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Thursday, August 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Painting a Country

Traveling Artists in Cyprus 1700-1960 by Rita C. Severis. London, Philip Wilson, 2001, 288 pages, $80.

In her lucid and encompassing survey of artists who traveled to Cyprus, from the beginnings of the eighteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, art historian Rita C. Severis covers considerable ground. Cyprus, as Sarah Searight recognizes in her foreword to the book, has been a highly contested site, occupied by more than a few “rulers and cultures,...among them classical Greek, Hellenistic (Romano-Greek), Byzantine, French Lusignan, Venetian, Ottoman and finally British.” The complex, often tragic political vagaries of Cyprus are addressed but lightly in Severis’s overview, which rightly concerns itself with the various and sometimes colorful (and often colonial) artists who traveled to the island, mostly in search of a romantic past. The author also reaches across a considerable period of time, beginning with the early eighteenth century, when monk Basil Grigorivich Barskii – a devout Orthodox Christian whose drawings date to the 1720s and ‘30s – was active in Cyprus, and ending with Cyprus’s struggle for independence, a period that saw the visit of the British painter David Bomberg in July 1948 and the stay of the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who came in January 1953 to work on Justine and took over as head of the British press and information services in 1954, a few years before independence in 1960.

From Severis’s descriptions of the artists who came to paint and who often struggled under extremely hot, humid, and insect-infested conditions, it would seem that there was a balance, or more accurately a dilemma, in the portrayal of Cyprus. Artists veered from accurate, even scientific renderings of mosques and minarets, plants and flowers, to a more romanticized, philhellenic approach to landscape and early architecture. It is interesting to consider the relationship between the mostly picturesque watercolors, rendered in a regularly sublime atmosphere, with the actual conditions on the island, described by Severis as harsh. Additionally, the colonial condescension of Western visitors comes quickly into the picture: British scholar and consul Alexander Drummond, who was active in Cyprus in the middle 1700s and who made meticulous if somewhat sterile engravings of architecture and tarantulas, had the following to say regarding the comeliness of Cyprus’s poor natives: “The men are worst than beasts, the women more ugly than fancy can conceive human females to be, especially in an island that was once the seat of beauty and love.” Some of Drummond’s fit of pique may have been caused by disappointment; he writes, “And not the least vestige remains of antiquity, or even those remarkable objects which the Venetians [who ruled Cyprus from 1487 to 1581] might be expected to have left upon the island.”

The discrepancy between the ideal and the reality of Cyprus has implications that we are wise to heed. To what extent is the visitor able to depict what he or she sees without succumbing to a facile impression of a place that has been visited, perhaps, more in the imagination than in the actuality? The 350 plates in the book, those of the twentieth century in particular, offer more than a few charming views, which, to postmodern eyes, look like scenic postcards rather than accomplished studies of native terrain; indeed, the only painting in the book that strikes one as a painterly approximation of a site, in the modernist sense, is David Bomberg’s oil, Gate to the Princess’s Garden, St Hilarion Mountain, Cyprus (1948). But it may be that the problem is primarily our own; the contemporary reader of Severis’s book, seeing the images without the benefit of traveling to Cyprus, can only conjecture as to what is accurately, or romantically, shown. The author does not make grand claims for the accomplishment of the artists, recognizing that there were skilled practitioners among them but not overvaluing their deliberately appealing, sometimes anthropological or reportorial, bent.

The question of influence is complex – after all, these paintings were made by visitors, who brought with them the baggage of another culture. And yet it may be said at the same time that the artists’ imagery of Cyprus – its churches on hills, extended vistas, and lively marketplaces and small towns – lends itself to a relatively, or seemingly, objective treatment of the island. The question is whether such a treatment would do justice to what existed in Cyprus; it is extremely difficult to work out the extent to which the views of landscape and architecture differ from the original – many of the buildings that are depicted, for example, are no longer extant. It is probably the case that a veil of romantic origins is in fact placed between the artists’ eyes and the landscape being described. There is nothing wrong with romanticism per se, but, if we allow ourselves the perfect vision of hindsight, we may say that there is a certain kind of orientalizing that goes on. Even in work that is utterly descriptive, one senses that the recorded perception is foreign rather than indigenous – the mere recording of the scene demonstrates an historical awareness that suggests an outsider’s view.

