The Alexandria of Dimosthenis Gallis: Synchronization with Eternity
By Megakles Rogakos
Art Historian & Exhibition Curator
À propos of Alexandria, the mind travels to the city of Egypt, first of its dispersed versions whose name commemorates its founder. Two different moments signify it – the one in antiquity, when it was the spiritual centre of the world, decorated with famous architectural works, the Library and the Lighthouse nowadays preserved as memory, and the other in modern times, when it became a cosmopolis with a strong Greek presence, neoclassical buildings and huge economic growth. However, Alexandria became more acclaimed than its physical incarnation owing to the spirit of a Greek poet, whose work has acquired global reach and flares as emotion in their readers. So much so that at the call of "Alexandrian" silently answers and dreamily emerges the introspective figure of Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933).
In the 70 years of his life, Cavafy was to live in three cosmopolitan countries – Egypt, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. The important capital cities of these countries deeply affected his life, temperament, and poetry. The hedonistic Alexandria and the majestic Istanbul—age-old crossroads of civilizations and cultural lighthouses of global calibre—are for him an inexhaustible source of inspiration by offering him the setting and, at the same time, the historical background of the majority of his works. London, nonetheless, in which he spent a significant part of his childhood—from his 7th to 14th year—seems to be the city that affected from very early on the aesthetic and the expressive means of Cavafy through the interaction with the artistic movements of the period. The professor and scholar of Cavafian poetry Peter Jeffreys, in his article "Aesthetic to the point of affliction" in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies, illuminated an unknown to most of the world influence on the work of Cavafy – Aestheticism in Britain in the 19th century and especially the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists and the late Victorian authors. His eminent and art-loving relatives in London—members of the Ionides, Cassavetti and Ralli families—and their relationships with the aesthetic artists associated with the Grosvenor Gallery—Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, John Frederick Lewis, Gustave Moreau, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Frederic Watts, and James McNeill Whistler—as well as his awareness of the innovative poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne, a proponent of the bohemian creed of "art for art's sake," and his familiarity with Oscar Wilde's decadent novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1890), served as axes that guided the aesthetic ideology of Cavafy. Subsequently, these elements arose the interest of photographer Dimosthenis Gallis.
Inspired by Cavafy's poetry, Gallis calls his present series of photographs, "Alexandria." This city was not just a geographic pole in Cavafian poetry, but also stood as a symbol of dreams and achievements for its protagonists. It concerns a sensitive tribute to the multifarious city that gave birth to the poet on 29 April 1863, bread him for most of his life, and reposed him on his birthday in 1933. The total of 29 works of the exhibition alludes to the rare phenomenon of the coincidence in the date of birth and death of the poet. Thus, the number 29 signifies and demarcates this man's existence. It is a delightful juncture that the year of creating these works, 2013, coincides with the double anniversary of 150 years since his birth and 80 years since his death.
For the creation of the said visual masterpieces, the Greek term 'philotechnia' (love for art) suits this case better than others. These works have such a strong element of philotechnia that they are far removed from the traditional concept of photographic immortalization. With these photographs, Gallis offers to art a palimpsest of visions and apparitions and a synergy of creativity and invention. The pictures are inspired as much by the so-called Cavafian Cannon, all the works that the poet himself acknowledged, as by the poems kept on file, works he diligently hid. Each photograph covers a different poem chosen by its creator and is entitled by the verse that summarizes it. The image, on the one hand, depicts the poem's climactic moment. On the other hand, it represents the iridescences, perfumes, spices, flavours and sounds, or silences of Alexandria.
To create his successive photographs, Gallis used the main hall of his studio in Athens. There lies the greatness of the task – that the author managed to transubstantiate the geography and era of Alexandria, as derived from the poetry of Cavafy, in whatever he dreamed. He introduced to the pictures of his private space the aesthetic patina of the city of Alexandria borrowing elements—objects, openings, joints, cracks and other material textures even clouds—from historical environments of multi-significant cities that he intimately knows, especially Athens and Nafplion, but also on a single occasion Yemen.
All of the photographs in the series are original artworks furthering the art of the Western tradition – namely Classicism, Renaissance, Romanticism. If Gallis refers to some known masterpiece of the past—like Jean Hippolyte Flandrin's Neoclassical painting "Nude Young Man Sitting by the Seashore" of 1836—he does so discreetly by various and particular means that the appropriation is only coincidental. At the same time, within the spirit of Postmodernism, Gallis creates images of high subjectivism that, apart from their relation to Cavafy's poetry, experientially connect to himself. He uses digital photo editing techniques with such mastery that he has full command over the script, luring where he desires the composition's whole point – backdrops introduce the place and time, props construct the broader meaning, and the palette defines the atmosphere.
Moreover, Gallis photographed models from his close circle of friends and staged them each time in a special way, inspired by the narration of the actual poems. These friends took their modern clothes off and wore the unique atmosphere of the Cavafian city – the hedonism of intimate touch, the wetness of sexual arousal, the lament for mortality, and the decay of time. The artist communicated the truth of their bodies to the dimension of the poems that concern them. And just like that, in their role, they sincerely impersonated the high expression of kindness, of beauty, of pleasure, of passion, madness, and entropy.
Gallis manages to synchronize his "Alexandria" with the eternal moment of Cavafy's poetry. He also made sure that the present "Alexandria" is consistent with the fundamental principles of the erstwhile Aestheticism. The photographs depict with an artistic approach, similar to that of the aesthetic artists, solitary human figures of both genders, ideally beautiful and naked. Through their attitudes, their expressions, their flaws, their fading from the patina of time is expressed their internal world, as perceived by the creator – feelings, thoughts, losses, absences, voids, age-old conflicts with the self, consciousness, time, and life. Apart from this visual context, however, he cared for the psychographic dimension of Alexandria. By photographing it, he breathed life, he highlighted beauty, he revealed eros, he lit darkness, he embraced remembrance, and accepted loss. Thus was his own "Alexandria" conquered.
Peter Jeffreys. Aesthetic to the point of affliction: Cavafy and English Aestheticism. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, May 2006.
Kostas Boyiopoulos. The Darkening of the Mirror: Cavafy's Variations on The Picture of Dorian Gray. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, May 2012.