THE GREEK HOUSE: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair With the Island of Sifnos. By Christian Brechneff with Tim Lovejoy. FSG. 285 pages. $27.
Although his sampling is somewhat small — Athens and a few Aegean isles — artist Christian Brechneff is rather more successful at assaying the rapid changes that propelled Greece out of the Third World than he is charting his development as a painter.
Born in 1950 in the Belgian Congo and raised in the (for him) stifling society of Switzerland, Brechneff found liberation in the Mediterranean.
He first arrived in the early 1970s hoping to discover himself (and adulthood) in art. Over the course of the next 30 years, returning to Sifnos each summer, Brechneff became a fixture, though he learned local acceptance could be misleading. Being a foreigner, he had more freedom and leeway than the steadfastly traditional villagers who were his neighbors, acting the “perpetual juvenile lead” in a little Greek village play.
In “The Greek House” he dwells at length on his naivete and the feelings of isolation that beset him early on Sifnos and how he dealt with them through painting.
Too young and unformed for the Real World, he could set his own boundaries and live within them on this faraway sanctuary. Here, for the first time, he felt in harmony with his surroundings and at peace.
But transformation was coming: in the national mindset, in values and attitudes, incrementally at first, then briskly with the growth of tourism, immigration and Greece’s entry into the European Union.
The artist knows better than most that tourism, especially, “is often like a cure that’s worse than the disease, nearly ruining whatever it touches, more often than not destroying the very object of its interest and affection.”
Long insulated by isolation, contemporary sensibilities invaded Sifnos abruptly. And Brechneff, a keen observer, discerned that “some delicate thread of tradition, of context, or connection between islanders and the past was breaking or already broken.”
But for the most part, Brechneff himself lived an idyllic, even privileged life among the islanders, as well as amid his compatriots in the growing cadre of visiting artistes and well-to-do homeowners from the mainland, drawn to Sifnos’ quaint pleasures.
No matter where he lived on the island, on the beaches or in small mountain villages, Sifnos always possessed a charged atmosphere for him: elemental and, especially, sexual.
Brechneff, now 63 and living in New York, chronicles his conquests, male and female, with great romanticism and minimal reflection.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, he lived all but summers in London, later in New York, and gradually his island life became less vital to his happiness. Having stopped painting on Sifnos in 2000, by 2002, Brechneff realized his real life was now in America, with his lover (co-author Tim Lovejoy) and the art world.
He no longer needed a refuge to retreat to, especially one he hardly recognized. He already carried Sifnos within him: its colors, shapes and especially the light. In 2005, he put his once-beloved Greek house in the market.
Toward the end, he realized that he was not truly “Christo,” a fictional character that he and the islanders had invented, a guise he had once loved, now ill-fitting and false. From being perceived as a poor young artist to that of a well-connected somebody, also proved a double-edge sword.
Apart from the occasional aside, Brechneff tells us little of his life between the ages of 30 and 50. Rather, he focuses on his self-absorption as a young artist and voracious omnisexual. Even a libertine might find Brechneff’s book-length preoccupation with his sexuality a bit excessive.
That said, his candor is refreshing and hard to resist, as we follow his growth to worldly, accomplished adult.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.