Photograph by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.The sun-soaked island of Hydra has long inspired artists and intellectuals from Henry Miller to Leonard Cohen, and even today with the influx of art stars and yachting billionaires, its unspoiled charm remains intact.
I had only been on Hydra a few days last summer when an astonishing boat sailed into the harbor. Shaped like a stealth fighter and bright with cartoon colors, Guilty is the private yacht of the billionaire Greek art collector Dakis Joannou. Dakis, as the Hydriots call him, is a Cypriot and one of the most famous men in this part of the Aegean. Six years ago he opened an outpost of his Athens-based Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art in an old slaughterhouse on the island. That same year he had Jeff Koons design a paint scheme to decorate his yacht, which he sails into Hydra’s discreetly affluent harbor every summer.
Guilty is a splash of New York art-world luridness among the elegant masts and Aegean colors of the other yachts. It’s the way Dakis likes it. Strolling past the waterfront cafes with their upper-class English summer immigrants and the twee boutiques housed in old sponge factories, I made my way along the dock to meet him, wondering all the while what it was like to sleep and wake in a floating art gallery on the high seas.
In almost no time a carpet had been laid out at the foot of the gangplank glittering with the word “Guilty.” Guilty of what? a visitor is bound to ask himself. On board, the genial billionaire waved me up.
“I suppose,” he deadpanned, “you had no trouble finding me?”
“I’ve been coming here for years,” Dakis said as he pointed out the pair of tall harbor-front houses he owns. “Only 2,000 people live here year-round, but in the summer it’s quite a scene. It’s one of the most haunting of the Greek islands. Outside of this port, it is virtually wild.”
Photograph by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.The port is ringed by bare brown hills. Salt-white houses extend on either side of the harbor — that classic effect of Greek islands — and even there on the water I could hear the cicadas rasping in the pines. It made for a startling contrast with this art-filled yacht, in whose master bedroom a neon sign by Martin Creed above the bed spelled the word “Feelings.” The David Shrigley cartoons on the walls seemed to come from a different planet.
“I love Hydra,” Dakis said as we came back into the sunlight and the clatter of pack donkeys on the quays (there are no cars allowed on Hydra). “It’s one of those places — one of the magical places.”
Each June, Dakis invites a couple hundred of the world’s most famous artists, dealers and collectors to mingle and celebrate the opening of the annual summer exhibition at the Deste foundation. One year, to open their show, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton orchestrated a dawn “procession” with a variety of animals and a large dogfish laid on a casket.
Photographs by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.Hydra has always been a place where artists have come. It was the austere and once-primitive island that had enchanted Henry Miller in 1939 and Leonard Cohen in 1960, and which later attracted the American painter Brice Marden, who still owns a house here. As Miller described his first view of Hydra: “There are only two colors, blue and white, and the white is whitewashed every day, down to the cobblestones in the street. The houses are even more cubistically arranged than at Poros. Aesthetically it is perfect, the very epitome of that flawless anarchy which supercedes, because it includes and goes beyond, all the formal arrangements of the imagination.”
Greek painters have always come here. The iconic Athenian artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, who was Miller’s host, lived on Hydra for many years. His paintings of the island in the 1930s, inspired by Hydra’s Cubist-like houses, helped put modern Greek art on the map. His ruined villa still stands above the tiny hamlet of Kamini like that of a Roman emperor.
Poets have also come here. George Seferis, indeed, sang the praises of Hydra:
Dolphins banners and the sound of cannons.
The sea once so bitter to your soul
bore the many-colored and glittering ships
it swayed, rolled and tossed them, all blue with white wings,
once so bitter to your soul
now full of colors in the sun.
But since I’m an Englishman, this tiny island has always meant two things to me: a few pages in Miller’s travelogue “The Colossus of Maroussi” and the place where Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote most of his equally sublime “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese” half a century ago, also in Ghikas’s villa.
Obscure literary obsessions? Not at all. Dakis was interested in both Miller and Fermor, and later, as we walked along the water away from the port, I asked him if he remembered “The Colossus of Maroussi.”
“Of course we all read it. No non-Greek ever wrote about Hydra like Henry Miller.” I said then that Miller had famously argued for the cultural importance of Greece, even in the modern age. “Even in the middle of our current crisis I think it’s an important idea. But then look at this place. It’s eternal — isn’t that what Miller was saying? You cannot help feeling that here. Greece is everlasting.”
