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A history of Hydra, a story of creativity

As part of Melbourne Music Week, the Hellenic Museum presents
the iconic music Leonard Cohen produced on the Greek island

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19 November 2015

Hydra: the tiny Aegean island which strikes visitors with a sense of wonder and the feeling that something magical is afoot. What is this place? Located off the coast of the Peloponnese, Hydra has been populated more or less consistently since the Neolithic period. However, the island's creative history started much more recently when, in the late 1930s, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell went to stay with painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas at his family's mansion. Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas' paintings of the island, inspired by Hydra's Cubist-like houses, helped put modern Greek art on the map.
Following World War II, and inspired by Miller's novel The Colossus of Maroussi, there was a revival of Greek and foreign artists who began to spend time on the island. Hydra was further propelled into the international spotlight with the release of the 1957 film Boy on a Dolphin starring Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd.

After this, a number of films were shot on the island, including Phaedra, with Melina Mercouri, and Island of Love, which incorporated several scenes featuring locals as extras, including the Australian literary couple Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who had lived on Hydra since the mid-'50s. The couple were at the centre of a circle of artists who had established themselves on the island, among them Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Cohen, who is often considered one of the most influential musicians of the last century, was at this time relatively unknown. Johnston and Clift facilitated Cohen's stay, inviting him to take a spare room in their house until he could find his own. Cohen became a close friend of the writers, later stating: "The Australians drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more.

They were an inspiration."
Cohen fell in love with the cosmopolitan assortment of artists who frequented the island, a group that included Sidney Nolan, Mungo MacCullum, Robert Owen, Peter Finch, Anthony Kingsmill, Allen Ginsberg and Norwegian author Axel Jensen. At lunchtime the group of artists sat outside the Katsikas General Store on the waterfront waiting for the ferry from Piraeus, which brought mail and more artists and writers looking for adventure. At night they would sit under the old pine tree at Douskos Taverna and talk philosophy, politics, religion, and drink and sing.
The expat community began to fragment when Clift and Johnston returned to Australia in 1964 following the success of Johnston's classic novel My Brother Jack. The influx of 'beautiful people' of the mid-'60s, including Patti Boyd, George Harrison, Twiggy, Brigitte Bardot, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, among many others, subtly changed the atmosphere of Hydra. Despite the changing nature of Hydra, Leonard Cohen remained enamoured with the carefree lifestyle it offered. He immersed himself in the music and the culture, learned the language and took to carrying Greek worry beads, komboloi.
It is this environment, with its creativity, inspiration and camaraderie, against the backdrop of the magical Hydra, that the Hellenic Museum will recreate for the first public event in the newly-relocated inaugural MPavilion. Just last month the pavilion made its way from the Queen Victoria Gardens to the museum courtyard.

Designed by Sean Godsell Architects, the pavilion has won numerous international and local awards, and acts as the stage for Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia.
Performing the songs of Leonard Cohen are Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros. The songs combine with archival footage and visuals to recreate the period of Hydra's creative history. The narrative of the show was created by Hellenic Museum curator Sarah Craig with the help of Harry Fatouros, who has conducted extensive research on this era.
Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia is part of Melbourne Music Week. A bar will be open serving Greek mezze and drinks throughout the night.
It is ticketed event, entry is $25 per person and can be purchased online at www.eventbrite.com.au
When: 14 and 20 November from 7.00 pm-10.00 pm (AEDT)
Where: MPavilion, Hellenic Museum, 280 William Street, Melbourne, Victoria

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