by Kevin McGrath, December 2017
HYDRA ISLAND during the latter half of the Twentieth Century was one of those unique locations in the history of artistic achievement, for like Paris in the Twenties, or London’s Soho during the Thirties, or New York in the Fifties it was a remarkable venue for bohemian life and creativity. There is an exception though, qualifying this comparison, for unlike those cities the community of Hydra was tiny: between two and three thousand inhabitants lived in one small town upon an island that was essentially devoid not only of other human society but also of trees and animal life. Hydra is essentially formed of dry waterless rock with some diminutive pine woods and the occasional passage bird; what human society there is occurs within a single settlement that surrounds a port on three sides like a classical theatre. When speaking of Hydra that is what one refers to, this isolated littoral community and not the barren isle.
Hydra remains today an isle without roads and where few ever depart from the town to venture into the hills or to wander toward the coast on the south side. On that other and unpopulated shore there is a vague and pastoral world of the old Eastern Mediterranean, with smoothly paved threshing circles beside former terraced fields, little one-roomed shepherd dwellings with their cisterns and thorny goat pens, and a flora of prickly pear and sage, of arbutus, wild olive, and almond. A few former signaling stations from centuries ago still remain on hill-tops looking out southwards across a vacant and glittering Aegean.
Architecturally, the buildings of Hydra town arise from another era where Eighteenth Century stone structures define every point of view with radical and finely linear proportion; the grey of rendered mineral moderated by a cerulean sky and immediate azure sea as the streets climb upward from the shore. Stark whitewashed walls and paths sharpen one’s visual perspective especially during glaring summer months; these strongly optical qualities are visually pleasing in their influence for they have arisen naturally without plan or architectural foresight and imposition. The audible quietness of the isle, untroubled by motor traffic, and also the geographical remoteness of the community—so separate from the rest of the world— all facilitate an outstanding physical environment, one which began to attract an uncommon group of foreigners in the mid-Twentieth century.
By the Nineteen-Fifties all these exceptional qualities prompted a sudden florescence of cultural achievement in painting, poetry, prose, music, and sculpture, as the isle became the destination and home to both Greek and foreign artists. It was painting however, which became Hydra’s most favoured, prolific, and advanced medium.
This essay discovers not simply some of the names and substance of those myriad individuals who lived and worked among the Hydriot community during this half-century of years, but tells of how some of these characters came to succeed in their novel perception and demonstration of ‘the beautiful’, to kalo. Why was it that this geographically removed community became so appealing to a transient group of thoroughly eclectic and sundry outsiders who possessed little historical affinity with each other but who together composed a miniature society? All this was to become intimately founded upon the practice of friendship and a shared aesthetic aspiration.
It was not so much the natural aspects of life on this isle which attracted and inspired artists but it was more the unique, incomparable, and inimitably enlightening qualities of the society which enticed the painters, poets, musicians, and novelists to this especial situation. There has long been an indigenous tradition of painting and literature on the island, particularly concerning marine depiction, for much of the early wealth of Hydra came from shipping and an economy of nautical commerce. Yet the painters who congregated about the port in the last sixty years were among some of the most innovative and inventive artists of their generation.
Early traditions of painting on Hydra were concerned with the portrayal of sailing vessels and the portraiture of captains and ship-owners and also with representations of heroes of the early Nineteenth Century and its War of Independence. It was Nikos Hadji-Kyriakos Gikas who truly conceived and delineated a modernist tradition of landscape art however, one that has continued into the early present century with the pictures of Dimitri Gassoumis, of Panagiotis Tetsis, of Panagiotis Rappas, Angelika Lialios, and also in the canvases of the Canadian Adam Shapiro. The rare and masterly pastel drawings of Marios Loizides marked the high moment in this pictorial tradition although these works are difficult to locate nowadays having all entered into the veiled rooms of private collections.
It was during the harsh postwar Fifties that numerous Western painters began to take up residence on The Rock, as it was often affectionately titled. Then, the suave Gikas, perhaps the most significant Greek painter of that century, lived and worked from his studio in an old family mansion—now presently a despoiled ruin—above the fishing hamlet of Kamini and many others were attracted into that circle by his pioneering visual influence. That splendid and ancient Gikas domain was home or host to innumerable other artists, most notably the painter John Craxton and the eminent memoirist Patrick Leigh-Fermor, who composed his most well known book, Mani, within those walls. There was a supreme amity and a sharing of means in those days and a similar impassioned admiration for an older, pre-Independence Greece with its late Byzantine and post-Ottoman graphic fashions.
The paintings of that time can be separated into two general divisions: those that depicted terrain and portrayed individuals, and those that tended toward a more ideal formality of abstraction. The distinction between abstraction and representation and, as a corollary, the differing influences of Western Europe and North American painting genres, played themselves out among these artists. Expressionism, in both its European and American styles, became a powerful presence in the School of Hydra, beginning with the drawings of Brenda Chamberlain and climaxing in the powerful and magnificent work of Brice and Helen Marden.
