* An excerpt from an interview with Christian Brechneff, author and painter.
What was the special thing about Sifnos that kept you there for so many years, Christian?
I really fell in love with the place right away. It is hard to explain why. One can never really explain why one falls in love with anything or anyone. I was young and romantic and the island was beautiful and isolated, dreamy and remote. And the people were so incredibly nice and kind to me.
It was 1972; Sifnos was another world. There were barely any roads, no cars at all. Even money was somewhat new as there were still barely any shops and people mostly exchanged goods for what they wanted or needed. And very, very few tourists. I was, in fact, one of the first tourists that ‘stayed’, or at least kept coming back, and so everyone got to know me, nicknamed me Christo and took me in, made me one of theirs.
The island was really a refuge for me as well, a refuge from my ‘other life’ in Europe, and eventually here in America. There were no private phones, no communication whatsoever except telegrams and the phone line at the post office. When you stepped on to the ferry in Piraeus, you truly left the world behind, all your problems, all your relationships with dealers, lovers or family. The sense of isolation was complete and I loved and needed that.
To some extent I was even able to leave myself behind, my anxieties and confusions about myself. I was so confused about my sexuality, and Sifnos, which was a very straight and family-oriented place, protected me in many ways. If I had gone to Mykonos, even in those days, the sexual temptations would have been too seductive for me.
From the very beginning, it was a very creative place for me. The perfection of the architecture, the sculptural quality of the landscape, and the colours of the different seasons added up to such an incredible range of visual experiences that I felt I would have material to paint there for years to come.
It was never really a holiday place for me. From the start I always thought of Sifnos as some giant mother figure holding me tight.
How did you first came to Sifnos?
A lot of people ask me this question and I write about it in the beginning of the book. Part fate, I guess, part chance, part coincidence. But very definitely part of the reason I loved the island so: I felt I had found it, it was sort of my discovery, my island.
Originally I had actually thought I wanted to go to Simi. It looked beautiful, and God knows it was remote. In May 1972, when I arrived in Athens, I was strongly advised by the student travel office on Syntagma Square to go to Sifnos instead, as it was easier to get to.
So, several months a year, for over 30 years, you lived on Sifnos and now you have left. How did you decide to write your memories in a book?
Yes. I went back every year, staying for weeks, months sometimes. And once I had the house, which I bought in 1977, it made it much easier.
In the late ’90s, a close friend from New York came to stay with me on the island. After a couple of days in my house he turned to me and said: Christian, I think you should write about your life here in Exambela. And about Sifnos. But it was not the right time. I knew as long as I owned a house there I could not write about it. It was too close to me.
Another thing that propelled me was that I found these letters I had written to my parents from Sifnos over the years: it was the letters really made me feel that maybe I had a book.
Once I had the first couple of drafts, my partner of 36 years now, Tim Lovejoy, helped me. He is a real writer, I am a painter first. But together we created this book. The journey of writing to publishing took almost six years.
Why you believe you can’t grow in Sifnos anymore? Could it be because the island has changed over years?
Over forty years, everything changes. But actually, I suspect it has less to do with the island than with me. The island did change, but so did I, perhaps even more. I changed from a 21-year-old confused, insecure kid into a rather worldly, accomplished artist and my needs for Sifnos simply were not the same anymore. I was no longer that kid who barely knew who he was and was trying on personas. And I didn’t need a refuge any more.
But, of course, the island did change, Sifnos and the whole of Greece changed- the Olympics were the turning point for me. And I suppose some people might say that parts of Greece have been ‘ruined’ by tourism and the coming of the euro. I remember my rather old Russian grandmother telling me in 1967 when I wanted to go to Jerusalem that Jerusalem was “ruined over”. She had gone there, she said, in 1912- that was truly the time to visit. But if you were to go to Sifnos today- not perhaps in the month of August- and you had never been there, it would still be a totally magical and extraordinary place.
No, it wasn’t Greece changing that changed Greece for me, it was mostly more personal things like when Kreonides, the wonderful gallery on Kolonaki Square in Athens where I showed, went out of business from one day to the next- that totally took the wind out of my sails.
Sifnos was never a holiday place for me. It was a serious workplace where I produced a lot of art that successfully sold in Europe and the USA. And my house was always a studio first- always- only secondarily a place for house parties and holidays. After all those years though, painting there every summer, religiously working in my studio, I had probably begun to work a bit less, but Kreonides and the two shows I had there, were like a transfusion, and for several more years the pictures had poured out of me. But now I realised I had sort of stopped painting there. It was like a well that had run dry, and I wasn’t so sure why I was there any more.
The Greek House – the story of a painter’s love affair with the island of Sifnos is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York.
* This interview first appeared on www.greeka.com and on Christian Brechneff’s website www.christianbrechneff.com