Cyprus through Western eyes

It is a distanced perspective, at times colored by an idealist streak and the avid curiosity of the traveler and at others by the aloofness of the Western «Orientalist» approach. Seen through the eyes of the Westerners who traveled through the country over the course of three centuries, Cyprus seems caught in a vague, timeless condition. Its reality and the lives of its people are obscured by the country’s monuments, the resonance of its past, a romanticized view of its landscape and sometimes by an ethnographic curiosity for the «exotic» East. This is what the exhibition «Traveling Artists in Cyprus: 1700-1960,» on view at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, feels like. One of the most interesting and thorough exhibitions currently taking place in Athens, it documents an outsider’s point of view of the country and captures the Western attitude toward Cyprus over a period of three centuries. It also affords some rare visual evidence of what the island looked like and prompts the viewer to think about the development and changing notions of traveling. The objects on display, which include watercolors, pencil drawings, etchings and engravings, memorabilia, costumes, rare books and manuscripts are from the collection of Cypriots Costas and Rita Severis. They are presented together for the first time in this exhibition, which has been jointly organized by the Greek and Cypriot ministries of Culture on the occasion of Cyprus’s accession into the EU. The exhibition’s concept and arrangement are largely based on research by Rita Severis, author of the book «Traveling Artists in Cyprus: 1700-1960,» which was nominated for the Steven Runciman Award in 2001. Written in a flowing style, the book places the images in an historical and cultural context and reveals their subtext, thus helping the viewer to distinguish images that, upon first glance, share visual similarities. Severis has written extensively on Cypriot history and culture. The two-volume «Diaries of Lorenzo Warriner Pease, an American Missionary to Cyprus and his Travels to the Holy Land, Asia Minor and Greece: 1834-1839» is one of her most important works. The scarcity of surviving images dating from before the 18th century is what made Severis choose the 18th century as the exhibition’s starting point. Cyprus’s independence in 1960 marks the exhibition’s end. Not all Westerners arrived in Cyprus for the same reason. The 18th century was the period of the Grand Tour expeditions (it is also when the Society of Dilettanti was founded in Britain). It was a time of an emerging ethos of travel and exploration, part of which was driven by an archaeological, empiricist-led interest. Coupled with a colonizing ethos and the ongoing commercial transactions that the main Western powers had with the Ottomans (rulers of Cyprus since 1571), it is what brought many Westerners to Cyprus. The Russian monk Vasily Grigorovich Barskii seems to have been somewhat of an exception. What brought him to Greece and Cyprus was his devout Orthodoxy. Unlike other visitors, who singled out antiquities and ruins from the country’s Western past, Barskii depicted monasteries and churches. Others were enraptured by Cyprus’s legend as the birthplace of Aphrodite. The Italian Luigi Mayer, who arrived in Cyprus on a commission from the British diplomat Sir Robert Ainslie, for example, was drawn to the country’s ancient past, which he depicted by often adding the images of locals. Two of his watercolors from the late 18th century provide vital evidence of the since-perished ancient fortifying walls off the shore of Amathounta. In general, however, the bad state of the island’s antiquities – the dilapidated condition of the temple of Aphrodite in Paphos is an example – for which the Ottomans were often to blame, left travelers with little choice as to favored subject matter. Disappointed by the few remnants of the country’s ancient past, some turned to vestiges of the island’s medieval, Frankish-ruled past, which was still fresh in the Westerners’ collective memory, especially the French. It is a past most poignantly captured in the romantically tinted images that Louis Francois Cassas made of the island in the late 18th century. By the early part of the 19th century, the repertoire of subject matter in the images drawn by Western visitors becomes broader. What seems to be missing, however, is the equivalent of the philhellenic passion so aptly captured in the paintings of Delacroix. The sentiments of sympathy for the newly liberated Greeks did not spill over into their depiction of Cyprus. Instead, what seems to stand out most in the images of Cyprus from the 19th century is the influence of Orientalism. It is especially prominent in the ethnographic depictions, most notably those of Frenchmen Edmond Duthoit and Grasset d’Orset, both from the late 19th century. Commissioned by the French goverment, their expedition of Cyprus should be seen as integrally tied to France’s colonizing aspirations at the time. This was largely in competition with the British, who eventually took over rule of the island in the late 19th century. In 1925, Cyprus was proclaimed a British colony; posters expressing the proud British supremacy over the island and showing Cyprus as an attractive tourist destination make up a substantial part of the exhibition’s final part. Here one also finds a large number of works made by the British community in Cyprus. Landscape paintings are the majority; most lacking in stylistic innovation. Still, they are a part of Cyprus’s history. Although they do not reflect the struggle of the Cypriots for liberation nor the more complicated political turmoil in the country, they too are part of Cyprus. Like the rest of the images, they only capture one facet of the truth but it is a truth that existed and cannot be dismissed. «Traveling Artists in Cyprus: 1700-1960» at the Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vas. Sofias, tel 210.721.1027) through June 1.