1962, Livorno, Italy: A well-dressed man calls for a taxi to take him to the awards ceremony of the International Exhibition of Travel Posters. He is dressed in black tie and is to receive the prize for second place, with Pablo Picasso in first. He decides to skip it, however, when he notices a cinema screening a new film, “Lawrence of Arabia.” He goes in to watch it. Who would do such a wonderfully crazy thing? Perhaps someone who, 20 years earlier, had traveled across Europe on a chilling adventure as a prisoner of war and resistance fighter.
That man was Frederick “Freddie” Carabott (1924-2011), a Greek-British painter and graphic designer whose life was the stuff of novels and whose legacy is a priceless collection of artwork. His classic posters for the Greek National Tourism Organization were instrumental in developing Greece’s new “image,” giving it a fresh and modern face in the years after the Second World War. The minimalist designs he created with Michalis and Agni Katzourakis at the K+K firm are now part of the international graphic design pantheon.
Carabott passed away in 2011 at the age of 87, leaving behind a booklet sketching out his entire WWII experience.
“Fifty years after the end of the war, all these stories were put down in watercolors and three years later a visual autobiography was completed. This, I think, was his life’s greatest work,” says his favorite niece – as he himself called her – journalist Eleni Carabott.
The artist filled 48 canvases to create something resembling a storyboard for a Hollywood screenplay. In what appears very much like a forerunner of the graphic novel, walking the line between painting and illustration, the artist began his narrative with a swarm of Hawker Hurricanes (perhaps the best depiction of fighter planes there is) flying over Athens and the Acropolis. The viewer is thrust into the center of the action and before they know it, they are the teenager trapped this terrible war.
Carabott, a master of symbolism, depicted himself as a blank form with no facial or other characteristics, speaking thus of his innocence before the great brutality of the Nazis, represented as faceless metal cylinders. Thanks to a combination of luck and courage, the teenager managed to survive a war that, for him, started with the Battle of Crete, depicted in 10 iconic images. One of them shows the essence of the battle: “May 20, 1941. Iraklio, Crete. We have found refuge inside a hotel in Agios Minas. The first German paratroopers have already landed and the battle is under way. The door opens and a young Cretan girl, around 20, fully armed, calls for all men above the age of 17 to come out and fight the enemy.”
Carabott had a special connection to Crete that spanned several generations. His paternal grandfather became a local hero in Iraklio when he escaped the massacre by the Ottoman Turks in 1898. In 2001, Carabott’s art collection was presented in Hania at a special exhibition marking 60 years since the Battle of Crete. The opening was attended by the Greece’s president at the time, Kostis Stephanopoulos.
Roula Oikonomakis, head of public relations at the Hania Regional Authority, shares a memory of the event: “I remember asking him about the human faces in his works – why he depicts Nazis as cylinders and himself as a blank figure – and he replied, laughing, ‘I was simply too bored to draw them out!’”
That was Freddie Carabott: He had a sense of humor even when talking about the gravest of subjects and in all the seriousness of war managed to create a sense of magic in his images. His work evokes a passion for life and powerful emotion, while also conveying discipline, moderation and reflection. Perhaps this delicate balance was a result of his dual nationality, which was also evident in his habits and hobbies, like his love of old cars.
More recently Carabott and Crete were connected again, after the Hellenic Post (ELTA) in May launched a series of collectible stamps depicting the artist’s 10 scenes of the Battle of Crete, as part of the commemoration of the battle’s 80-year anniversary.
The Hellenic Literary and Historical Society (ELIA), meanwhile, in 2001 published a book on his experience during the war: “1941-45: A Teenager’s War,” which is in Greek, English and German.
Ten years after Carabott’s death and 80 years after the Battle of Crete, the series is a reminder of all the people who sacrificed themselves for Greece and those who made the country richer.