It was the towering presence of Gikas, who—having lived and studied for many years in Paris where he had been a friend of Le Corbusier—brought the genus of cubism to Hydra painting, viewing the town and its vegetation through such a conceptual lens. This was a style that John Craxton carefully developed before he moved away and took up residence on Crete. Then, within this vein of abstract representation came a group of London painters who drew with them the currency of bohemian Soho, Anthony Kingsmill being one of the first of this coterie to take up residence on the island in the early Sixties. His work was primarily concerned with the human figure in a manner of expressionist and almost impasto abstraction. The younger Kingsmill had been deeply influenced by the English painter Keith Vaughan as well as by the Greek Ioannis Tsarouxis; that abstracted and at times impressionist manner of portraying human form became the mature style of Kingsmill. He also—earlier on—painted island landscapes in the non-figurative mode of the English John Piper. The work of the youthful Guy Allain, a friend of Kingsmill, pursued an extreme expressionism, but his canvases are extremely scarce items today.
The early Gikas style of topographic figuration was accompanied by other foreigners on the isle during the latter Twentieth Century, by semi-realistic painters like the Canadian Marcella Maltais and presently by Panagiotis Rappas, the grand-son of a native painter. The Scottish Jane Porter, whose depictions of views about the town captured the complexity of island architecture and its pictorial planes and transitory guests, moved her model closer towards natural and lyrical illustration. All this pursuit of representation and non-representation culminated in the work of William Pownall—presently a resident of the isle for more than fifty years—who developed his style into one of almost pure abstraction. Working from a British tradition directed by painters such as Lanyon, Pasmore, and Heron, Pownall has become the paramount non-figurative artist of the isle and his development of a refined minimalism has depicted both images of terrain and of the marine tradition of island culture. Today Pownall has become an elder statesman of resident foreigners on Hydra.
It is the works of Gikas, of Loizides, and of Marden however, which presently stand at the international apex of such painterly production—particularly in terms of price—yet their canvases were generated within a context of hundreds of other works which, although not commercially so successful nor so aesthetically immaculate and perfect, were nevertheless magnificent in their small capturings of humanistic and earthly views of the insular dimensions of human existence: the physical, emotional, and the ontological. All of these painters existed and worked within an amicable and profoundly egalitarian community where other media— like poetry, prose, music, and sculpture—similarly thrived: this was the larger and most valuable context.
The Greek literary renaissance of the first half of the Twentieth Century conduced to an early artistic presence on Hydra, with poets like George Seferis and his Athenian cohort frequently visiting the place; one of the cantos in his masterpiece Mythistorema, poem number Thirteen, is about the naval port of Hydra. Then later, among the literate rather than the painterly— nominally led by the globally famous and now cosmopolitan lyricist Leonard Cohen—were Richard Vick and Piers Kemp, plus innumerable other poets who passed about the community during those years, like the charismatic mariner George Dillon Slater and the ardent neo-Romantic Maria Servaki. The Byronic Vick and his partner, the painter Jane Motley—who was both an impressionist and portraitist—became renowned for their exotic and oriental style of living where the practice of art merged with the being of life itself. Their household and their yacht—both full of painting, sculpture, and the sound of poetry and music—became a refuge for many young artists and performers. Their hospitality and generosity were famed and Vick and Motley became an icon of bohemian style, merging creativity with idealism and a mildly libertine sensibility.
Even among those who were not fine artists in a professional sense there was frequently a passion for exquisite arrangement in terms of domestic living; aesthetes like Lindsey Callicoatt made apparent the immaculate in terms of interior design where rooms and courtyards became sophisticated articulations of a reserved plan of beauty. Cuisine became refined and esoteric, gardens were sites of treasured cultivation, and the writing of letters in a world that was pre-digital and where the Poste Restante received the mails irregularly—depending upon the weather and sailing conditions for the ferries—was a minor art in itself. All these multi-dimensional practices became extra yet integral components of diurnal and seasonal time among foreign residents, as their world became an exclusive culture in itself.
Simultaneously, life for this alien population assumed a performative and expressive quality and it was not simply the making of works of art and the detail of general livelihood which informed the days but also a manner of visible performance, in both fashion and speech, which charged the culture of the place. This was a site of unspoken theatre, both physically, given the terrain, and culturally, given the persons involved, and underlying all this was the work of artistry itself, the fuel and consequence of such animated existence. That necessary performative aspect of life became unbearable for some—like the modest John Craxton— who fled to other towns in Greece, towards Xania, Nauplion, or to Lakonia.
