NEW YORK – The Consulate General of Greece in New York celebrated Greek Independence Day a few days early on March 22, with an open house complemented by the art exhibition Byronic Heroes by Lydia Venieri.
Venieri’s art poses the questions of what it means to be a hero.
Moody portraits of sad-eyed boys with wispy moustaches, pouty-lipped girls with flower crowns, and teenagers poised to play the bouzouki adorned both the upstairs and downstairs of the Consulate. Venieri’s Byronic Heroes are an ethnically diverse cast of beautiful, slightly hipsterish souls who look as if they would proclaim Rupi Kaur a sellout and claim the Romantic poet Lord Byron a saint not just for his poetry but for his life – or, to be more precise, his death. Venieri says, “Always in love, totally epic, secretly romantic, dying in magic faraway lands under the spell of tyrannical despots, tired from the eternity of the past, the Byronic Heroes dream of a legend of freedom and love in which they will be immortalized in a poem, a painting or a song.”
In her artist statement, Venieri says: “Two hundred years ago at the beginning of industrial revolution passed the comet, Byron. The poet who made revolution a la mode…” She counts Goethe, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Poe among those who have been inspired by the Romantic poet, saying, “They adopted his brave altruistic spirit which was fertilized by his courage and with his early death.” Born in 1788, the English poet traveled extensively through Italy before joining the Greek War of Independence. He died at only thirty-six years old when he contracted a fever in Missolonghi, the town in western Greece where a dramatic siege took place during the War. Vanieri says, “When the Byronic Big Bang exploded, the world was filled with Extraordinary heroes with humanitarian momentum which continues to our days.”
British historian Lord Macaulay typified the Byronic hero as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” Byron’s four-part narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–1818) catapulted this new type of hero into the spotlight. The poem follows a young man who seeks to escape the disillusionment produced from years of war through travels to exotic lands. Venieri depicts this poem in several of her works, for example showing world-weary youths with shadows cast over their faces.
Venieri additionally devotes several works to Byron’s epic satire Don Juan, in which the poet flipped the archetype of Juan as womanizer by writing about a man easily succumb to women. In Don Juan, Canto II, Haidee, Venieri depicts an Asian girl in the traditional fez with the long golden tassel worn by the Evzones in the Greek Army.Canto II of the poem tells the story of how Juan falls for Haidee even though they cannot understand each other’s languages. Venieri’s Don Juan – Canto III shows a young African man holding a white bird standing next to a White young man holding a sword. In Canto III of the poem, Byron describes Greece as a “slave” to the Ottoman Empire as he takes a stab at his literary contemporaries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth. Venieri’s Don Juan, Canto V, Sultana Gulbeyaz features a voluptuous woman in a pink silk blouse and bejeweled headpiece standing under an arch. It looks like a movie still from classic Italian cinema. The corresponding canto in the poem tells of how Juan is bought from the slave market and taken to a palace, where the sultana, Gulbeyaz, throws herself at him, despite his initial refutations.
Among the other poems Venieri references are Manfred, Werner, The Bride of Abydos, Beppo, Sardanapalus, The Giaour, and The Siege of Corinth. Common totems in her work are hookahs, bouzoukia, and necklaces. The characters depicted wear white blouses, long black flowing dresses, and patterned shirts. They are often barefoot yet wearing headdresses, be it scarves wrapped multiple times around their heads or whimsical hairpieces. The backgrounds are often hazier, featuring ruins and exotic architecture set in lush natural landscapes. Her work is digital photograph and painting, printed on satin, and mounted on canvas.
A descendent of the House of Venier, a family that entered Venetian nobility in the fourteenth century, the artist was born in Athens. Venieri went on to study in Paris at the famed Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), where such influential painters as Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Renoir had once studied.
The open house was packed with the artist; her models; curator Elga Wimmer;individuals from other consulates, such as Lithuania; and members of the Greek-American community.