shipowners of Galaxidi insisted in staying true to their sailing vessels, and refused to covert to steam. They lost their competitive edge, and the town began to dwindle, while some families moved to Pireus. The coup de grace came with the German occupation.
Why did the traditional captains of Galaxidi fail to become modern cosmopolitan shipowners, like so many other Greeks did? It’s difficult to say. Maybe it was their insistence to cling to tradition, maybe it was their sense of independence which stopped them from forging the alliances needed to secure the necessary funds for converting the fleet. Be that as it may, their houses still stand as a reminder of their past glory. Neoclassical in style, they boast wonderful painted ceilings decorated by Italian artists the captains invited back with them, along with pieces of furniture and decorative objects bought on their voyages.