Hydra, as Miller wrote, “rises out of the sea like a huge loaf of petrified bread,” with a single track carved around its northern shoreline. Slopes of stones and cactuses and wildflowers tumble down to brilliant edges of turquoise water. Soon we came to the island’s old abattoir building, a modest stone structure built on a slope near the edge of the water that is now Deste’s Project Space Slaughterhouse. For last year’s exhibition, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer had turned it into a place where anyone on the island could come and fashion their own clay sculptures. Local children had made amazingly detailed miniature replicas of island houses; there were griffins, gods and heroes from Greek mythology and a woman in a gas mask.
Photographs by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.A few young sculptors worked in the cells, making life-size human figures, and Dakis talked to them all with a gentle touch. The Joannou family made its fortune in the construction business; today Dakis also owns assets in hotels, shipping and aviation. But he is perhaps best known for owning one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Apart from Koons, he collects Maurizio Cattelan, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and scores of others. However, he is just as interested in the unknown young Greek artists who work in the project space. He would sail away the following day, but not without having put in a personal word to the artists he is supporting. Hydra, he said, is like a family of kindred spirits — a small family at that.
Turning to me as I left, he said, “You’ll meet everyone here at the end of a single day. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone can walk to each other’s house.”
Hydra is indeed intimate. Yet there is also something monastic and intensely private about it. The houses have high walls, relics of a time when feuds and vendettas raged, and even at high noon the tiny whitewashed square can suddenly seem empty and guarded. In the ancient world the island was little mentioned. It was known for its inland springs, hence its name, which is derived from the Greek word for “water.”
But it was not until the 17th century that Hydra began to make a name for itself with the development of its shipping industry. By that time it was a part of the Ottoman Empire, but even under foreign rule, Hydra became known for its famous Greek sea captains: Tombazi, Voulgari, Miaoulis, Tsamadou. After 1750, the island became a serious maritime power — in fact, the naval arm of the Greek rebels in the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1821, was largely Hydriot.
After Hydra’s maritime might declined in the 19th century, it turned to sponge fishing as an alternative source of income. It was still largely a sponge economy when Leonard Cohen bought his house here for the princely sum of $1,500, when he was 26. There was no electricity. As he wrote to his mother at the time:
“It has a huge terrace with a view of a dramatic mountain and shining white houses. . . . I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years. All through the day you hear the calls of the street vendors and they are really rather musical.”
Photographs by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.Every day I wandered down to the harbor and sat at the Pirate Bar and drank ouzo with the grizzled fishermen and watched the international crowd step off yachts as if entering a playground: the zoo of contemporary “leisure.”
Here I would occasionally see a flamboyant, slightly portly man walking a mottled dog on a leash and sporting dashing foulards. He was the Athenian artist Dimitrios Antonitsis, the director of a gallery called Hydra School Projects, which is lodged in a former school and captain’s house high above the port. One day he invited me up there and we wandered around a house made of 250-year-old ships’ timbers painted gray, with original pully hooks still attached. It had once belonged to a captain’s family, but now it was filled with contemporary art: wall drawings by Lisa Ruyter, Mirabelle Marden’s photographs of olive trees, a few paintings by the old Warhol Factory denizen, Rene Ricard.
Antonitsis informed me that Ricard (who has since passed away) was arriving by boat this week. “He’s quite wild,” Antonitsis said. “Very New York ’70s. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel, but he comes to Hydra to see everyone. You’ll find him very amusing.”
I noticed a small bust of Hitler smoking a cigarette backward on a windowsill and laughed — in accordance with the artist’s wishes, I presumed.
“Yes, some people don’t know whether to laugh or not. But the cigarette is pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Hitler led an antismoking campaign in Nazi Germany.
A Greek island might seem like a strange place for art world sensibilities to take root, and Antonitsis seemed to agree. But every summer on Hydra he finds many of the people he meets elsewhere in the world during the rest of the year.
“It’s curious how Hydra has become this place where people gather. I don’t know why it happened. I guess it all goes back to Ghikas — and to some pioneering gay men.”
In the 1950s, he told me, Hydra became home to Charles Hulse and Gordon Merrick. Merrick was an American author who wrote more than a dozen novels, which were known for their gay themes. His most successful, “The Lord Won’t Mind,” was written on Hydra. He left the island in the late ’70s, when tourists began to invade.
