During the 11 years in foreign lands, where I was initially for studies and then, after ’67, for the forced seven-year stay away from home, I always had with me a small pocket-book with the poems of Cavafy. When I came back, I obtained the hardcover edition of Ikaros, commented by George Savidis. It is this book that accompanies me till this day to my work.
The exhibition at the Benaki Museum includes three sections of works on Cavafy, created during the last fifteen years. The works of each section mean a different way of approaching Cavafy’s poetry; however, they also mean a different form of expression: The first works are painted images of a wooden “iconostasis”; the second constitute the 24 pages of a handwritten book with texts and miniatures; the last – which are exhibited for the first time – are large portraits to be set up in the patio of an Alexandrian mansion or a modern multilingual library.
For a long time I was concerned with the notion of a long perpetual journey, an endless, end in itself journey. Initially, I completed in 1992 fifteen paintings on Odyssey, where however Ulysses, after arriving at his island, sets sail again for a new journey. At the same time I was planning a series of paintings on Cavafy’s “Ithaca”, it took however a long time for me to find its form. When I visited Alexandria and stared at the Mediterranean from the bottom of the basin, and later, when I travelled with my mother on a riverboat along the route going up the Nile, I saw the poet’s long road moving inside the images of these places. The book “The Life and Work of C P Cavafy” by Dimitris Daskalopoulos and Maria Stasinopoulou helped me approach the phases of this road more concretely. I gradually saw the verses of “Ithaca” linking with images of the journey, as I was suspecting them through reading, as well as through the instant images of my own travels to the same places. In 2005 I completed this cycle and presented 13 paintings, which write down the path of soul and senses. They are oil paints on wood, and in them people, casual or precious objects and landscapes coexist. When seen in series, they form a wooden painted wall as an iconostasis.
The paintings of this first cycle represent the senses and feelings along the way: At the beginning of the course, the love for the land of Egypt. Then, the traveller standing on the rock of Gibraltar, braving the high waves. The free soul that flies in Kyrenia above the sharp rocks of fear. The rosy-fingered dawn when the ship enters the port of Marseilles. The hidden desire for touching in the shops of the East. The mother of pearls and corals of the mother Charikleia Cavafy, a native of Constantinople. The sensual perfumes of love and art. The coffee house, where the company of readers of poems and newspapers hangs out, next to Cavafy’s house in Rue Lepsius. The vessel approaching the port of Ithaca. The first touch to the coast. The sunset in the Mediterranean. The poet’s open wings over the ancient Lighthouse. Alexandria.
The “Dramas of Authority”
A new work cycle was completed with studies and designs during the Cavafy year, 150 years after poet’s death. I named this cycle “Dramas of Authority in historical poems of Cavafy” and I first exhibited it in 2014. The exhibition was transferred to Alexandria in 2017 and presented within the frameworks of the Cavafy Symposium inside Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
In the 24 poems that I compiled in this cycle, the issue of political power is emerging as a red thread. In addition to his philosophical and historical poems, Cavafy deals with and is inspired by ancient history, while at the same time expressing his own views, as they are shaped in the historical and social life of his time, his world has been emerging to this day as universal and timeless. It is the interpretation of the timeless relevance and ecumenicity of Cavafy in today’s era that I try to render in the drawings with which I frame his poems.
Texts of his scholars, especially the Political Cavafy by Tsirkas (1971), as well as earlier texts, focus on issues of his poetry, such as the arrogance of power, the struggle for independence from the Romans and the each time powerful, the decline and the characteristics of subordination. In 1926, Virsimitzakis wrote, “… it ends up that we do not know whether, suddenly, his politics is an extension of his philosophy or his philosophy an extension of his politics” ( The work of C P Cavafy, Ikaros p.34) while Tsirkas expressed the assessment that it was Seferis who first spoke of the historical sense of Cavafy’s poetry as well as of the role of his sense of politics. In these poems Cavafy integrates within the specific historical context also his concerns about other serious issues of human life, such as love and death, freedom and art.
The central thought around which my work moves in this section is that Cavafy, in his poetry, directs at specific times and places. His direction is not limited to writing down and describing events, but “in his verses, he presents the development of a conflict, he displays a drama with its climax and its end, which comes unexpectedly and fascinates” (“Dramas of authority in Cavafy’s historical poems “, Anna Filini with preface by Alexis Ziras, Gavriilidis publications, Athens 2014, p.16). Already in the book Comments on Cavafy, I A Saregiannis(Ikaros, Athens 1964), who personally knew Cavafy and conversed with him on his poems, reports that the poet “was always turning his ideas into images” and that he was feeling them “like living beings with passions that were moving, speaking and conflicting”. My drawings on each work represent these scenes, inside which I see the poet’s dramas moving.
“Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory” says Cavafy, as in “The Ides of March” speaks Julius Caesar and urges him to overcome his ambitions. In “Theodotos”, he warns him of his horrible murder, as he reminds him of Pompey’s beheading made by Theodotus in Alexandria to gain his favour. One may see the succession of intrigues on power unfolding as a novel in a series of Cavafy poems that speak of Cleopatra, Antonio, the young Caesarion, who is insidiously murdered by the people of Octavius. Finally, in “The God Abandons Antony”, Cavafy calls Antony, after the defeat at Aktium, not to mourn and say goodbye “not with the pleas a coward” to Alexandria he is losing: I was always motivated by a mental image in which Cavafy is wandering as an angel-protector over the city and the towering Light – wonder of the world.
Bloody conflicts often coexist in the poems along with an unexpected sarcasm. It is this sarcasm along with the irony that I also wish to reflect in the drawings. In the poem “In a Township of Asia Minor”, Cavafy, towards the rivalries of the Roman dauphins, puts down the indifference of their subordinates and savages their readiness to bow to anyone who eventually becomes the winner. Respectively, Cavafy is poignant in “Nero’s Deadline” in front of arrogance of the young and ruthless ruler towards of the old but experienced service man Galba.
We can call the 24 works on the 24 poems “documentation cards”, which give, through drawings, letters and texts, information about each poem: a) the poem written by hand, b) the portrait of the poem “hero”, c) information about the source of inspiration of the portrait, from an ancient statue or ancient coin and the museum where it is located; d) extracts from texts of Cavafy’s scholars, referring to this poem; e) a drawing inspired by the relevant “drama”; As a whole, these works comprise the 24 pages of a handwritten book with texts and miniatures.
The letters on each “card” are a visual component of the work, both with regard to the significance of the text of which they form part and because writing is a visual part of the work. In line with the letters, the drawings on the “card” have the role of the miniature on the Byzantine and Renaissance manuscripts. For example, the card “From coloured glass” , the only of my 24 works which refers to Byzantium.
The portrait is the first element by which each work speaks, because this gives the figure of the hero, opening the horizon for understanding his world. His contemporary clothes introduce to the continuing significance of the poet’s points. Cavafy shed light on his heroes’ personality by studying mainly Plutarch. For his studies, he was visiting the Alexandria Archaeological Museum and borrowed numismatic editions from the city’s library. He was interested in the figure of his heroes, as he mentions in “Kaisarion”, while in “Pictured” he confesses the delight he gets through the art of painting.
Illumination designs, which I called miniatures, are painted linearly by a thin black marker without shading, rarely with minimal watercolour touches. Their form brings to mind Hockney’s black and white drawings on Cavafy’s erotic poems or Picasso’s small sketches with ancient themes. Certainly these have influenced me, underneath it all however I think it remains the memory of the linear painting on ancient pottery and white lekythoi, which, in a simple and familiar manner continue to impart a strong inner emotion.
The drawings feature, even allusively, the places of the dramas and their architecture. The cities in which Cavafy’s scenes are unfolding form an integral part of the life that he describes in the Hellenistic and Roman era, therefore I transfer elements of this morphological framework. His heroes, apart from Alexandria, are also active in Antioch and in some other cities on the coast of Ionia, the mountainous Macedonia and northern Syria. This is where Cavafy’s world moves and not in the Helladic centre, but where the diffusion of Greek culture and Greek language takes place after the time of Alexander the Great, in the land of the East and mingled with its cultures.
In Antioch mainly it unfolds the second novelistic unit referring to the Seleucids. Here the successors of Alexander sometimes resist, then again they submit to Romans. After the defeat of Antiochus III in the Battle of Magnesia, Cavafy, in “Of Dimitrios Sotir (162-150 BC)”, expresses his special preference for this hero, who proudly resisted the Roman rule. In the drawing, next to the portrait of Demetrius, one can see the traitors who “shoot” the gate of the walls for the city to surrender, while in the next, the wickedness of the of Balas’ authority, who fraudulently overthrew Demetrius, is depicted again in front of the walls. Finally, in “Epitaph of Antiochos, King of Kommagini”, Cavafy, by the famous “In addition, he was just the best of things, Hellenic”, expresses his deep appreciation for the figure of this ruler, who reigned in mountainous Syria.
The last eight poems address issues of public life. Cavafy’s sarcasm towards the “political reformers” in “In a Large Greek Colony”, emerges as shockingly timely, bringing directly to mind the “Troika” during the last Greek crisis. Equally relevant is always the irony with which he treats in “To Have Taken the Trouble” the smooth-tongued courtiers and bureaucrats of every age.
