A former warehouse in central Rethymnon is home to The Centre for Cretan Popular Arts, and the organization which steers it, called the Association of Artists and Craftspeople of Rethymnon, or simply ‘The Creators’.
The term ‘popular arts’, or ‘laikes texnes’ can also be translated as folk art, but this term would not give a full picture, so to speak, of the wide range of styles and subject matter on view at this eclectic show.
The Association is a much-needed umbrella organisation for the 150 or so artists and makers who have so far joined it. We find instrument-makers and wood sculptors, weavers and painters of fine art, exhibiting alongside many other creators of both traditional and contemporary art. Interestingly we also see an emerging trend toward mixing and harmonising these styles in a dynamic new context; the changes in Crete itself.
This experimentation has already been well documented within the circles of Cretan music, and has led to much debate, but similar convergence in the arts is less talked-about. Perhaps it is too early to talk bravely about a new Cretan Style in the art world, perhaps not. It is now a matter of keeping an eye on developments. The distinction between arts and crafts, as much as that between traditional and modern, and masculine and feminine disciplines, has become so blurred at the edges that I will refer to all exhibitors henceforth as artists, which is certainly a true description.
The exhibition here described is now finished, but the centre is still well worth a visit, as many items are on permanent display. There is always the chance to get involved, perhaps as an exhibiting artist or craftsperson. Additionally, a visit to the Centre will be rewarding for anyone wishing to learn the skills of making many of the objects we can see. Workshops, seminars and courses are held in making woven fabrics on traditional looms, wood-carving, book-binding and pottery, among several other disciplines. With artists’ contact details available at the centre, it may also be a good source of ‘networking’ among creative people. We were told that many foreigners have enrolled for courses. Unsurprising, as Crete attracts its share of artistic souls and dreamers. It’s a good way to improve your Greek language, also.
Upon entering a handsome old building, we saw immediately the wooden looms used for teaching the quintessential Cretan handicraft, weaving. Many finished pieces of the work can still be seen, on permanent display. Every home should have an example of this beautiful style. You can usually recognize a Cretan design; a thick weave of strong, not gaudy, colours, arranged in geometric straight lines and shapes, often in a repeated sequence around the border. The results come in various sizes, always rectangular, with a protective cotton sheet sewn into the back.
They are used mostly as wall-hangings and are prized for both intricacy and bold use of colour and design. Quite a few, however, lay semi-forgotten in Cretan homes, perhaps a fragment of mothers’ or grandmothers’ dowry, or prika. There is a clear distinction between the hand-made article and something from a factory, of course. The older generation who are still the main producers, are passing on their skills to interested newcomers, who, in turn, teach, as well as test new ideas, new colours and shapes within traditional boundaries, for example using wholly natural dyes, made from plants. In another corner of the exhibition, examples of pyrography, a craft dating from ancient times, is receiving fresh attention. This involves various methods of burning images into wood (pyrography). The results here are naïve, but vital and full of graphic interest.
The Sculptor Yiannis Neonakis
Among the exhibits were statues by the president of the Association, Yiannis Neonakis, whose work as a sculptor in stone is widely known and respected, both in Greece and abroad. He has lived and worked for many years in the United States and speaks excellent English.
Sculpted from pieces of locally found stone, Neonakis’ work is timeless, strong and humane. His subjects are drawn from the sacred and the everyday, from the myths and from the history of his island. All are treated with an eye for character, while carefully leaving the viewer enough space to project his or her own assumptions onto the smooth surfaces of these silent faces. They are made with awareness in mind of the ancients and how they used stone-carving to bring so many facets of life and belief into our consciousnesses.
Today, our image of the ancient world, not only in the West, is shaped greatly by archaic sculpture and bas-relief work left behind by passing time, and the same can be said for our images of the Greek and Roman myths. Stone has held its place as the single most powerful medium of communication over the centuries. In its three dimensional stillness, its cold imperviousness to outside changes, and in its mysterious hold upon the viewer, the work of Neonakis is a modern link in this narrative. The sculptures are well realised objects, often beautiful and inspiring, and pleasing on many levels.
Also on view were many other works, sensitively displayed and all worthy of attention. As I have said, they range from the inherited traditions in the ‘tough’ materials; wood, stone, pottery, to the feminine skills associated with the domestic interior.
I loved a series of ink-drawings by Dimitris Karagiannakis. These depict everyday life in a village (‘the village’, we could say) and would make great postcards, with their exquisite, witty observations of ordinary scenes, as opposed to yet another photograph of a Cretan shepherd, or tinted sunset.
I did get around to making some notes. At least I started to, before we sat around to play the musical instruments that form part of this exhibition. To touch an exhibit is one thing. When we can not just touch, but use, as it was meant to be used, an item on display, you have to say ‘Bravo’. In a music shop I would not have felt so at ease in trying these instruments, and they seem of the finest quality. They don’t just look good, they also sound wonderful, apart from when I try to play them, of course.
The lyra, a musical teardrop that dispenses its sadness and joy all over Crete, here made by Giorgos Papalexakis, was used in the recording of Greece’s last years’ Eurovision winner, ‘You’re My Number One’. I had never understood how very different it is to the violin. It was a privilege to be able to try the mandolino and the laouto. Many instruments are on permanent display, but of course, file mou, ask before you touch.
Ocarinas, bubble-shaped pipes of painted clay with various holes for producing music, were on display upstairs in this three-floor exhibition. Other pottery came in various shapes, showing what a lively industry still exists on Crete. Yannis and I enjoyed the simple and elegant work from a village called Margarites, a place justly proud of its crafts and culture. Ceramics is an art in which the creative mixture of innovative patterning with traditional colours and texture are producing exciting work.
Painting, too, was represented by diverse talents. Evrediki Karilaki shared some of her knowledge about iconography with us. She believes that there is a danger of the Cretan School’s distinctive style (celebrated since before El Greco left these shores) being lost. Icon painting, it seems, is losing its regional identity, becoming a homogenous blend of styles from around the Orthodox world, producing an all-purpose hybrid.
I very much liked Evrediki’s own work, not only her icons, but representations of buildings and still life. I also enjoyed a great trompe l’oiel house by Katsougris and the post-Picasso cubism (and sculptures) of Ilias Moschonas.
There was much to admire at this exhibition, and it is good to know that the Association for Artists and Crafts people will be around to stage many more such events. The president of the Association, Yiannis Neonakis, can be reached on 6975715127, and he will be happy to provide information on membership, or participation in seminars and courses. If you are in Rethymnon, why not have a look around the Centre? I am told that it is open throughout the year, spotlighting the work of artists and craftspeople in the region.
Article by Louis Tracy – Photography by Yannis Samatas