By Alexander Clapp
In his poem “Painted,” C.P. Cavafy notes how writing poetry can be an occasionally wearisome task: “I’m careful about my work and cherish it. But today I’m disheartened by the slow pace of composition.” Seeking temporary relief from his craft, the poet stares absorbingly at a painting of a boy resting beneath a fountain, exhausted after physical exercise. The shift from print to paint, from being an author of art to being its observer, gradually resuscitates Cavafy’s creative powers. “I sit and gaze for a long time,” he writes, “recovering through art from the effort of creating it.”
It is fitting that Cavafy’s writing has in turn inspired a budding assortment of paintings and drawings – including the collection currently on display at the B&M Theocharakis Foundation. “C.P. Cavafy Painted: 40 Contemporary Greek Creators” celebrates the 150th anniversary since Cavafy’s birth by presenting his poems alongside 100 paintings, sketches and sculptures produced by 40 contemporary Greek artists. With its frank exploration of homoeroticism, its sifting through centuries of Greek history and its scathing critique of political stagnation, Cavafy’s poetry provides a handy trove of themes for the modern artist – and no short supply of lessons for today’s Greeks.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 into the well-to-do Greek mercantile class of the waning Ottoman Empire. His relationship with Greece was never strong: he managed to visit the country just four times in his life, once to seek treatment for throat cancer (ineffectually). But his sense of Greek identity was acute, spending all but eight years of his life alongside the Greeks of Alexandria’s bustling ex-patriot community.
The ebb and flow of Hellenic fortunes is a theme that unites much of the 154-poem Cavafy canon. Cavafy’s subjects tend to be individuals rather than cities or empires; his “Greece” is not a territory but an enigmatic force, one that bounds together Greeks of all centuries. “I am a poet-historian,” he once remarked. “I would never be able to write a novel or a play, but I feel 125 voices inside me telling me I could write history.”
The voices that beckoned to Cavafy were those of anonymous, otherwise unspectacular figures from shadowy corners of Greek history – from grumbling street vendors from Ptolemaic Egypt to exiled Byzantine noblemen. His chief poetic influence was the terse prose of the ancient epitaph. His ability to adopt these epigrams and adapt them to modern Greek vicissitudes drew considerable praise from his countrymen.
“Through his instinct he discovered the Nation’s true legacy running in her blood, in our figures, in our souls, in our automated and spontaneous actions,” wrote Yiannis Tsarouchis, whose diptych “The Forgotten Guard” is the highlight of the “Painted” exhibition.
Some of the paintings in the Theocharakis exhibit attempt to transfer Cavafy’s words directly onto the canvas. “A Sketch for the Work ‘The Afternoon Sun’” by Alekos Levidis is one such piece. Cavafy’s “The Afternoon Sun” laments the conversion of a former lover’s apartment building into a commercial office for bankers and bureaucrats. The poet slowly pieces together the room’s tidy, homely decor – and then, poignantly, recalls why he was ever there: “Ah! This room, how familiar it is. Over here, near the door, was the couch, and in front of it a Turkish rug; nearby, the shelf with two yellow vases. To the right; no opposite, a wardrobe with a mirror. In the center, the table where he used to write; and the three large wicker chairs. Next to the window was the bed, where we made love so many times.”
Levidis faithfully assembles the various details: the Oriental carpet, the wicker chairs, the rumpled mattress. “A Sketch” also inserts an elderly gentleman into the room. He sits motionless – at a slight angle to the viewer – and appears stuck in his thoughts. His hair is peppered gray; wiry spectacles frame wrinkled eyes. The right shoelace is untied. Hanging on the wall behind the old man is a colorless sketch of a naked, powerfully outlined male youth.
Other works in the exhibit take greater liberties with Cavafy’s work. “Beach Party” by Alekos Fassianos depicts a cluster of wide-eyed youths on a beach. Hands are raised in the air. A few nearly graze a colorful disco light. Drinks are scattered on a nearby table; clothes are being shed. It is a summery, festive occasion somewhere in the Greek islands.
But there is something troubling about the scene portrayed by Fassianos: no one actually seems to be having fun. There is no distinguishing feature about any single individual here. Men and women alike are equipped with glassy, robotic stares. They all have the same slack jaws and the same fleshy, poorly-defined limbs. Their sunburns could be an advertisement for Coppertone. Next to the canvas is Cavafy’s “As Best You Can:” “Even if you cannot make your life the way you want, try this, at least, as best you can: do not demean it by too much contact with the crowd, by too much movement and idle talk. Do not demean it by dragging it along, by wandering all the time and exposing it to the daily foolishness of social relations and encounters, until it becomes an importunate stranger.”
Most of the works in the Theocharakis exhibit are paintings, but there are a few photographs and a small collection of sculptures. A sprawling Greek flag designed by Costas Varotsos carpets the second floor of the gallery. It is made of glass, a gleaming checkerboard of blue and white. Parts of it are shattered, crunched into shards and fine dust; the corners have largely been torn off. A copy of Cavafy’s “Philhellene” is printed alongside the display. The poem describes the dedication of an engraving by a ruler of a backwater Greco-Iranian kingdom. The king aspires to be a Hellene; Greek sophists and versifiers populate his court, imports from Mediterranean coasts. It is critical that passersby and future generations understand how attentively he cultivated Greek norms. He commands his Persian artisan: …“Above all, I bid you pay attention (Sithaspes, in god’s name, don’t let this be forgotten) that after the words ‘King’ and ‘Saviour’ be engraved in elegant lettering: ‘Philhellene.’ And now don’t start your witticisms on me, Like: ‘where are the Greeks’ and ‘where is Greek used around here, this side of Zagros, way beyond Fraata.’ Since so many others, more barbarous than we, write it, we will write it too. And finally, do not forget that on occasion there come to us sophists from Syria, and poetasters and other pretentious pedants. Thus, we are not lacking in Greek culture, I do believe.”
The philhellene’s kingdom rests on the farthest borders of the Mediterranean world – geographic limits which, like the frays at the edges of Varotsos’s flag, preserve their Hellenic identities by splintered, fragile means.
“C.P. Cavafy Painted: 40 Contemporary Greek Creators” unites artists of a remarkably wide aesthetic spectrum. That Cavafy’s lines can sustain such energy eight decades after his death is a testament to the pressing relevance of his themes and the timelessness of his poetry.
“Art knows how to shape the Likeness of Beauty, barely perceptibly enhancing life, blending impressions, blending the days,” writes the poet in “I Brought to Art.” The poem may be read as Cavafy’s definition of Art. By that very definition, the “blending of impressions and days” at the Theocharakis exhibit stands a fitting tribute to his life’s work.
“C.P. Cavafy Painted: 40 Contemporary Greek Creators” runs to December 8. Admission costs 6 euros. For more information, visit www.thf.gr. All quotations have been taken from the translation by Evangelos Sachperoglou.