Why Hydra Draws The Artists

Even among Greece's many iconic islands, Hydra has a special mystique, one which draws artists for its quiet magic as much as tourists.

Even among Greece’s many iconic islands, Hydra has a special mystique, one which draws artists for its quiet magic as much as tourists for its cubistic, blue-and-white imagery.

That lure is recounted in a New York Times travel piece by Lawrence Osborne, who describes what first drew famous authors, artists and singers like Leonard Cohen, who bought a house on the island in 1960 for $1,500. 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.”

Hydra bans vehicles, apart from a few delivering goods, but the absence of the internal combustion engine has given it a quality that is a magnetic draw for people who want to get away from it all, if only for a few days or weeks, such as tourists. or those who can now afford to own a home there.

As Osborne put it: 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.

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.”

But while its tiny harbor draws word-class yachts and the super-rich, such as renowned art collector Dakis Joannou, it also is irresistible to arts, from the famous to amateurs who are invited to show their skills, and with a number of galleries showing off everything from traditional to avant-garde.

American painter Brice Marden, and his wife Helen have owned a house there for years. Former Boston Globe Assistant Editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. and his wife, Jan Saragoni, have a summer home there. He’s author of the acclaimed biography of Ted Williams, The Kid.

Each June, Joannou 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.

Among the famous artists who lived on the island was the late Athenian artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, who was Miller’s host 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, and Osborne laments that few go there now to pay homage or remember what he and some of his famous guests, like travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of the celebrated Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese” half a century ago, much of written in Ghikas’s villa.

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.

Now, in the old abattoir building, a modest stone structure built on a slope near the edge of the water, there is a gallery called  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, noted Osborne.

Another Athenian artist, Dimitrios Antonitsis, is director of a gallery called Hydra School Projects, which is lodged in a former school and captain’s house high above the port.

Hydra in the summer has much of the hustle and bustle of other overrun, overcrowded Greek islands, especially these days as they are among the hottest destinations in the world, but the absence of cars and its combination of rich with artists, locals, and tourists gives it a divergent essence.

But for all that, sighs Osborne, many of them miss what makes Hydra a haven for artists. “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,” he said. “I doubt any have climbed up to Ghikas’s house to pay homage to the ghosts of Miller or even Lawrence Durrell.”