To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.Posted: August 5, 2019
“But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience… to idle and loiter, the mental space to let your mind wonder,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. The work was based on lectures she delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge (both for women). She further advised her female audience “to drink wine and have a room of their own.” I will not dwell on the issue of wine because women of all classes had access to alcohol, at least privately, but for a woman to have a room of her own was highly unusual before WW II, especially for women who had not inherited wealth. Woolf would be eternally grateful to her aunt for leaving her a lifelong annual stipend of 500 pounds.
That a woman could live alone by her own choice was almost unheard of. Young women who moved to the big cities in search of work were usually sharing apartments with others of the same sex, for a few years at most, until they got married. However, WW I upset traditional demographics by creating a population imbalance in the western world: more women than men. To put it bluntly, for these extra women it meant that the prospect of marriage was less attainable (Scutts 2017). If Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was fighting her own battles in ultra conservative England, Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971), an American writer and contemporary of Woolf, was sufficiently daring to publish in 1936 a book that encouraged single women to take control of their lives and Live Alone and Like it. “A Lady and Her Liquor,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “Solitary Refinement?” were some of the chapter titles. Her book became an immediate best-seller and remained popular for many years.
Exploring the Relationship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens with the Greek Omogeneia in the United States in the 1940s.Posted: July 4, 2019
In 1947, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) produced a color movie titled Triumph over Time; it was directed by the archaeologist Oscar Broneer and produced by the numismatist Margaret E. Thompson with the aid of Spyros Skouras (1893-1971), the Greek American movie mogul and owner of Twentieth Century Fox (see Spyros Skouras Papers at Stanford University). Triumph over Time portrays Greece rebounding from World War II and the staff of the ASCSA preparing archaeological sites for presentation to postwar tourists. The film was made to promote the first postwar financial campaign of the ASCSA, the direct goal of which was to increase its capital and finance the continuation of the Athenian Agora Excavations. Indirectly, the ASCSA was hoping to contribute to the rehabilitation of Greece by providing employment for the Greek people and by promoting the economic self-sufficiency of Greece by developing the country’s tourist assets (Vogeikoff-Brogan 2007).
Triumph over Time begins with a brief overview of impressive Greek antiquities, such as the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, before continuing with rare ethnographic material capturing parts of rural Greece that no longer exist. It then moves from the Greek countryside to the buildings of the ASCSA, especially the Gennadius Library with its rare treasures. The story then covers the ASCSA’s two most important projects, the excavations at the Athenian Agora and at Ancient Corinth, explaining all stages of archaeological work. The documentary ends with a hopeful note that financial support of the ASCSA’s archaeological work will contribute to an increase in tourism so that this major source of revenue for Greece’s economy can “restore stability and well-being to this simple pastoral land.”
I have always found informal travel accounts fascinating. By informal, I mean accounts found in personal diaries or letters. Occasionally, they are published posthumously by the writer’s relatives (usually for family consumption) and attract little attention because of their mundane nature. Until recently, such letters and diaries of anonymous folk were avoided by historians who considered their content subjective or inaccurate. After all, why use the private diary of an American expatriate in Greece as a source, when the event (e.g., a local revolution) was described in more detail in the newspapers or other official reports?
I, on the other hand, pay particular attention to these types of publications because they provide valuable information, otherwise undocumented, about the level of local awareness, participation or aloofness within foreign communities. Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English writer and philosopher, once said that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land: it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” It’s the second part of Chesterton’s comment that makes me delve into the travel accounts of foreigners-mostly Americans in my case–who have experienced Greece as a foreign land. Here I am not interested in the tourist but instead the engaged traveler, the expatriate, or, in rare cases, the committed immigrant (that is the foreigner who has almost “gone native”).
My latest source of inspiration for getting “to know my country as a foreign land” is a privately published collection of letters which came to my attention after a visit to the newly established Archives of the American College of Greece. There, Dr. Demetra Papakonstantinou, an accomplished archaeologist who now serves as the College’s Archivist, graciously shared with me a copy of a book titled Odyssey of a Learning Teacher (Greece and the Near East 1924-1925). Published in 2005 by David L. Aronson, the book contains transcriptions of the letters that his mother, Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College and a teacher at the American College for Girls (what is now Pierce College), sent to her family in 1924-25. (The original letters are now part of the American School of Greece Archives.)
