‘There’s a raw energy’: Hydra, artists’ haven, still casts its spell

Show caption American artist Jeff Koons’s latest project, a 9.1-metre wind spinner titled Apollo, on the Greek island of Hydra. Photograph: © Jeff Koons Greece ‘There’s a raw energy’: Hydra, artists’ haven, still casts its spell The Greek island has attracted creatives for over 8o years, from Henry Miller to Leonard Cohen and Jeff Koons Helena Smith in Hydra Sun 7 Aug 2022 15.31 BST Share on Facebook

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Perched on a hillock in Hydra, Jeff Koons’s Apollo wind spinner is hard to miss. The gargantuan sun sculpture welcomes visitors at all hours, its golden rays and face a vibrant (if lurid) reminder that art is alive and well on this Argo-Saronic isle. If the 9.1-metre spinner were not enough, Koons has also turned the slaughterhouse on which it stands into a shrine dedicated to the sun god.

A little further away, in the port whose beauty still mesmerises more than 80 years after Henry Miller eulogised its “wild and naked perfection”, tourists jostle to enter other exhibitions. It’s rich pickings for the curious. Along a 50-metre stretch of waterfront there are three shows, all drawing crowds.

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

Sixty-two years after a young, undiscovered Leonard Cohen pitched up on the rocky outpost, purchasing a dilapidated three-storey house on the town’s upper edge, Hydra’s appeal as a haven for creatives endures.

The island may be a far cry from the image of primitive simplicity that first drew its famously bohemian crew of expatriate 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 wrapped up in the excitement of escape, for others in its barren terrain and otherworldly light, yet even now with its concept stores, trendy eateries and boutique hotels, Hydra is regarded as an artists’ mecca.

“So many of our heroes, so many of our idols were here,” says Alexis Veroukas, a Greek painter who moved to the island a decade ago. “It is not too much to say it is a holy place, the Mount Athos for artists.”

The historic port of Hydra in the heart of the Argo-Saronic gulf. Photograph: funkyfood London/Paul Williams/Alamy

Veroukas, who lives in the multi-villa complex designed by James Speyer, an avant garde American architect resident in Hydra in the 1950s, credits the geology of an island that is barely 11 miles long and four miles wide. In its stark rockiness there is an “element of surprise” in Hydra’s colour scheme; shades and tones that, he says, never fail to delight and inspire.

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

The spry 87-year-old was not only a friend of Cohen’s but 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 took him and the Canadian bard under their wings.

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

“The Greeks were very good to us foreigners,” he recalls in his waterfront studio, canvasses stacked along the walls. “They showed a remarkable tolerance even if we behaved in an unconventional way. They’d give us credit at the bars and taverns, they were wonderful like that, their attitude to money was quite a revelation to me.”

The rhythms of island life – waking up early, working through to midday and then gathering at the port as the steamers and ferries came in – were not only conducive to work but ripe with the possibility of self-discovery. Often, members of the colony would meet to show one another the fruits of their labours in what, for Pownall, were hugely stimulating interactions.

“It was the 60s and, yes, there were the drugs and sex and lots of drinking, but many of us worked very hard,” he says, recollecting how the arrival of the mail on the boats was an all-important event, as a letter might have contained a cheque. “I don’t think I could have been the same artist in Italy, for instance. A place takes hold of you and I realised very soon I could dig in here.”

Like the Johnstons – cultural icons who would go on to become household names back in Australia, heightened after Clift’s suicide – Pownall’s output has been prodigious. Above all, Hydra offers a rare silence for an artist whose masterly ability to convey stillness through painting has earned him a rapidly growing following. Aside from a dust cart and rubbish truck, cars and scooters are banned on the island, leaving the heavy work to donkeys and mules.

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

“In the world we live in today, silence is golden,” says the painter, who, bar an interval of far-right rule under the Colonels – a regime that instantly banned the miniskirt and the Beatles – has lived on the island with his partner, the poet Francesca Meks Taylor, for close to 60 years. “It can bring the tranquillity you are looking for when you are trying to convey peace and stillness.”

Long before Cohen’s appearance, people looking for an alternative way of life had begun to arrive on Hydra after Henry Miller, memorably describing it as a “rock which rises out of the sea like a huge loaf of petrified bread”, put the island on 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 the guests of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, the artist then at the forefront of Greece’s modernist movement, whose wealthy family of prominent sea captains owned a 40-room mansion high above the port. Fermor, who spent two years in the thick-walled house writing his great travelogue Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, ensured that a trail of leading figures from the British literary scene visited. The mansion was destroyed by a fire, with many believing Cohen had put a curse on it.

“Hydra has had an almost seamless tradition of attracting talented people,” says Polly Samson, a British writer who spent years researching the artists’ colony for her bestselling novel A Theatre for Dreamers. “The more you look, the more names you discover.”

The ascents residents are forced to make as a result of the absence of vehicles – frequently climbing hundreds of steps to reach homes – is, Samson believes, inextricably bound to the “restless energy” that makes Hydra so conducive to talent. “I think the steps definitely have something to do with it,” she says. “There are studies, after all, that have shown that walking, the fall of feet, is very helpful for those who want to create.”

Since the mid-1930s, the harbourside mansion of another moneyed Hydriot, Emmanuel Tombazi, has also hosted an annexe of the School of Fine Arts in Athens. That too has helped keep the island’s artistic spirit alive, providing accommodation for students who might otherwise not be able to afford it. “The young and cutting-edge want to be here because somehow this place allows you to let go,” says Antonitsis, the curator. “They find 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.”

Curator Dimitrios Antonitsis in front of the building in which his latest summer show of international artists is being held. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

In Hydra’s town hall, surrounded by portraits of the great seafarers and war of independence figures the island has produced, Mayor George Koukoudakis marvels at the extended reach of the artist expatriates.

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

The city council, he said, has taken the unprecedented step of renaming the street outside the house where the musician had lived with his muse, Marianne Ihlen, “in Latin letters only” and had also allowed a bench to be built close to the rocks where the singer-songwriter liked to swim.

Koons is the latest in a long line of artists to be invited to the island by the Athens-based Deste Foundation set up by the billionaire Greek Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou, who has helped turn Hydra into a stronghold for contemporary art. A leading collector, Joannou often sails into Hydra’s harbour in his yacht, Guilty, gaudily painted by the pop artist in cartoon style.

“I’ve recently handed out honorary citizenships to 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’re proud to call them compatriots.”