Kites and art

In Greece, this is the last weekend of Carnival, and little kids are roaming the streets dressed in those ghastly plastic Superman costumes with fake abs. This year, trending among little girls is ‘Policewoman’, complete with holster and gun (I found this vaguely disconcerting), closely followed by ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Skeleton’.
The end of Carnival heralds Clean Monday, a day of flying kites and feasting on delicious seafood and other delicacies to mark the beginning of Lent. For those of you who missed it, I wrote about this holiday last year, and you can read the post here.




Since I’ve been on a roll regarding Greek artists, I realized that the iconic images about Clean Monday and other holidays are often by Spyros Vassiliou ( Σπύρος Βασιλείου; 1903-1985), a Greek painter, printmaker, illustrator, and stage designer.

Vassiliou painted the objects that define special moments: the May wreath, the little table by the sea with its glasses of ouzo and plate of olives. And landscapes with fishing boats, and little white chapels, and the blue of the sky and sea.




The townsmen of Galaxidi, where Vassiliou was born, collected money to send him to Athens in 1921, to study at the Athens School of Fine Arts under the famous painter Nikolaos Lytras.

Vassiliou started becoming recognized for his work in the 1930s, when he received the Benaki Prize from the Athens Academy. The recipient of a Guggenheim Prize for Greece (in 1960), his works have been exhibited in galleries throughout Europe, in the United States and in Canada.





Spyros Vassiliou became recognized as a painter of the transformation of the modern urban environment, depicting with an unwavering eye the sprawl of urban development that surrounded his home in Athens, under the walls of the Parthenon. He combined monochrome backgrounds with the unorthodox positioning of objects, and paid homage to the Byzantine icon by floating symbols of everyday Greek life on washes of gold or sea-blue color, very much like the religious symbols that float on gold in religious art.

For many years, Vassiliou taught theatre, and designed sets and costumes for the stage. He also worked in film. During the years of the German occupation of Greece (1941-1945), when painting supplies were scarce, Vassiliou turned to engraving and woodcuts.




I once visited Vassiliou in his studio, for a ‘lesson’; this was organized by a well-meaning friend of my parents who knew I loved to paint. Vassiliou was a tiny, rotund old man, and I was a hulking, awkward teenager who literally towered over him. He let me paint on one of his monochrome backgrounds – I had never painted in oils and produced an indifferent fish – but, although he was very amiable, I was too shy to pick his brains or even snoop around amongst his canvases and we did not establish a rapport. But he did ask me to visit a theatre where he was making the scenery for a play, and I have fond memories of both occasions.  I still have that small canvas with a boring fish on it somewhere.



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.




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.