Spyridon Tsagarakis is perhaps best known as a fashion designer; his clothes can be found in the wardrobes of many high profile women such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge.
But he is also an artist and more recently a campaigner for the righting of a wrong that Britain did to his native Greece over 200 years ago and which continues to sour relations between the two countries.
“I have been working on this project since 2004 and I will continue working on it until the Parthenon Marbles are returned,” says Tsagarakis who chose barneyspender.com to reveal for the first time a photograph of one of his art works taken in front of the Parthenon in Athens (click on the photo above to see it full-size).
Ever since the 7th Earl of Elgin laid out his towel in the Hellenic sun at the start of the 19th century and bought a favour from the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire, debate has rumbled on about who is the rightful owner of the set of Parthenon Marbles that currently resides in the British Museum in London.
Another British earl, a contemporary of Elgin, weighed in early. Having already taken a snap at the Scotsman in his 1807 poem The Curse of Minerva, Lord Byron took a second swipe in his longer and better known poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
“But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!”
Unlike Elgin, Byron’s stock is still high in Greece, which is hardly surprising given that he showed his philhellenism not by making off with a shipload of swag but by joining the fight for independence, dying in the cause in 1824.
Notwithstanding the legality of Elgin’s actions – a documentary currently being made by my old colleague Helen Skopis debunks the veracity of the firman that he obtained from the Ottomans – there is also the question of morality. Where should the Parthenon Marbles be kept: the British Museum in London, which has been custodian for the last 200-odd years, or the Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum in Athens where the marbles were born and where they resided for the 2000 years before Elgin appeared on the horizon?
For Tsagarakis, who was born in Crete but is based in London, there is no question to answer.
“The marbles are not the Elgin Marbles, they are the Parthenon Marbles,” he says. “It is quite obvious they belong in Athens.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that another admirer, who has invested in his work, is Amal Alamuddin, the lawyer consulted by the last Greek government about the return of the marbles. Last year saw the release of her husband George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men, the story of an Allied team trying to save artefacts from the Nazis.
“Lord Elgin arrived in Athens in 1800 to make a study of the Acropolis monuments,” says Tsagarakis. “Athens, remember, like most of the Hellenic world, was a part of the Ottoman Empire. It had been occupied, just as it was by the Nazis in the Second World War.
“Elgin secured a written permission from the Grand Vizier of Constantinople to conduct excavations around the foundations of the Acropolis provided that will not cause damage to the monuments and make casts of statues to decorate his home in Scotland.
“Elgin had not written permission to remove any part of them. Nevertheless, he bought the silence of the Ottoman officials and stripped sculptures from the Parthenon, causing untold damage to the monument.
“He removed the back of the frieze and cut sections from the Parthenon and the Erechtheion which caused one of the metopes to break. And so he dismembered one of the most important works of art in the history of mankind which had remained largely intact for more than two thousand years.
“It was an act of vandalism and an act of theft. How can that possibly justify the British holding on to them?”
The issue so vexed Tsagarakis that he decided to use it as inspiration in his work, notably an art piece whose folds and design echo the Parthenon itself.
“It started to visit the archaeological site of the Acropolis and studying each item,” he explains. “Then I entered the process of constructing the fabric in France, so that I got the right tone. The making of the fabric was the only part of the process when the work moved out of my hands. Then when I got hold of the fabric I started to crease it by hand.
Four months ago, Tsagarakis finally fulfilled an ambition, working with the photographer George Katsanakis to shoot the creation at the Parthenon itself, a notoriously difficult achievement given the strict guidelines on photography of ancient monuments laid down by the Greek Culture Ministry.
“I wanted to photograph the art work on the Acropolis and have the picture travel across the world. I am an artist and it is perhaps the only way that I can make this statement in a way that it will be heard. That was important to me.”
So important that Tsagarakis also issued an artist’s statement to run with the photo, giving his views on the Marbles.
“The richness of the folds, which made the Ancient Greek sculptures unique, is used as a means of expression through a modern approach. This particular collection of my work, under the umbrella titled ARTWEAR, is a conscious choice with cultural reference to Ancient Greece. These art pieces, consisting exclusively of loose folds of wool, imply the ancient Greek statues, some of which have not been returned to Greece and are still in the British Museum. Each and every one of the Parthenon Marbles is a monument of inestimable value both for the Greek nation and humanity in general.
The Parthenon Marbles which are still in the British Museum must be returned forthwith to the Acropolis Museum. The visitor to the Museum is bound to feel not only admiration and honour but also respect and awe inspired by the Parthenon and the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis.”
Artist-Designer: Spyridon Tsagarakis
Photographer: George Katsanakis
For Tsagarakis, who says his works belong more in museums than on catwalks, the ancient culture remains a major influence on his creativity.
“The art of Ancient Greece has exercised an enormous influence on the culture of many countries right up to the present.
“The techniques they used awakens in me the idea that I can construct anything I imagine. And that is very important because I can isolate any idea and so generate many thoughts from that. Above all, there is absolute harmony in the construction and that is something I want to achieve when I create something.”
Single-handedly, Tsagarakis, who has agreements in place to work with Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Hermes, may not convince the British Museum that it should return the marbles to their birthplace. But he is another artist chipping away at the hard rock of public opinion.
You can keep in touch with Spyridon through his Facebook page.
©Barney Spender 2015
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