I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the British Museum dedicated an exhibition to Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) along with artists Niko Ghika (1906-1994) and John Craxton (1922-2009). Their friendship is an actualisation of the ancient homo-social ideals which transforms the show into an ethnographic account of how Post-War England tried to cling to its colonial aspirations through an idea of beauty and civilisation. As an hedonistic update of the Grand Tour discourse, these artists used modernism as a way of arresting time.
Jean Marc, a Canadian friend of mine who went to Harrow (a very British boarding school) and made of that kind of Britishness a cult, introduced me to Leigh Fermor’s literature when he gave me, just before we embarked with my partner and his wife to a holiday in Kardamily, a first edition of his ‘Mani’ book, where Leigh Fermor fashions himself as an erudite mom vivant while exploring a particular area of continental Greece near Sparta where he and his wife decided to build a villa and spent the rest of their lives. That book is a conflation of tourist guide and poetic ethnography and I must confess that from the beginning I found it snobbish and contrived with quotes such as: ‘The stone flags of the water’s edge, where Joan and Xan Fielding and I sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent, decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat round the neatly laid table-top… The waiter… observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure… stepped unhesitantingly into the sea… and, saying nothing more than ‘Dinner-time’, placed our meal before us- three beautiful grilled kephali, piping hot’. They see themselves as the preserve of an Epicurean idea of love that is no less than the embodiment of an ancient idea of civilisation that has to be kept pure from the contamination of the ‘natives’ with whom they paternalistically interact (…saying nothing more than ‘Dinner-time’…). One has the feeling that they believe that the real Greeks in Greece are the three of them. As in Ancient Greece, women were companions but true love was reserved to educated male friends.
Throughout the exhibition the number three repeats again and again. ‘Three beautiful grilled kephali, piping hot’, three golden fish on the fishmonger’s stall in Craxton’s Poros (1952) and three Cancers (1953). This fixation with that number could also be seen in the ubiquitous triangles in Nikos Ghika landscapes. The visual language used by Craxton is a joyful and unproblematic decorative version of cubism while Ghika’s style is unashamedly ornamental bordering at times on what in US post-modernist painting would, at some point, be known as decorative pattern painting. Matisse is definitely an influence which means that it is difficult not to enjoy these images but that joy dries its environment both literally and metaphorically. It is from this point of view that the informed visitor may understand the reason for staging this show at the British Museum for there is something of the way the history of civilisation is presented through a seemingly unending series of de-historicised ethnographic expeditions. There is a parallelism between what Lord Elgin and Thomas Young tried to do with the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone respectively and what Leigh Fermor, Ghika and Craxton aimed at when trying to transform Post-War Greece into an informed refuge from the toils of modernity while still claiming to be its champions. Leigh Fermor’s account of the building of his Kardamily villa shows his inconsistent attempt to restore Ancient Greek authenticity through Ancient Rome when saying: ‘We found a piece of land by the sea, became koumbaroi (godbrothers) of a master mason called Niko and we gathered a small team of stone-cutters and builders and settled in tents reading Vitruvius and Palladio, learning what we could from the Mani buildings’. Their idea of Greece is romantically imbued by the artificial notion of authenticity. For them, it is joyful, colourful, uncomplicated and friendly. In their world there is no room for conflict. Theirs is a neutral world imposed on ‘the Other’ from the viewing point of privilege that turns everything into a setting for that ‘elevated’ kind of friendship that they represent and the British Museum nostalgically cherishes. For them, Greece is an allegory of their own friendship as a sanctuary that isolates them from a reality that, inspite of what they claim, they find deeply unsettling. By narrating this through the idea of love, the show’s curation reinforces again and again this view of art as a diversion.
The curators made a point of the privileged fact that the only Greek of the three had an ‘eighteenth century imposing home on the island of Hydra’ that became a ‘sanctuary’ for the three of them. John Craxton first visited Crete in 197 and was so ‘fascinated’ by it that he returned again and again. In 1960 like the other three he became a home owner in the Venetian harbour of Chania where he created many of his best paintings. Patrick Leigh Fermor had spent two years supporting the Resistance in the Cretan mountain during the Second World War, and he revisited Crete in 1953, producing drawings and paintings of Cretan gardens. He returned to stay with Craxton in Chania who was seemingly obsessed with sailor whom he painted again and again. If I had to chose one piece from this show, it would be the paradigmatic Nikos Ghika’s Portrait of John Craxton of 1949 where the Greek artist deploys the visual language of those grafittis celebrating the achievments of their rowing teams that can be found on any quadrangle wall in Oxford. The way this Greek artist tries to speak the language of the empire when there is no empire to speak of, raises a series of issues linked to the naturalised Stockholm syndromme of foreign elites who kept using modernism as a way of belonging to something that, as Nasser proved Anthony Eden in a rather brutal way, was long gone. J A T