We went back down to the port that afternoon and found Helen Marden, Brice’s wife, at the Pirate Bar. Helen and Brice bought their first house on Hydra in 1973 and now own a historic property in the port. After drinks we went to their house. It’s a fortified affair with formidable walls and a garden of lemon trees, the massive lemons scattered all over the earth. “Too many to pick up,” she admitted. A tortoise slowly made its way through them as if attracted to their scent.
Photographs by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.Later helen showed me around the house, which was built in 1790. The ceilings with their latticework looked vaguely Ottoman to me, the rooms a pale gray, elegant, with low divans. The Mardens acquired it in 1990. The previous owners had been a French count and his Greek wife. Helen showed me a portrait of the wife on one of the walls, a disturbed and sadly haunted face. She was reputed to be highly eccentric.
“She used to paint her donkey’s hoofs gold. The count put in these odd lamps — ” She pointed to Dalí-esque plaster lamps fixed to the walls like mad mushrooms. “We rather like them, so we kept them.”
Upstairs Brice has his studio, although he was in New York at that moment. The view was exactly that described by Leonard Cohen to his mother half a century ago. From inside one of these old Hydriot houses you can see what attracted foreign artists and writers: the feeling of separation from the world, the high walls and defenses, the solitude combined with open sky and sea.
During the burning and solitary afternoons, I walked along the sea path toward the port of Kamini and from there onward to the tiny sea hamlet of Vlychos and eventually the remote church at Episcopi. One day I saw a crowd of boats speeding toward a barren island, barely a few hundred meters long, between Hydra and the mainland. There was a white chapel upon it, and the music of an Orthodox wedding came drifting back to the cliffs. Farther on, the path cut between vertiginous fields where donkeys grazed. “This purity,” as Miller wrote, “this wild and naked perfection. . . .”
Photograph by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.Returning by a steep inland path behind Kamini, I would pass the dark shaded lane now named after Ghikas. His ruined villa sprawls over an entire hillside, a maze of burned-out chimneys and wild oleander. It is rumored that the fire in 1965 that destroyed it was set accidentally by a drunken servant’s discarded cigarette. Now the place is deserted, sinking year by year into wilderness. It was sad to think of Lawrence Durrell and Miller there, Fermor and the great Katsimbalis, the real-life “colossus” of Maroussi — a now-mythic Greek intellectual of the midcentury who left almost no written works behind him.
One of the people on Hydra who remembers some of those men is Phainie Xydis, the daughter of a well-known Greek diplomat, who has kept a beautiful house on the island for many years. She took me to a restaurant overlooking the Saronic Gulf for early evening drinks, and we talked about the days before the Americans came in the ’60s. “I came first with my mother in 1956,” Xydis said. “I was about 12 when I met Patrick Fermor for the first time — you cannot believe how handsome he was. ”
Her parents met in Egypt, married in 1944 and settled in Athens. After they divorced, her mother bought a house on Hydra, where she and the children spent their summers. “She came because it was cheap and she fell in love with it. But you can’t imagine how archaic and wild Hydra was in those days. It was like the 19th century. Even a divorced woman from Alexandria like her could buy a house for $1,000. A lot of people were barefoot, totally poor. It was empty, an empty place. Look around you now!”
Photographs by Alexia Silvagni. Produced by Konstantin Kakanias.Sunset fills every night with large well-to-do British, French and Italian families who are probably not much aware of either the artists or the history behind them. I doubt any have climbed up to Ghikas’s house to pay homage to the ghosts of Miller or even Lawrence Durrell. Later that night, all the same, I went down to the port with some of the regulars to greet the wayward Rene Ricard off the late-night boat from Piraeus. A small, explosive fellow tumbled down the gangplank and dragged us into a waterfront cafe where we started to drink ouzo at a frantic rate. It was strangely nostalgic and incongruous. Ricard was the old New York, garrulous, impish, rakish, fast-witted, tremendously friendly and spontaneous, and here he was on Hydra among people he loved. He showed me a tooth that had chipped in half when his plane from New York made a mad landing the night before.
“Now I look like a ghoul,” he cried, “and all because I decided to come to Hydra! It doesn’t matter! I could have died.”
It was my last night, as it happened, and as we rambled through the white streets at 2 a.m. I wondered if what had made me so happy on Hydra for a week was simply the absence of the internal combustion engine. It seemed to throw one back into conversation itself, into companionship and even into the lowered, gentler voice. It had probably reminded both Miller and Cohen of something that they had lost as well, even decades ago — the human scale.