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Closing the Window on Cavafy: Foregrounding the Background in the Photographic Portraits

Closing the Window on Cavafy: Foregrounding the Background in the Photographic Portraits

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Published by Kostis Kourelis
A reading of Cavafy's 1929 photographic portrait in terms of British aestheticism of the 1870s and its ultimate suppression by the homophobic 1930s modernists
A reading of Cavafy's 1929 photographic portrait in terms of British aestheticism of the 1870s and its ultimate suppression by the homophobic 1930s modernists

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Published by: Kostis Kourelis on May 24, 2014
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Closing the Window on Cavafy: Foregrounding the Background in the Photographic Portraits
Kostis Kourelis, Franklin & Marshall College Constantine P. Cavafy’s physical image is best known from a pair of photographs commissioned ca. 1929. Portrait A was a close-up of the figure’s face, sitting on a couch and cropped at the torso (Figure 1); Portrait B showed the entire seated figure within a wider architectural environment (Figure 2). Since its first publication in 1929, Portrait A has become a canonical referent for the poet’s physical and psychological attributes. Disseminated by the artist himself, the photograph accumulates additional historical value as an intentional self-representation with implicit artistic agendas. In the absence of explicit writing on the visual arts, Cavafy’s portrait demands further attention as a rare  personal testament on the visual arts. It should be read as a complete image whose meaning is not limited to the iconic body in the foreground. In the space behind the striking physiognomy of the sitter, we find the complex visual surface of a hanging tapestry. Its inclusion is pertinent given the long tradition of Renaissance portraiture, where objects express the subject’s cultural values better than their bodies. Global capitalism's emphasis on consumption further privileged the sitter's personal objects, evident in seventeenth-century portraits of Dutch masters (Alpers 1983). The language of identity-shaping objects migrated from painting into photography. When homes rather than studios became the primary setting of photographic portraits in the 1890s, domestic details gained further linguistic significance (Peterson 2011). With this 1929 photograph shot at his home, Cavafy curated his identity by choosing specific artifacts to surround his body. When the photograph was taken, the apartment of 10 Lepsius Street had  become the ceremonial space where the poet received guests. Many visitors highlight how the poet manipulated this reception space in the course of a visit, modulating light and placement like a set director or photographer. The portrait becomes an extension of Cavafy's personal choreography through a domestic stage-set. In spite of the heightened intentionality in the architectural setting of Cavafy’s most famous portrait, scholarship has ignored the background that covers one-third of the
 
 
2  photograph’s total area. Such an omission reflects Greek modernism’s desire to suppress Cavafy’s aesthetic choices and reject his coded queerness. Just one year after Cavafy's death, a young generation of Greek poets threw the poetics of interiority out the window. They removed their suits, unbuttoned their shirts, mounted their Fords, raced down Syngrou Avenue and ultimately escaped to the Aegean islands. Their ideals were proudly heterosexual and intensely homophobic. Rejecting the poetics of interiority and urban cosmopolitanism, Greek modernism fled to an idealized pagan landscape. Figuratively, Greek modernism closed the windows to Cavafy’s house. Conflating the beauty of flowers with the beauty of female breasts, the Generation of the Thirties normalized a heterosexist gaze and rejected the coded shades of concealment and the “epistemology of the closet” (Sedgwick 1990). But they also turned social attention away from modernism’s fundamental engagement with the metropolis and away from the architectural dialectics between public (the street) and private (the home). By institutionalizing the poetic consumption of nature, the poets of the Thirties paved the way for a touristically exported and a nationally consumed summer holiday, the coveted Greek vacation (
diakopés
). If Cavafy opened his own domestic past to the viewer, Greek intellectuals shut it back into the closet, locked the doors and left the city on holiday. Cavafy’s iconic portrait, thus, became the relic of a forceful defacement. By bringing the  portrait’s background into sharper focus, Cavafy’s visual aesthetics may be recovered. Even if they disliked the spatial claustrophobia of their predecessor, Greek modernists could not entirely abandon Cavafy in crafting a self-conscious poetic lineage. In Hellenizing Cavafy, his portrait had to be dissociated from the gay Hellenism of Oxford and Cambridge, and from the visual aestheticism that formed his British upbringing. Greece embraced Cavafy (and his image) but purified his sexuality (and the erotic background of his portrait). The erasure was subtle and imperceptible. Focusing on the poet's physiognomy, his iconic glasses and his suit, viewers erased the spatial message resident behind the figure. Rather than mechanically reproducing the portrait (as photographs are intended to), the national reception of the image has been manipulated in multiple variations. Such creative appropriations have entirely invented an alternate background, further subverting the meaning of the original image. The image has been literally and figuratively naturalized—made natural and made native—and
 
 
3 sanitized from any promiscuous sexual content. Thus, both the image and its later reproductions demand that we foreground the photograph’s background and, in the  process, discover the process of intentional erasure in the portrait’s afterlife. THE PHOTOGRAPH Cavafy’s portraits were taken in 1929 by Racine, a professional studio active in Alexandria (Daskalopoulos 2003: 398; Phexis 1982, vol. 4: 102, 112-27). Cavafy’s early  biographer Timos Malianos had mistakenly attributed the portraits to Akpar Retian, a  better known Armenian photographer working in Alexandria. Seferis had used Retian in 1944 for the photo-reproduction of Angelos Sikelianos’s handwritten poems
 Akritiká
 (Beaton 2003: 228). Portrait A was first published by Athanasios Politis in a study of Alexandria's contemporary Greek culture in 1929, in the Alexandrian journal
 Panorama
 in 1930 and in the Greek newspaper
Vradyní 
 in 1931. The proliferation of the photograph  before Cavafy’s death suggests that the poet commissioned this image to be explicity used in the personal dissemination of his public image. Eleni Papargyriou, who has studied the genre of authorial portraiture in Modern Greece, affirms that Cavafy’s choice is wholly intentional (Papargyriou 2010: 353). His choice to be photographed in a domestic interior, moreover, asserts Cavafy’s desire to theatrically reconfigure his image within a personal stage. In 1906, Cavafy made a passing note that photography is an ugly word. Noting the absence of photography in his 154 published poems, Cornelia Tsakiridou formulated an antagonistic relationship between the poet and the medium (Tsakiridou 1991). A closer reading of the four unpublished poems that make reference to  photography have led Papargyriou to a more nuanced reading of the photographic object as a fetish (Papargyriou 2011). Cavafy’s 1929 portraits suggests that the poet imbued  photography with ambitions of complexity, a process of “hide/seek” that characterized gay portraiture in the early twentieth century (Katz and Ward 2010). Cavafy was no stranger to photographic portraiture, as it permeated the social  practices of his cosmopolitan circle. Staged photographs were an essential part of socializing, even if only through the popularity of visitation cards (Sagne 1994). A studio  photo from an 1865 family trip to Livorno, Italy and a series of portraits in Alexandria

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