Severis’s book is organized into three chapters, each devoted to a century of art. In “The Eighteenth Century,” the author gives a thumbnail sketch of the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, which saw the destruction of valuables. Severis writes: “Money, silver, gold and jewelry were pilfered from monasteries, churches and palaces; ecclesiastical vessels, robes, garments and furniture were stolen.” The victorious Ottomans also Islamized the architecture, in accordance with their tradition: “Frescoes in churches were whitewashed, icons thrown out and minarets attached to the roofs.” In addition to repressive Ottoman rule, the island barely survived an earthquake in 1741, as well as suffering the droughts and destruction of crops by locusts that occurred some 15 years later. Plague decimated Cyprus in 1760 – according to Severis, one-third of the populace perished – and the Greek population went to the mountains, eking out a precarious living. In regard to those traveling to Cyprus, it appears that a number were Russian pilgrims, who were attracted to the pious Orthodox living under Ottoman rule. The pilgrim’s journey was made dangerous by the Russian wars with the Ottoman empire, yet a few travelers, including monks such as Basil Grigorovich Barskii, visited the island.

Barskii visited several times, his longest stay lasting from September 1734 to August 1736. During this period, he survived both the major earthquake of 1735 and the plague. He kept a diary, which included 14 drawings, notable not so much for their beauty or skill as for their informal, almost childlike hand. In a drawing of the port city of Larnaca, Severis stresses its defenses; the perimeter of the city is encircled by ramparts. In a view of Alikas, the port of Larnaca, and Larnaca itself, the former is shown in the foreground and the latter in the background. As Severis points out, the drawings do possess, despite their awkwardness and lack of perspective, a certain “charm.” On seeing them, one comes away impressed by the energy and focus of Barskii’s inventions.

Another eighteenth-century visitor, Alexander Drummond, first went to Cyprus in 1745, when he traveled some 600 miles, writing to his brother about his discoveries. He appears to have been tireless, and his drawings are exquisitely precise, yet he presents an unattractive picture in his book, Travels through different cities of Germany, Italy, Greece, and several parts of Asia, as far as the banks of the Euphrates: in a series of letters, printed in 1754. He regularly denigrates the culture, saying, for example, that the Greeks “were always remarkably effeminate and lazy.” His drawings are characterized by extreme attention to detail; in his representations of architecture, he painstakingly renders bricks, arches, and windows. Drummond offers the viewer a bookish and literal treatment of the Cypriot landscape and architecture. His South East Front of Agios Largos or St Hilarion (1754) presents a high, rocky mountain, with trees and the ruins of St. Hilarion, all carefully drawn. There is a sense of drama in the drawing; the mountain sharply inclines upward and is drawn as if it were nearly a living thing. It is a loss that he could not extend a similar degree of sympathy to the people of Cyprus.