Novelists like Felix Thoresen were part of a Norwegian group of artists who arrived on the island in the Sixties and Seventies. There were also sculptors and musicians who spent time on the isle before moving elsewhere: like Palmer, who carved island stone, and Julius White the London sculptor who stayed on Hydra during the latter Seventies, and Paul Thorneycroft who worked in several media. Bjørn Saastad, the painter and photographer, recorded many individuals during these decades, particularly among those who gravitated towards the imaginative household of Timothy Hennessy and Ioannis Kardamatis. There were also the film-makers Ina Fritsche and Nick Broomfield, and the latter’s cinematic documentary of those years and characters. Terry Oldfield, the composer and mantic flautist, was a strong presence during the Eighties and played in many venues including the legendary Bill’s Bar, itself the arch-stage of performative gesture and choral repetition.
It was these dramatic qualities of life on the island which so propelled the days there with a peripheral yet unspeakable energy. It was this intensely ephemeral yet demonstrative practice of life, especially as it occurred on the port itself, which enclosed that other production which happened in the studios or at the desks. Architectonically, the port, being in the shape of a broad amphitheatre, a scene that was enveloped on three rising and circular sides by whitened houses and lanes, was exploited by many movie directors who took advantage of this natural set, with Sophia Loren, Merlina Merkouri, Anthony Perkins, and dozens of other stars acting their parts.
One might assert that genius occurs as a symptom of the psyche which is solely able to drive a medium of expression; genius in this sense being a condition of activity rather than an inherent or material quality of human consciousness. Yet as with the poor and gossiping women of the Theban royal family in the Bakxai of Euripides, the release or amplification of such symptoms can cause marvellous delusion and automatic death; for to be able to call upon one’s psychic silhouette and to control that mental and emotional verve—which are usually suppressed and socially or personally ordered—requires extreme tenacity and resolute habituation. This is what we think of as nowadays as genius, that intensely precise focus or indestructible aim which is only true. Many succumbed to such personal phrasing, both privately or publically, and yet from this ingenious psychic theatre arose an abundant number of works of great loveliness and superlative registry.
In one of his last books, Civilisation And Its Discontent, published in Nineteen Thirty, Sigmund Freud spoke about the cultural unease and disquiet caused when society becomes overly complicated as it simultaneously denies its own store of generative agency, until, at some tensile instant there is a sudden exfoliation of this invisible vigour which pitilessly deforms and deranges the deficient world of conventional illusion. It was this tactful balance however, this equilibrium of public manner and personal emotion, coupled with the discipline and strength of effort, which enabled most of these successful painters and writers to secure fulfillment. On the one hand there was indiscriminate use of alcohol and narcotics and yet, on the other hand, wonderful objects of luminous beauty were brought to light. These were not only painting but also poetry, song, and sculpture, born into a realm of humanity and yet with the impartial air of the ephemeral. All this was driven by a determination to exceed anything temporal or mortal and to go beyond the constraint of typical and habitual perception towards a condition of the completely affirmative.
Some, one or two of the poets for instance, found solace and equipoise on the other—the southern—side of the island where no one lived and where their were only a few rough paths, cisterns, and here and there occasional shallow terraces for the cultivation of barley. Much poetry was found among those desiccated hills and along that unpeopled coast of grey rock, thyme, and a few hawks, such was its ancient and natural harmony. ‘Love of place’ they used to say, was as important if not more important than ‘love of person’, and it was that farther and other shore of Hydra which supplied happiness and a certain symmetry of life for those few who were able to put aside the performative and hyper-productive world of the port and find a pacific retreat amongst the silence of a more telluric and marine world.
This community persisted for just over fifty years and still nowadays continues to flourish but in a completely different and more level manner, with resident painters like the Franco-Australian Jill Appert and the English Pauline Keaney. Hydra has become European and put aside its Levantine dress. That prior society had been primarily established upon a profound relationship with the Hydriot people who completely embraced all these strange and unconventional artists and accepted them into their own anciently traditional and originally Albanian community, regardless of the occasional extreme and compulsively non-orthodox antics. Without the Hydriots none of this life or aesthetic culture would have been possible, for the friendships which enabled and drove the foreign community were inherently grounded upon a far more intrinsic degree of amity and community with the islanders themselves. Without the local Greeks who supported all this sometimes uncanny and sauvage enterprise this artistic venture could not have been in any way viable.
Perhaps the most dynamic social quality of this period was what could be described as Utopian and I would aver that this social pattern derives from an earlier and deeply traditional Greek or Middle Eastern ethic of hospitality. It was not simply the case that an ethnos of tremendous and lively creativity was at work on the isle nor that this community of artists was unlike other communities due to the geographical isolation and the natural confinement of the town and port and to mutual aesthetic ideals: this sharing of livelihood and aspiration, of ideals and of actual praxis was—I would argue—matchless, and was in fact Utopian. Not only were ideas and conversations exchanged but also houses, material sustenance, tools like tubes of pigment, typewriters, paper, canvas, books, and other artists’ materials, as well as—for the purposes of a visa during the years of dictatorship—hard-currency banknotes.
