Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Greeks invented the public statue, preposterous as it sounds. For while statues have been with us since the eon of the cave man and have expressed humanity's need to idealize its condition, hence the various statues of the gods, it appears that Greeks were the first people in their effrontery to transcend the barrier between the idealistic depiction of a deity and claim that place for a mankind idealized in its own right. Thus it can verily be said that the Greeks created their gods in their own image and then created their own image in that of the gods. As the thread of this cosmological argument is so spiral as to disappear up its own fundamental orifice when followed to its own logical conclusion, we need not pursue it further in this column at least.
The manifestations of the need for public statuary are manifold and interesting. Of particular note are the curious depictions of the god Hermes, known affectionately by archaeologists as Herms, that dotted Athens. Simply put, they consisted of an idealized head of the said god, on a rectangular plinth, on whose base was carved in bas-relief, an erect phallus. So there you have it. We literally invented the concept of phallocephaly as well, though the jury is out on whether the prevalence of Herms in Athens is indicative of a concentration of phallocephalists in that city, though judging by their modern day descendants, an arguable case may be made.
The concept of bringing attention to the deeds of men by immortalizing them in bronze or marble was a novel idea. By doing so, citizens who acted heroically or selflessly for the benefit of their own city or tribe could gain immortal renown through their depiction in such a three dimensional medium, thus providing incentive for further would-be good deeds doers to achieve the public acclamation and 'face' that Greeks so traditionally craved.. Such statues could also be used for pure propaganda purposes, as in the case of the statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, lovers who murdered the tyrant of Athens Hipparchus as a result of a lovers tiff but whose example was suitably spun out by Athenian spin doctors to personify the struggle for liberty and democracy. So enduring was this myth that when Stavros Baretis assassinated the Prince of Samos Kopasis in 1912, his photograph bearing the title «ο νέος Αριστογείτων» was published in a poster alongside an etching of the famous statue.
Similarly, Olympia was replete with statues of athletes who had brought honour to their cities by being victorious in their various games. Our modern day Greek community equivalent seems to be the honour board of various organizations where various 'fathers' of the Greek community cheat, scheme or outlay cash in order to have their name etched thereon, only to be ignored by the next generations, who have no idea who they are and cannot read their names in Greek anyway. Perhaps a statue would be more enduring, as are those that adorn the mouldering tombstones of the wealthy Greeks of Cairo and Constantinople. At any rate, while engravers don't really enjoy much kudos in the Greek community, sculptors who found the 'perfect' method of representing the human body, such as Pheidias and Polykleitos still inspire awe today and their creations, such as the Charioteer, will live for ever, or at least until Athens museum is plundered by those intent on making that city safe for democracy.
During the Roman period, much of Greek civic statuary was replaced by poor Roman imports of occupying powers such as Aemilius Paulus in Macedonia or were forcibly removed to Rome, where the various emperors would lop off their heads and replace them with their own, especially if said statue happened to be of a particularly well built and buff model citizen, proving that there is a fine line between civic sculpture, propaganda, a 3D Playboy magazine and doctored internet pictures of Britney Spears. Regrettably, this practice continued during Byzantine times, though the statues of emperors through divine wrath or at least that of Encheladus have largely not survived and two-dimensional art, in the form of the icon was preferred, though even that was almost abolished.
With the liberation of Greece and the neo-classical movement that it inspired, interest in civic sculpture as a method of fostering good citizenship, was rekindled. There is seldom to be found a Greek town that does not have a heavily mustachioed hero, every single pleat of his foustanella lovingly reproduced, standing silent sentinel in its village square, constructed of various relatively imperishable materials. The plinth of Kolokotronis' statue in Tripolis encases the heart of that great hero and for sheer magnitude, you can’t beat the stature of Archbishop Makarios in Lefkosia, which towers over the Archdiocesan offices, in whose grounds it resides and is larger than any other statue I have ever seen, giving further meaning to the expression 'larger than life'. Phillip's statue in Thessaloniki is also interesting as the sculptor has depicted Philip with a stern, yet puzzled expression as if to say: "Where the hell am I? This isn't Pella." For of course at the time of his demise, Thessaloniki had not been founded. The Modern Greek obsession with statue also led to a new gardening movement. Apparently you can grow them, or at least that is what the title of Mesolongi's "Garden of Heroes" replete with a multitude of the statues of Philhellene freedom fighters springing out of the ground connotes.
Some statues are just plain wrong. One of these is the statue of Aris Velouchiotis in Lamia. Enough evidence has been gathered to suggest that the said monster, disendorsed by his own party was a sadistic, malevolent and violent criminal against humanity and his glorification by the hapless few who stupidly pine for the days of the Greek Civil War is an affront to all that is decent in human nature. It is better that this period is totally forgotten than to have the archmurderer three-dimensionally depicted so as to taunt his victims from gehenna. The same goes for the right-wing criminals who committed similar acts, though I have not seen any of their statues in modern Greece.
Other statues seem to have unfortunate fates. The statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, perhaps the greatest statesman of Modern Greece in central Athens is a case in point. Every time I visit it, on its lonely plinth in the centre of a deserted square adjoining Queen Sophia Boulevard, it is covered in graffiti, much like the ancient monument of Philopappos on the homonymous hill. This constitutes an ignominious and infamous state of affairs for it was Venizelos who was the father of the first Greek Republic, the founder of the Greek welfare state and liberator of vast tracts of Greek land starting with the heroic island of Crete, his homeland. After being betrayed by recalcitrant and self-interested elements of Greek society, including the then reigning monarch who proceeded to botch up the whole Asia Minor campaign and alienate Greece from the rest of the world, Venizelos selflessly returned to Greece to rehabilitate the million or so refugees fleeing King Constantine's humanitarian disaster, and in doing so, totally transformed Greece for ever. Most importantly, as a master of diplomacy, he dexterously managed to gain the sympathy and co-operation of the entire Western World to an extent never again attained by Greek diplomats. He therefore deserves greater respect, though thankfully, in other parts of Greece, especially in Crete, his image is treated with rightful reverence.
The Cretan Brothe hood of Melbourne, along with the Australian and Hellenic Foundation of Eleftherios Venizelos' unveiling of a statue of Venizelos within its grounds last month, cannot be viewed otherwise than a direct continuation of the Hellenic need to praise and immortalize its heroes not with three cheers, but in three dimensions. Yet what is the relevance of Venizelos, born 140 years ago, to an Australian-Greek population whose latter generations have only a vague if any understanding of his existence and intrinsic importance to their place of origin? If anything, it is that Venizelos was able to conceive of a greater Greece and not just in the physical sense. This Greece, consisting of every corner of the globe where Greeks reside, is according to Hellenistic concepts of identity, to be found in the conscience and being of all those who make the effort to maintain an affiliation with her. For Venizelos, seeing the destruction of the indigenous population of Asia Minor, the ensuing Greek diaspora constituted a second chance at hope. That Greece, as the great statesman once said, "has every intention of surviving and it shall survive." And even if fifty or so years down the track, the Greek language is no longer spoken on our shores and our decaying memories of our illustrious ancestors decompose to the humus of consciousness, then at least the statue of Venizelos shall continue to look desolately and mutely upon the wasteland of its dreams, visited by swallows bearing tidings of whispered memories and granting him, along with all of the works of our hands, greater poignancy.
First published in NKEE on 10 April 2006