I painted with particular interest the drawings on the poems that include in their title the date “AD 400”, Cavafy’s rabble of the “puritans”. As Marguerite Yourcenar writes in her comment on the “Theater of Sidon (AD 400)”, “these puritans are Christian monks”. It is the era when the fanatics of the new religion, the gray-wearing monks – followers of the Cyril of Alexandria, not only want to impose their morals and policy but they also violently prosecute those who persist in their own way of thinking and behaviour. Freedom in poetry, science, love, philosophy is the target of those moralists. At the “Theater of Sidon (AD 400)” I have set them having as their target the beautiful head of Antinous, while in “Temethos, Antiochean AD 400” I took the occasion to draw the scene of the murder of Hypatia in AD 415, in Alexandria.
The big portraits
The portraits, which I was painting over the past three years, are a continuation of work and reflections on the “dramas of authority” of the historical poems. These new big portraits (90x105cm) are based on the first 24 works, but they somehow summarize, on the large surface and around the “hero”, the elements contained in the first “documentation cards” with texts and miniatures. The gouache paint portraits are surrounded by images, sometimes symbols, sometimes geometric shapes, sometimes human figures, animals, architectural elements of cities, divine flying figures. They sometimes depict the lighthouse of Alexandria, the Nile, cows, lotus flowers, snakes. Elsewhere they depict lions and plants next to the city plan of Antioch with the ramparts and the gate, standing on occasions closed against the enemies and then open, depending on whom Seleucid is praised or taunted by Cavafy.
It is a great challenge for visual artists today to convey in a modern visual language the spirit of Cavafy’s poetry. Cavafy studied and used history to talk about contemporary and universal issues. He associated with modern writers of global reach, he followed the art of his era, making his own great and special contribution to modernism. He admired the ancient works of art and studied the ancient coins, he loved at the same time both ancient and modern Egypt along with its ordinary people. He listened carefully to Marinetti’s futuristic views when he visited him in Alexandria. Dimitris Mitropoulos set to music 14 poems of Cavafy, composing the 14 invenzioni in 1925 with a purely modernist musical expression.
Large portraits are divided into two cycles. The first cycle of Roman emperors and Ptolemies is mainly centered around the conflicts in Alexandria and highlights the internal contradictions of his heroes.
Julius Caesar’s big head bleeds in the carotid due to the Brutus’ knife and is surrounded by an uninterruptedly rising propeller that suddenly reverses and collapses. Antony says goodbye to his beloved Alexandria at the same time that God Dionysus flies as a guardian – angel over the city during the night and drifts away. Cleopatra, who has lived for years carefree next to the Egyptian cow, uses, after the defeat of Antony, the poisonous snake in order to commit suicide. Kaisarion, a young and innocent child, experiences the summer night unsuspecting, while Octavius’s hired assassins are preparing his assassination. Octavius, after his victory at Actium, fraudulently neutralizes every opponent who can challenge him. The Roman general Pompey, having for decades led to victorious campaigns, bears now the mark of his beheading in Alexandria by Ptolemy’s advisor, Theodotus.
The second cycle is that of the Seleucids, with the main problem being their attitude towards the Roman Empire. Next to the portraits of most of them one may distinguish the city view of Antioch with the ramparts on the surrounding walls and the entrance gate. Antiochus III of Syria dared to oppose the Romans, but eventually he was knocked out when the other Seleucids left him alone in the war. Antiochus Epiphanes was troubled for a while whether to resist or not, but he eventually preferred to keep his comfort and privileges. Demetrius Soter escaped from the Roman prison, returned to Antioch, defended it, but he was eventually betrayed by Balas. Balas is surrounded by luxury and lavishness, for the sake of which he became an instrument of the Romans. Antiochus of Kommagini – portrait in accordance with the giant head found in mountainous Syria in Nemrut Dag – maintaining good relations with his neighbours, managed to strengthen the Greek letters and was praised by Cavafy as “Hellenic”.
Finally, I painted the portrait of Constantine Cavafy himself taken from an old photograph having as background drawings from the family carpet on the wall of his house on Rue Lepsius.
I think that these big portraits, which come at the end of the fifteen-year work on Cavafy, although they are not the climax of the course – because I think every cycle has an autonomous significance – they show, however, its continuity. They bring together thereon concepts previously expressed in a more detailed way, perhaps an even more understandable way, but they ultimately focus on the specific individual and his figure, as he was recorded in history and as Cavafy offers it in his poems. The portraits of the Renaissance, especially those by the Italian and Flemish painters, have always charmed me; I later saw the Fayum portraits, which prove that the beginning of all was the look inside the individual and the colour. In our times, Lucian Freud gave us in his painting the power of the painter’s relationship with the model, so that the human truth is reflected on canvas. However, when in the case of historical figures, the direct relationship of the painter with them is objectively impossible, then he uses the information of history and his own intuition to finally yield the truth in which he believes and which he sees today. He tries ,through the eyes of the individual he is painting and the world around him, to reflect each time his soul and his era.
Athens, December 2018