Surrealism on Andros

How come the island of Andros in the Aegean Sea is host to some of Greece’s best exhibitions of modern art? The answer lies in both the island’s long cultural history and its maritime prowess.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Hora, the main town, is funded by the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, and it’s one of the reasons we came to Andros. The Goulandrises are one of a number of ship-owning families from the island who made a fortune in the 19th and 20th centuries. Another family foundation, begun by Basil’s twin brother Nicholas and his wife Dolly, supports the excellent Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. It has some of the best displays of pottery and other objects from Neolithic times onwards, demonstrating nine millennia of art and culture on the islands.

Yesterday we took a one-hour bus trip to Hora, on the northern side of the island, and found the MCA on the waterfront. The late Basil and Elise would, you feel, have been very happy with this summer’s exhibition, Approaching Surrealism. Carefully curated, it brings together well-known pieces and rarely-seen items from Greek private collection, along with publications, documents and photographs of the Surrealist movement.  

There are some wonderful drawings and small paintings by Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio De Chirico, Max Ernst, André Masson and Joan Mirò, sculptures by Man Ray and René Magritte. And there are works by Greek artists, notably Andreas Embiricos (who supported leading Surrealist André Breton when he split from the Stalinists in 1935), Gerassimos Steris and the poet Odysseus Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of the latter were seen at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1991 when Goulandris sponsored an exhibition of Greek Surrealists.

The new show at Andros is thought-provoking and illuminating. The late Sydney collector, Greek Alexandrian James Agapitos, would have loved it.

Note to followers of media: newspaper owner Tony O’Reilly is married to Chryss Goulandris, daughter of another branch of the same philanthropic family.


The outstanding artist in the MCA’s permanent collection is Michalis Tombros (1889-1974), the Andros sculptor. Profoundly influenced by the time he spent in Paris before and after the First World War, he never forgot his classical roots. His own summary of his philosophy also expresses the ethos of the museum. “I learnt at an early stage,” he once said, “the importance of the lessons to be learnt from Ancient Olympia. I discovered the strong spiritual bond which joins the Parisian school, the Mycenean Geometric period, and the Aegean civilisation.”

Deep thinkers, these Greeks. From the Surrealism exhibition the words of the poet Elytis (1911-1996) also stick in my mind: “I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses into great harmony with my dreams.”


Thessaloniki, four hours by train to the north of Athens, has retained its multicultural character through a century of war and turmoil. To my Athenian friend Aliki, it’s the Greek city most like Istanbul.

Since medieval times Muslims, Christians and Jews had lived together in Thessaloniki. Then came the 20th century. In 1917 most of the old town burned down in a devastating fire. In 1922 it lost much of its Muslim population through the forcible “exchange” of Greeks and Turks. The Second World War brought the German occupation and the devastation of the Jewish community, with at least 50,000 dragged off to the death camps of Poland. In the civil war, resistance fighters with the Communist-led ELAS faced death and imprisonment.

This turbulent history is the fabric of The Thread, the latest novel from Victoria Hislop, an Oxford-educated Hellenophile and wife of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. Since 2005 when she published the historical romance The Island she has sold more than a million books in both Britain and Greece.

The spark for the new story came at Cape Sounion, the site of the story of Aegeus and Theseus, which we visited a couple of weeks ago. As the sun set her gaze was drawn to the dark shape of the island of Makronissos. She started investigating, and discovered it was the prison and torture centre for left-wing members of the resistance for three decades after the end of the war. Her research led her back to Thessaloniki.

She has a very different take on this history from Louis de Bernières, whose anti-communist view of the civil war period mars his popular Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. “The Resistance fought the Germans all the way through the war,” she told The Independent upon publication, “and then these collaborators are handed back their country. I can see which that would have made them very angry … I think I would have been on their side.”

A handful of literary snobs have decried Hislop on the basis that she sells books. But The Thread is a well-researched page-turner, a saga of love and conflict with appealing central characters, in the great tradition of Victor Hugo and Alessandro Manzoni. I think Dickens would have applauded. Good luck to her.


One comment

  1. Please correct "with at least 50,000 dragged off to the death camps of Poland". Poland did not have death camps. Proper location Nazi occupied Poland. Thanks, Carol

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