The American School’s haphazard art collection continues to fascinate me. It lacks any thematic cohesion and at first glance often makes no sense, because most of the works have little to do with the institution itself. Yet, it remains a source of mystery because these same works are also associated with people who were once deeply involved in the School’s affairs. Before they ended up at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter), these objects decorated the walls of private houses and were part of those households’ life history. In Janet Hoskins’s Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives (1998), six women and men from Eastern Indonesia tell the history of their lives by talking about their possessions, thus creating an identity for themselves through objects they made, bought, were given, or collected. Our people are no longer alive but many of their possessions are with us, and they have a story to tell us (if we ask them…).
Most of the artwork that hangs on the walls or decorates the mantels of the various buildings of the School comes from two households. One was the residence of two couples, Carl and Elizabeth Blegen (the Blegens) and Bert and Ida Hill (the Hills), who lived together at Ploutarchou 9 (Kolonaki) in the 1930s; the other belonged to the archaeologist George Mylonas and his wife Lela who lived in Saint Louis (Missouri) in the 1930s before they moved back to Greece in the early 1970s. Although both households were set up about the same time, the Blegens/Hills, because of Elizabeth’s personal wealth, began purchasing artwork immediately, while the Mylonases, both younger and refugees from Asia Minor, did not begin acquiring art until the early 1950s. (I have written about the nature of the Mylonas collection in a post titled “The Spirit of Saint Louis Lives in Athens”; on the two couples living at Ploutarchou Street read “The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9,” by Jack L. Davis; and Pounder 2015.)
Lately I have been trying to identify the items from the Blegen-Hill household, which came to school almost intact after the death of the house’s last occupant, Carl Blegen, in 1971. Although we have an inventory, the fact that the objects were not photographed or tagged before they were dispersed among the various buildings of the School (including Corinth) makes it difficult to identify their origin today. Some of the art, such Giovani Battista Piranesi’s “Vedute di Roma,” is easily identifiable, but portions of the collection remain shrouded in mystery.
In addition, we also lack indoor photos of the house, except for the one that shows the so-called “Greek Room.” (Take for comparison the interior of John Gennadius’s house in London, which was professionally photographed, making it easier to identify the artworks from it that came to the Gennadius Library.) Still we are slowly putting together a picture of the life and art at the Blegen residence. In a recent conference about Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, Vivian Florou reconstructed through archival research some of the social life of the house at Ploutarchou 9 during its peak times, before and after WW II (Florou 2015). In “Skyromania? American Archaeologists in 1930s Skyros,” I identified some of the embroideries and pottery that were once part of it. In “The Grecian Landscapes of Anna Richards Brewster,” I suggested that an oil by Brewster might also have once been belonged to the Blegens.
Today’s post focuses on another large painting that once hung on the walls of Ploutarchou 9 (item no. 10 in the Blegen Collection), but is now adorning the walls of my new office: a watercolor depicting the temple of Hera at Olympia, signed “F. Perilla 1930”. A quick search on the internet produced a few brief references to auction catalogs that identified him as a French art historian and artist, born in 1874, as well as to two recent translations of books he wrote about Chios (1928) and Mount Pelion (1940). A search in “Ambrosia” (the ASCSA’s online book catalogue) proved more fruitful, with several entries to publications by Perilla.
“The haughty arrogance of the Nordic people”: A Scandal in the German Colony of Athens on the 20th of April 1935.Posted: December 1, 2018
Posted by Alexandra Kankeleit
Alexandra Kankeleit here contributes an essay about an unknown episode, almost a scandal, which took place in 1935 in the German community of Athens and involved the local Catholic church and members of the German Archaeological Institute. Alexandra, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Roman mosaics, has also since 2016 been part of an extensive project of the German Archaeological Institute (Athens and Berlin), titled The History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. As part of the project, she has examined a host of bibliographic and archival sources in both countries that document the activities of the German archaeologists in Greece from 1933 until 1944. A list of her most recent publications can be found on Alexandra’s own website.
A recently discovered episode from 1935 offers a striking picture of the predominant mood in the so-called “German Colony” in Athens following the National Socialist seizure of power in Germany. (“Deutsche Kolonie” was the official name of the German-speaking Community in Greece until the end of WWII.) It illustrates in dramatic fashion what battlefronts were being drawn up at the time and what the representatives of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens (DAI Athen hereafter) saw as their role in this critical period.
I stumbled more or less by chance upon this incident while carrying out research at the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office). The relevant documents are to be found in a folder that deals with the “Schwarze Front” (“Black Front”) in Greece, an underground organisation that was opposed to Hitler and his policies, and which was founded in 1930 by Otto Strasser (1897-1974), brother of the infamous Gregor Strasser (1892-1934). From 1934-1937 members of the “Schwarze Front” were based in Greece publishing illegal flyers and articles, and encouraging Germans living in Greece to turn away from Hitler. Read the rest of this entry »