In the nineteenth century, there was a stream of visitors, classified by Severis into groups: “antiquarians/archeologists/scientists, professional artists, diplomats and missionaries.” They were an intrepid bunch, enduring the harsh conditions, fevers, and high taxes for the sake of experiencing cultural difference, without giving up the colonial pleasures of moral preferment in regard to native populations. Severis also points out, however, that among the travelers was a group of evangelicals, which “felt they served and supported imperialism because their work was benevolent.” Women were part of this group, which “stressed self-sacrifice and service to others.” Foreigners other than the British also arrived on the island. Otto von Richter, a scholar and linguist, landed in Cyprus on March 12, 1816; his drawings present detailed views of the landscape. Benjamin Mary, a Belgian diplomat who worked at the court of Otto and traveled throughout Greece from 1840-44, painted watercolors of such people as an officer of the Greek army, the qadi (an Islamic religious official) of Larnaca, and Bishop Damaskinos of the see of Kition. There is an agreeable openness about the watercolor portraits, as well as Mary’s landscape studies of Larnaca and the cathedral of St. Nicholas. Later, during the final years of Ottoman rule, the artist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon – who in 1860 traveled to Europe, North Africa, and the Holy Land, among other places – also came to Cyprus. A good friend of Monet, who looked favorably on his art, Brabazon created “thousands of watercolors, mostly of topographical scenes.” His Castle in Cyprus (1860) is a wonderful watercolor of a castle built on rocks that abut the sea; his atmospheric colors – an off-white for the castle, light blue and white for the breakers, deep marine blue for the farther sea, and a gray-blue for the sky – contribute to the viewer’s vividly sensory impression of a particular place.

On July 8, 1878, the Anglo-Turkish convention came into effect, and the British were named administrators of Cyprus. Soon enough, British newspapers published articles on the island. Captain Reginald Barrows Rudyerd, of the First York Regiment, draws the particulars of the British encampment in the Troodos Mountains, which provided relief from the summer climate. There is a nicely romantic self-portrait of the soldier-artist sitting high up, accompanied by a single pine tree. British rule attracted artists such as Ethelbert White, who painted oils that mirrored the hazy heat and combined Turkish and Greek architecture, as well as a powerful watercolor, The Cypriot Coast (c. 1920). This work shows two boats in a dark-blue sea, with craggy mountains coming right to the water in the background. It is a striking work, and, according to Severis, is “one of the first modernist pictures of an island scene.” Arthur Legge, a landscape painter, worked during the years 1928 to 1936; his watercolors – Kyrenia (1928), a port town, and Friday Bazaar (1936) – are faithfully true to what he sees. But there is also more than accuracy involved; Legge had a real feeling for the spirit of the place, and his imagery is attractively sympathetic toward the local culture. Sigmund Pollitzer, an English-born artist who visited Cyprus in January 1948 and ended up staying for a long time, is present in the book with Ahmet with Basket (1948), a sensitive watercolor of a young Turkish boy sitting with a basket placed between his feet, as well as a colorful mural made of tile for the British public relations office in Nicosia. It is a massive work, 18 feet long and 9 feet high, with a central image of a sun surrounded by emblems of Cyprus: a minaret, a flagon, a capital of a column, and so on.

Ioannis Kissonergis, the first Cypriot painter to become a recognized professional, is represented by two watercolors, which picture a cul-de-sac (c. 1920) and an old archbishopric (c. 1929). The cul-de-sac is rendered in dark grays and some greens, the archbishopric in brighter colors of off-white, suggesting the heat of the sun. The reader sees in these works, as well as in most others, that the artist is in love with his subject. In general, this well-illustrated and informative book brings to the reader a real sense of Cypriot life and landscape, as well as the grip it had on its visitors; Severis’s text moves lightly but never superficially across two and a half centuries. If it is true that, as the author asserts, there were no great painters who came to Cyprus, it is also true that the art produced by the travelers to the island represented it in fairly exact and deeply affectionate terms, even when succumbing to romanticization. Cyprus attracted romantics, but it also appealed to more objective reporters. The combination of these two visions resulted in a remarkably evenhanded treatment of its attractions.

The images the artists took away from their journey not only offered idealization of a place; they also presented the particulars of the Turks and Greeks who lived there. Many of the travelers were inspired by a need to address the island’s antiquity, even if they were less than kind about the contemporary culture they found. While we recognize that colonial entitlement marred some of the writings about Cyprus, from the British especially, it is also true that many of the watercolors reproduced in the book do not stoop to caricature. The history of foreigners’ representations of the island is therefore a more complex matter than it would seem at first, an idea that Severis is well aware of. As a result, the book offers a temperate view of the many artists, monks, and scholars who visited Cyprus and who were fascinated, even stunned, by the stony beauty of the island.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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