“There is raw energy”: Hydra, paradise for artists, continues to charm | Greece

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PPerched on a knoll in Hydra, Jeff Koons’ Apollo weather vane is hard to miss. The gargantuan solar sculpture welcomes visitors at all hours, its golden rays and face a vibrant (if sinister) reminder that art is alive and well on this Argo-Saronic island. If the 30-foot spinning top wasn’t enough, Koons has also transformed the slaughterhouse it sits on into a shrine to the sun god.

A little further, in the harbor whose beauty still fascinates more than 80 years after Henry Miller praised its “savage and naked perfection”, tourists jostle to enter other exhibits. It is a rich selection for the curious. Along a 50-meter stretch of waterfront, three shows all draw crowds.

“The more the better,” says curator, Dimitrios Antonitsis, whose Hydra School projects have long brought some of the world’s most innovative artists to the island. “There’s a raw energy here, a magnetism that artists and art lovers love.”

Sixty-two years after an undiscovered young Leonard Cohen settled on the rocky outpost, buying a dilapidated three-story house on the upper edge of town, Hydra’s lure as a haven for creatives endures.

The island may be a far cry from the image of primitive simplicity that first attracted its famous bohemian team of expatriate writers, painters and poets, but it still offers a home and a resting place for those who seek solace in art. For some it may be shrouded in the excitement of escapism, for others in its barren terrain and otherworldly light, but even now, with its concept stores, trendy restaurants and boutique hotels , Hydra is considered a mecca for artists.

“So many of our heroes, so many of our idols were here,” says Alexis Veroukas, a Greek painter who moved to the island ten years ago. “It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a holy place, Mount Athos for artists.”

The historic port of Hydra in the heart of the Argo-Saronic Gulf. Photography: funkyfood London/Paul Williams/Alamy

Veroukas, who lives in the multi-villa complex designed by James Speyer, an avant-garde American architect residing in Hydra in the 1950s, credits the geology of an island that is just 11 miles long and 6 miles wide. wide. In its stark rocky character, there is an “element of surprise” to Hydra’s color scheme; shades and tones that he says never fail to delight and inspire.

William Pownall, the British painter known for his collages of island landscapes, agrees that the rugged natural beauty of his adopted home no doubt played a part in his anchoring here.

The energetic 87-year-old was not only a friend of Cohen, but he has fond memories of George Johnston and Charmian Clift, the Australian couple described as the king and queen of the mid-century art community. ‘Hydra, who took him and the Canadian bard under their wings. .

William Pownall in his Hydra studio
British painter William Pownall in his Hydra studio. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

“The Greeks were very good to us foreigners,” he recalls in his waterfront studio, canvases stacked along the walls. “They showed remarkable tolerance even though we behaved in an unconventional way. They gave us credit in bars and taverns, they were wonderful like that, their relation to money was a revelation for me.

The rhythms of island life – getting up early, working until noon and then congregating at the port as the steamers and ferries arrived – were not only conducive to work, but also conducive to self-discovery. Often, members of the colony would come together to show each other the fruits of their labors in what, to Pownall, were extremely stimulating interactions.

“It was the 60s and, yes, there were drugs, sex and a lot of alcohol, but a lot of us worked very hard,” he says, recalling how the mail arrived on the boats was a very important event, because a letter could contain a check. “I don’t think I could have been the same artist in Italy, for example. A place grabs you and I realized very quickly that I could dig here.

Like the Johnstons – cultural icons who would become household names in Australia, bolstered after Clift’s suicide – Pownall’s output was prodigious. Above all, Hydra offers a rare silence for an artist whose masterful ability to convey stillness through paint has earned him a rapidly growing following. Aside from a dust cart and a garbage truck, cars and scooters are banned on the island, leaving the heavy lifting to donkeys and mules.

Australian authors George Johnston (left) and Charmian Clift (second from left) with Norwegian expatriate Marianne Ihlen and musician Leonard Cohen at Hydra in 1960.
Australian authors George Johnston (left) and Charmian Clift (second from left) with Norwegian expatriate Marianne Ihlen and musician Leonard Cohen in 1960. Photography: James Burke/Getty Images

“In the world we live in today, silence is golden,” says the painter who, barring an interval of far-right rule under the Colonels – a regime that instantly banned the miniskirt and the Beatles – lived on the island with her partner, poet Francesca Meks Taylor, for nearly 60 years. “It can bring the tranquility you seek when trying to convey peace and stillness.”

Long before Cohen’s appearance, people looking for an alternative lifestyle had started arriving at Hydra after Henry Miller, memorably describing it as a “rock that sticks out of the sea like a huge loaf of bread petrified”, put the island on the map in The Colossus of Maroussi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lawrence Durrell and painter John Craxton were among the many who, like Miller in 1939, spent time as guests of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, the artist then at the forefront of the modernist movement Greek, whose wealthy family of prominent sailors the captains owned a 40-bedroom mansion above the harbor. Fermor, who spent two years in the thick-walled house writing his great travelogue Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, provided a tour of a trail of personalities from the British literary scene. The mansion was destroyed by fire, with many believing Cohen had placed a curse on it.

“Hydra has an almost continuous tradition of attracting talented people,” says Polly Samson, a British writer who spent years researching the artist colony for her bestselling novel A Theater for Dreamers. “The more you look, the more names you discover.”

The climbs that locals are forced to do due to the lack of vehicles – frequently climbing hundreds of steps to reach houses – are, according to Samson, inextricably linked to the “restless energy” that makes Hydra so conducive to talent. . “I think the steps definitely have something to do with it,” she says. “There are studies, after all, that have shown that walking, foot drop, is very helpful for those who want to create.”

Since the mid-1930s, the port mansion of another wealthy Hydrriot, Emmanuel Tombazi, has also housed an annex of the Athens School of Fine Arts. It has also helped maintain the artistic spirit of the island, providing accommodation for students who otherwise might not be able to afford it. “Young people and avant-garde people want to be here because in a way this place allows you to let go,” explains Antonitsis, the curator. “They find they can be both inspired and liberated – and just look at the building! It has to be the most beautiful art school in the world.

    Dimitrios Antonitsis in front of the Hydra building where his last summer show of international artists is held.
The curator Dimitrios Antonit is in front of the building in which his last summer exhibition of international artists is held. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

In Hydra Town Hall, surrounded by portraits of the great sailors and War of Independence figures the island produced, Mayor George Koukoudakis marvels at the expansive reach of expatriate artists.

“Colleges in New York want to hold workshops to discuss writers and artists who have lived here,” he smiles. “The interest in Leonard Cohen is phenomenal.”

The city council, he said, took the unprecedented step of renaming the street in front of the house where the musician had lived with his muse, Marianne Ihlen, “in Latin letters only” and also authorized the construction of a bench near the rocks. where the singer-songwriter liked to swim.

Koons is the latest in a long line of artists to be invited to the island by the Athens-based Deste Foundation, set up by billionaire Greek Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou, who helped establish Hydra as a bastion of contemporary art. A prominent collector, Joannou often cruises around Hydra Harbor in his yacht, Guilty, garishly painted by the pop artist in a cartoonish style.

“I recently presented honorary citizenships to Koons and Brice Marden [another American artist] who has lived here for many years”, explains the mayor. “Hydra is grateful to all the artists and writers who call our island home. We are proud to call them compatriots.

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