Recently in Cyprus to help mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, Professor Robin Cormack noted how much the country has to offer the Byzantine Art sector.
Cormack is Professor Emeritus at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He currently teaches Greek and Roman history of art in the Classics Faculty, University of Cambridge, and returning to Cambridge after giving two lectures in Cyprus earlier this month, was an examiner, marking students’ translations from Classical Greek into English.
Cormack first came to Cyprus in the 1970s to view the restoration of the 12th century monastery in Lagoudera. He returned in the 1990s to make a film on Ayios Neophytos Monastery.
“That was quite an interesting thing to do,” Cormack told The Cyprus Daily during his visit: “We filmed on 35mm which helped create a very good record of the state of the paintings in the caves since, in terms of their conservation, caves are not the best places for paintings.
“For me Cyprus is an essential part of the world of Byzantium particularly in the way that icon painting in Cyprus developed after the Crusades with the mixture of east and west. For me this was a very significant development in European history,” Cormack continued.
“That is why I think Cyprus is important and why people like me should get to know the art of Cyprus as well as we can,” he added.
Cormack helped showcase Cyprus’ Byzantine treasures while curating, with Maria Vassilaki, the block-buster ‘Byzantium 330-1453’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London from 2008-9 which, amongst many other fascinating exhibits contained the David Plates.
The professor’s contact with art and history began early on. “I’m of the generation that started with Greek and Latin at the age of seven so I did Classics for my first degree and came to Greece to look at Minoan archaeology and realised I was much more interested in the art than in the literature and so did a second degree in the History of Art.”
Byzantium also began to win his attention over Classics.
Teaching has also transformed in the course of his career, Cormack said noting: “Before what an Art Historian did was say ‘This painting was painted in this year by this artist.’ End of story.
“Now we look at art history as a document of the past. You can read a text in one way but you read art in another.”
He hopes art history becomes a much more central part of the way people think. “We need to understand the power of the visual is just as important as the power of the text.”
Cormack believes exhibitions are one of the best ways to open up the subject, both for specialists and the public, and recently lectured in Washington DC and in Los Angeles to support the current travelling exhibition of Greek Byzantine art, called ‘Heaven and Earth’.
“I’ve found it’s a very important part of my work to show art and speak to the public about it. Otherwise, I might end up talking only to students and specialists and I believe it’s really important for everyone to look at art and talk about it.”
Cormack also said Byzantium was not as well-known as the Classical period and that “in England it is an uphill struggle to get people to realise there was a continuation and development of the Roman Empire”.
The professor’s books and other publications cover Ancient Art, Byzantine art, Russian art and his latest research is on British colonial architecture in Sudan and India, and what the architects owed to Greek traditions.
Cormack has also curated a dozen other exhibitions to help promote the importance of Byzantine, Post-Byzantine and Russian art to the British and other public. One of these in 1985 was called ‘From Byzantium to El Greco.’
His special interest over the years has been in the study of Byzantine and Cretan icons, and they featured in his book ‘Painting the Soul’ which was awarded the Runciman Prize in 1998. In this book he explored the ways in which the nature of the Byzantine icon changed in the period when both Crete and Cyprus were under Western control. It was a major innovation. This is what led Cormack to the study of El Greco, both the artist’s career in Crete and in his subsequent art in Venice and Rome in Italy and Toledo in Spain, and he has published several pieces on El Greco.