Word and image
by Keith Taylor
Constantine Cavafy is the leading poet of modern Greek, although he never published a book in his lifetime or lived in Greece. He lived mostly in Alexandria, Egypt, a member of the Greek-speaking minority that was one of the last enclaves of the great Greek diaspora of the age of the conqueror Alexander.
Cavafy has gained a wide audience since his death in 1933. He is known in this country by his poem "Ithaka," which was read at the funeral of Jacqueline Onassis. Referring to the wanderings of Odysseus, the poem reminds us that the journey is more important than the arrival. Cavafy wrote about history (particularly Hellenic history), about homosexual love, and about the power of art to mediate between the individual and the historical moment.
Three exhibits at the U-M combine Cavafy's poetry with the visual arts. The Poet in the Library at the Hatcher Graduate Library includes manuscripts, hand-printed broadsides, and copies of the pamphlets Cavafy assembled for his friends. A series of 1960s etchings that David Hockney created to accompany Cavafy's erotic poems hangs in the U-M Museum of Art.
The largest of the shows, the Kelsey Museum's Ancient Passions, offers poems mounted next to period photographs of Cavafy and his world and objects of the classical, Hellenic, or Byzantine worlds that the poet mentions or that might have inspired him.
For instance, in one of his famous short poems, "For the Shop," Cavafy creates an artisan so in love with his work he chooses not to let anyone see it, let alone buy it:
| He wrapped them up carefully, neatly, |
in expensive green silk.
Roses of rubies, lilies of pearl,
violets of amethyst: according to his taste, his will
his vision of their beauty not as he saw them in nature
or studied them. He'll leave them in the safe,
examples of his bold, his skillful work.
Whenever a customer comes into the shop,
out other things to sell first-class ornaments:
bracelets, chains, necklaces, rings.
Accompanying this poem is the Kelsey's Mummy Portrait of a Woman from Egypt in the second century A.D. This portrait, executed in encaustic a process fusing hot wax with pigment shows a beautiful young woman with jewel-encrusted gold necklaces and earrings. Almost realistic, her face is slightly elongated, much like the women in some of Modigliani's paintings. She looks calm, and her heavily lidded eyes are languid, even sensual. This woman becomes the customer in the shop Cavafy imagined in Alexandria, in a new relationship created by the curators' imaginations. Similarly, the other objects do not illustrate the poems. Rather, they provide a context that changes our reading of the poem and our impression of the art. The three exhibits are on display until May 5.
[Originally published in March, 2002.]