The last week has been a blur of airplanes, trains, boats and buses, and so my Cultural Diary is most atypical of my normal daily life. Since my four-year-old son was born, I don’t travel as much as I used to, but I decided to carpe the diem and schlep him off to visit a friend in Athens, Greece. So, my Diary happens to include a tourist’s view of Grecian art and architecture, not something that happens every day!
Athens is certainly a study in contrasts! Many of its sidewalks are made of marble, which is beautiful but treacherously slippery in a drizzle; the air is filled with exhaust fumes from the traffic that roars through the city, but the streets are lined with orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit. We saw an ancient little stone Byzantine church, blackened from age and pollution, surrounded by chi-chi stores and shiny boutiques. And of course, we saw The Parthenon, that ever-scaffolded fixture of the Athens skyline that was completed in 432 BC, and the New Acropolis Museum, so new that scarely five months have passed since its opening this past June.
One of the motivations for the construction of the New Acropolis Museum was the Elgin Marbles, which were taken (many say stolen) by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon and sold to the British Museum in London. The story is fascinating… full of political intrigue and misplaced hope, and in the end, Lord Elgin died bitter and in debt. You can read more about it here: http://www.athensguide.com/elginmarbles/lordelgin.html
In the past, when the government of Greece requested that the Marbles be returned, British officials refused, giving the excuse (one among many others) that Greece had no suitable location to display or protect them. That excuse no longer holds. The New Acropolis museum is impressive! Glass floors let you see the archeological site that the museum is built over, giving the feeling of walking over history. The top floor, designed to house the Marbles (though only plaster casts reside there at the moment), is a glass hall that has the same orientation and dimensions as the Parthenon itself. Glass walls let in natural light and a spectacular view of both the ancient Parthenon on the hill and modern Athens below. This building made me feel that having the Marbles here would really let one see them in their own true context, and that the British Museum really ought to be decent chaps and give them back. Not holding my breath on that one, though.
Besides Acropolis-related things, I’d really wanted to visit The National Gallery to see what art was new in Athens, as so much attention is focused here on what is old. It was, unfortunately, closed to set up its next exhibit.
Next on the agenda was a train to Meteora, a complex of six monasteries built on top of sandstone rock cliffs that tower over the town of Kalambaka. I don’t know how such things could ever have been built! Until the 1920s, the only way to reach them was by long rope ladders or large nets hauled up by a simple pulley system. As the story goes, these ropes were only replaced “when the Lord let them break”. Now there are steps cut into the rock, which makes the monasteries much more accessible. The largest and most ornate monastery, Megalo Meteoro or Metamorphisis, the first church of the Transfiguration, is also built on the highest rock, and features a series of icons, or religious paintings, by Theophanis Strelitzas, or “Theophanes the Cretan”, who was a leading figure in Greek wall-painting in the early sixteenth century.
(This image is The Burial Lamentations by Theophanes, from Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos.)
The paintings at Megalo Meteoro cover the inside of a twelve sided dome 24 meters in height, and depict the persecution of Christians by the Romans in various gruesome ways: boiled in oil, eaten by lions, hacked apart, squashed in a human press… morbidly fascinating. Because photography is not allowed, the only way to see these frescoes is to go there, and there’s something to be said for that.
The rest of our days in Greece were spent on a beach. Ahhhhh...
My book of choice for reading on the beach and in transit was T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. Boyle’s books are always a hoot to read, and his fictional accounts of famous men (The Inner Circle is about sexologist Alfred Charles Kinsey, his most recent novel The Women is about Frank Lloyd Wright) are scandalously fun. The Road to Wellville is about John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, extremist advocate of vegetarianism and sexual abstinence, and as Boyle paints him, tyrant. You might know the movie version, directed by Alan Parker and starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick. I haven't seen it, though I doubt it would come close to the madness of the book!
On the airplane home, I watched Coco Before Chanel, starring the wonderful Audrey Tautou. This is a biopic of the woman who would become one of the most influential figures in fashion, and doesn’t attempt to psychologize too much, thank goodness, though I found the ending too abrupt. But the facts of Chanel’s life were indeed more than enough to provide an absorbing tale, and Tautou gives a fierce, absorbing performance.
I then fell asleep to John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things.”
But as if Greece were not enough! The day after returning to Montreal, jet-lagged and hazy, I wandered down to Studio 35 in St-Henri, where I saw a show by artist Anna Jane McIntyre called The Circus and The Pimp’s Jalopy.
I was lucky enough to catch the performance elements of the show, featuring clown-faced dancers, masked circus people and an accordian player. The art pieces were really lovely and whimsical, with a ferris-wheel hat, wooden acrobat puppets, fanciful trees, and a rabbit with really long arms. Somewhere between a folk art aesthetic and a macabre circus theme, McIntyre’s work was fanciful, delightful, and a little scary. The show is on from October 25 to October 31st and will be open 1 - 4 daily.
More info at http://thecircusandthepimpsjalopy.blogspot.com/
And thus concludes a most amazing cultural week! If only every week were like that. But now, at least, I have time to let it all settle into my brain.