“There’s a raw energy”: artists’ paradise Hydra still enchants | Greece

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PPerched on a hilltop in Hydra, Jeff Koons’ Apollo wind chime is hard to miss. The gigantic sun sculpture welcomes visitors 24 hours a day, its golden rays and faces are a vivid (if garish) reminder that art is alive and well on this Argo-Saronic island. As if the 30-foot-tall spinner wasn’t enough, Koons has also transformed the slaughterhouse it stands atop into a shrine dedicated to the sun god.

Further afield, in the port, whose beauty still fascinates more than 80 years after Henry Miller sang of its “wild and naked perfection,” tourists jostle to enter other exhibits. It’s rich loot for the curious. Along a 50 meter long waterfront promenade there are three shows that draw all kinds of crowds.

“The more the merrier,” says curator Dimitrios Antonitsis, whose Hydra School Projects has long brought some of the world’s most innovative artists to the island. “There’s a raw energy here, an attraction that artists and art lovers love.”

Sixty-two years after a young, undiscovered Leonard Cohen struck the rocky outpost and bought a run-down three-story home on the top edge of town, Hydra remains undiminished as a creative paradise.

The island may be far from the image of primitive simplicity that originally attracted its famed bohemian crew of foreign writers, painters and poets, but it still offers a home and resting place for those who seek solace in art. For some this may be embedded in the excitement of escape, for others in the barren terrain and otherworldly light, but even today Hydra is considered an artists’ mecca with its concept stores, trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

“So many of our heroes, so many of our idols have been here,” says Alexis Veroukas, a Greek painter who moved to the island a decade ago. “It’s not saying too much, it’s a sacred place, Mount Athos for artists.”

The historic port of Hydra in the heart of the Argo-Saronic Gulf. Photo: Funkyfood London/Paul Williams/Alamy

Veroukas, who lives in the multi-villa complex designed by James Speyer, an American avant-garde architect who lived in Hydra in the 1950s, attributes the geology to an island barely 11 miles long and four miles wide . In its rugged rockiness, there is an “element of surprise” in Hydra’s color scheme; Shades and tones that, as he says, never cease to excite and inspire.

William Pownall, the British painter best known for his landscape collages of the island, agrees that the rugged natural beauty of his adopted homeland undoubtedly played a role in anchoring him here.

In addition to being friends with Cohen, the sprightly 87-year-old has fond memories of George Johnston and Charmian Clift, the Australian couple described as the king and queen of Hydra’s midcentury artistic community, who include him and the Canadian bard among theirs took wing .

William Pownall in his Hydra studio
British painter William Pownall in his Hydra studio. Photo: Helena Smith/The Guardian

“The Greeks were very good to us foreigners,” he recalls in his waterfront studio, canvases stacked on the walls. “They have shown remarkable tolerance, even when we behaved unconventionally. They did us credit in the bars and pubs, they were so wonderful, their attitude towards money was quite a revelation to me.”

The rhythms of island life—rising early, working until midday, and then gathering at the docks for the steamers and ferries in—were not only conducive to work, but also provided an opportunity for self-discovery. Often, members of the colony met to show each other the fruits of their labors, which Pownall found to be extremely stimulating interactions.

“It was the ’60s and yes, there was drugs and sex and a lot of alcohol, but a lot of us worked really hard,” he says, recalling that the arrival of the mail on the boats was an all-important event, and what a letter could be included a check. “I don’t think I could have been the same artist in Italy, for example. A place takes you and I realized very soon that I could dig in here.”

Like the Johnstons – cultural icons who became household names in Australia after Clift’s suicide – Pownall’s output was astounding. Above all, Hydra offers a rare stillness for an artist whose masterful ability to convey stillness through painting has garnered him a rapidly growing following. Aside from a garbage truck and a garbage truck, cars and scooters are banned on the island, leaving the heavy lifting to donkeys and mules.

Australian authors George Johnston (left) and Charmian Clift (second left) with Norwegian emigrant Marianne Ihlen and musician Leonard Cohen at Hydra in 1960.
Australian authors George Johnston (left) and Charmian Clift (second left) with Norwegian emigrant Marianne Ihlen and musician Leonard Cohen in 1960. Photo: James Burke/Getty Images

“In the world we live in today, silence is golden,” says the painter, who lived on the island with his except for a period of far-right rule under the Colonels – a regime that outright banned the miniskirt and the Beatles has partner, poet Francesca Meks Taylor, for almost 60 years. “It can bring the calmness you’re looking for when you try to instill peace and stillness.”

Long before Cohen’s appearance, people seeking an alternative way of life began arriving on Hydra after Henry Miller, who memorably described it as “a rock jutting out of the sea like a giant loaf of petrified bread,” brought the island onto the map in The Colossus of Maroussi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lawrence Durrell and the painter John Craxton were among the many who, like Miller in 1939, spent time as guests of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, the artist then at the forefront of Greece’s modernist movement, whose wealthy family a prominent sea captains owned a 40-room mansion high above the harbor. Fermor, who spent two years in the thick-walled house to write his major travelogue Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, made sure to follow a trail of leading figures in British literature. The mansion was destroyed by fire, and many believed Cohen placed a curse on it.

“Hydra has an almost unbroken tradition of attracting talented people,” says Polly Samson, a British writer who spent years researching the artists’ colony for her best-selling book, A Theater for Dreamers. “The longer you look, the more names you discover.”

The inclines residents must negotiate due to the lack of vehicles — often hundreds of steps to get home — are intrinsically tied to the “restless energy,” according to Samson, that makes Hydra so conducive to talent. “I think the steps definitely have something to do with it,” she says. “Finally, there are studies that have shown that walking, dropping your feet, is very helpful for those who want to create.”

Since the mid-1930s, the harborside mansion of another wealthy Hydriot, Emmanuel Tombazi, has also housed an annex of the Athens School of Fine Arts. This too has helped keep the island’s artistic spirit alive by providing students with accommodation they might not otherwise be able to afford. “Young and modern want to be here because you can somehow let go in this place,” says Antonitsis, the curator. “They find that they can be both inspired and liberated – and just look at the building! It has to be the most beautiful art school in the world.”

    Dimitrios Antonitsis in front of the building on Hydra where his latest summer exhibition of international artists is held.
Curator Dimitrios Antonitsis in front of the building hosting his latest summer show of international artists. Photo: Helena Smith/The Guardian

At Hydra City Hall, surrounded by portraits of the island’s great navigators and Revolutionary War figures, Mayor George Koukoudakis marvels at the wide reach of expatriate artists.

“Colleges in New York want to host workshops to discuss the writers and artists who have lived here,” he smiles. “The interest in Leonard Cohen is phenomenal.”

The city council took the unprecedented step of renaming the street in front of the house where the musician had lived with his muse Marianne Ihlen “in Latin letters only” and also allowed the construction of a bank near the rocks where the singer-songwriter lived liked to swim.

Koons is the latest in a long line of artists invited to the island by the Athens-based Deste Foundation, set up by billionaire Greek Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou, who has helped transform Hydra into a contemporary art hotspot close. Joannou, a leading collector, often sails into Hydra harbor with his yacht Guilty, painted in cartoon style by the pop artist.

“I recently conferred honorary citizenship on Koons and Brice Marden [another American artist] who has lived here for many years,” says the mayor. “Hydra is grateful to all the artists and writers who have made our island their home. We are proud to call them compatriots.”

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