By Constantine S. Sirigos
TNH Staff Writer
NEW YORK – Artists have fallen in love with one corner of Greece or for centuries. The Greek House – The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos by Christian written with Tim Lovejoy, published last year by Farrar Straus and Giroux and expected in a Greek translation in 2015, is a delightful addition to the list.
“It has heart and I tried to make it as human and honest as possible,” he told The National Herald, adding Lovejoy helped “turn my manuscript into a song,” but he also praised the editor from FSG, Elizabeth Sifton.
But he also credits the island: “Sifnos is a very moving place,” and says it is one of those places in the world where “you can put your ear to the ground and hear your own heart beating.”
Brechneff was “overwhelmed by the field of flowers on Sifnos in the springtime,” from the start, but it took three years for the colors to permeate his paintings. Some of his first sketches were of people, like Yianis, a fisherman. “It was the Sifniots themselves who charmed you; they seemed so genuinely warm, so cheerful and gracious, their lives so rich and full.”
When he set off from Switzerland, he was not sure what pat of Greece to go to. “it was the sun, the sun with a capital “S” that drew me the most…I wanted to see and paint the Greek light, to feel it, experience it, capture it,”
As with many great love affairs, Brechneff’s encounter with Sifnos was an accident, having been re-directed there by a thoughtful travel agent in 1972.
He arrived at the small port of Kamares at three in the morning: “The night was black, no moon, the sea the darkest ink blue possible. The sky full of stars. The island much bigger than I expected and even blacker than the sea, rose up over the water like an animal. The two mountains on either side of the little harbor entrance towered above is…As the sea wind died I could smell for the first time the delicate scent of the island…”
Brechneff was immediately christened Christo – plunging into Siphnos’ sea that night, and society the next day, the latter not too deeply, but mainly through the long walks past homes and humble farmers riding donkeys to their fields.
“It was easy to get their attention, being the only tall blonde…The island knew me. I knew faces but I didn’t always know the name,” he wrote.
That very first bus ride introduced him to one of the glories of Sifnos: at every turn one is face to face with remarkable natural and man-made vistas.
Brechneff rhapsodizes about walks there. He writes of one of the first: “After another corner or two, the land dropped away even more steeply, and we all gasped.” Of another he says: “I’ll never forget that walk…from the monastery of Vrissi,” with his first view of Kastro, the Venetian era fortified hilltop town that seems to float magically above the Aegean.
He loved the wildness of the landscape – “everywhere there were flowers and flowering shrubs,” and soon he began to experience, as he wrote to his parents, that “the island has serious sexual vibrations,” a phenomenon likely missed by Greek-Americans who spend most of their time with relatives.
The book with a poignant ending begins exuberantly. The beginning of the affair was all sweetness and light.
Brechneff soon found an old house at Platy Gialos beach, and the reader delights in his descriptions of the joys – and frustrations – of buying, renovating, and expanding his own house in the quiet village of Exambela.
But every afternoon he was on Sifnos for 30 years he could be found on his rock, his spot on the famous and iconic peninsula named for the dazzling white monastery of Chrissopigi.
The book is also the story his growth as an artist, and of coming to terms with his sexuality, blending mixing his personal relationships and his personal and artistic affair with the island.
He tells not so much of a coming of age as the creation of a persona – Christo, “το καλο παιδη – the good boy.”
He draws all the threads together writing of his realization that “Christo” was not real, but a creation, like his paintings. “I wanted to believe in that person. My parents had a lot to do with it” he said, adding “the book is a bit of a son’s homage. “
Even though he was 22 when he arrived, to the Sifniots “Christo was the little boy who was the son of those parents … and suddenly I could not be that person any more.”
He was born in Africa but raised in Switzerland. Brechneff’s father, whose family lost everything fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, was well-educated and became a physician. “He was an incredibly handsome Russian romantic blonde and my mother was a Swiss beauty,” and a Jungian Psychotherapist.
When Brechneff was 16 his interest in the guitar yielded to painting. “That opened up a whole world where I could express myself and be myself,” he told TNH. Then suddenly he stated selling paintings – only 19 when he had his first show.
“I was pretty unformed but I found something I knew I could do and did differently and well,” gifted in a different way from his older brother who became a physician, he said.
Brechneff spoke of the rewards and perils of standing out due to one’s attractiveness, and he noted with good-natured annoyance that the residents never picked up his gradual realization that he was gay – they missed that Lovejoy – who loved Sifnos and told Brechneff it was impossible to be depressed there – was his partner.
One of the book’s subtexts was how the island changed with the slowly rising flood of tourists and cars. “Compared with most of Greece, changes on the island were fairly subtle,” but he too changed.
”I wasn’t running away to Sifnos anymore,” he said. He made peace with Switzerland and loved living in New York.
One by one the links began to break. His parents and friends stopped coming, and Sifniots dear to him passed away, giving a tinge of sadness to his once thrilling annual arrivals.
Most importantly the gallery which re-ignited his desire to paint on Sifnos closed.
He stopped painting on Sifnos in 2000 and his last major drawings were completed in 2002.
“At first I thought I was just taking a break…It took a couple of years of coming to the island and not going near my paints…to realize the unthinkable had happened: I was done, done painting there…the island still touched me, I knew, but…a seemingly bottomless well for looking and seeing and feeling, had dried up.”
The rich Sifnian mine had become exhausted.
He took his time putting the house on the market. He finally sold it in 2007 – the year he and Lovejoy were joined in a civil union – and Brechneff’s relationship with Sifnos seemed to be summed up in a conversation with a woman he had known for 30 years who appeared only to care about how much he received for the house. “Bye bye Christo,” she said, evoking some pain, but he then reasoned “people are always leaving the islands. They are used to it.”
He writes, however, “I didn’t sell the island, just a house,” and he told TNH “I was in Sifnos this year for a reading…It was very touching and we all cried in the end.”