The coherent society which obtained among these foreigners was directed at producing works of art in various media yet there existed a simultaneous and mutual condition of support for this which was not simply amicable and familiar but also economic. It was this aspect of the foreign community which made it exceptional and so unlike other such European societies during the modern period. The means of production were shared and exchanged just as were the ideas and visible extensions, for co-operation was the medium rather than competition. Yet this co-operation was founded upon one’s ability to sustain extremes of experience and of intoxication and, at some point, upon the validity or necessity of speech acts, which came into play and justified the certainty of one’s agonistic identity.
So this is what happens when a culturally diverse group of young and alien people are assembled in one small location that is benignly separated from the rest of life, by the sea and by the fact that a boat only visits perhaps once a day if the weather is good. This is what happens when these persons do not really need to labour and work in order to live and survive whilst they are in pursuit of aesthetic experience, and there are no social nor even moral constraints upon their daily activity.
Such ambition for what might be construed as artistic truth was one that was concomitant with a freedom from inhibition and responsibility and borne within such gorgeous terrain and topography as well as being encompassed by a coruscating and vivid marine world. All this combined to effect a superb super-creativity, yet without discipline and mental restraint this was often simply a direct route towards affective suffering and pathos. Nevertheless there occurred the production of magnificent works of art, as evinced by the current Exhibition. This is the almost Dionysian mystery of human creativity, here made effective insofar as the scene was limited to one solitary location upon an isolated rocky extrusion of a desolate and steep fifty square kilometres; such a criterion is perhaps the governing metaphor for life on Hydra.
An event of this nature is rare in human experience and time, if not unique. One thinks of Fifth Century Athens, or of renaissance Florence, or of Mathura in India in the mid-First Millennium B.C.E. There are many such locations in cultural history of intense universal fusion where objects of severe aesthetic beauty were fabricated; yet the isolation of Hydra as an island and the distinction of the town and its port made this moment and these individuals most uncommon and, in retrospect, often distinguished.
Needless to say there were suicides and young deaths and the incidence of extensive drug use and a passionate consumption of alcohol led to much malaise, often with long-term and generational defection: for not only did the parents often die or suffer from mental instability but so too did their offspring. There was a strange admixture of extra-ordinary inspiration and ingenuity with what can be termed a corollary of self-destructiveness: for those who did not succeed in sustaining their vision of absolute beauty might be consumed in that effort or became thoroughly enervated.
All communities own patterns of kinship, how it is that men and women join and regenerate and how it is that sexual unions are agreeably arranged. On Hydra during this period of the late Twentieth Century—during the post-war epoch that focussed about the Sixties with its habits of carnal promiscuity and mobility—sensual congress was various and diverse and genuinely transient. Few marriages were celebrated and yet children were born. In a sense it was the intimacy of the work and of the engaged artistry which took priority over any emotional affect of kin. Sorrow and jealousy existed yet there was equally a communal and idiorhythmic vision, an undertaking which superceded all else. It was the work and not the life which became the ultimate criterion and yet paradoxically it was a collective of friendship which sustained this. Even the dreadful ordeals wreaked by the onset of the HIV epidemic in the Nineties were survived, although not by everyone.
Such practices of course were neither original nor innovative; there had been the bohemia of Soho in London at turn of the last century, or the mid-century Beat culture of New York and California, and the nouvelle vague of Paris. The Twenties in London, Paris, and Berlin were of a similar nature for artists who developed the neo-Romantic antinomian manners of the previous century, where radicals and travellers typified by the genre of Wordsworth, Shelley, or Turner, flourished so victoriously. What happened on Hydra though was concentrated into a small extent of earthly and stony terrain and consequently, the emotions and passions were likewise condensed and compressed, particularly in terms of human amity but also in terms of an appreciation of natural, terrestrial, architectural, and marine beauty. Hence a new species of Philhellenism evolved in this rare locale.
Dr. Kevin McGrath is an Associate of the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. His research centers on the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata; he has published six works on this topic, The Sanskrit Hero, Stri, Jaya, Heroic Krsna, Arjuna Pandava, and Raja Yudhisthira, and is presently concluding a study of the authoritative hero Bhisma. McGrath is also a Poet in Residence at Harvard’s Lowell House, and his most recent publications are Eroica, Supernature, which are both I-Books, and Windward, and Eros. He does fieldwork in the Kacch of Western Gujarat, studying kinship, landscape, and migration; In the Kacch, is a personal memoir of this work.