We had written previously about slipping a mooring during our stay on the Aegean island of Leros. That was a bad night. There were some wonderful aspects to the island, however, that deserve equal attention.
On the night we arrived on Leros, there was a Finnish girls’ choir singing from the hotel veranda near the boat. Their collective voices were beautiful. On another night, a score of locals gathered at a shore-side restaurant and sang songs as they ate and drank. Not the quality of the girls’ choir, certainly, but it filled the small harbor with a festive air. At the end of each day, we could always hear the clanging bells of goats coming down from the surrounding hills. It was a musical place.
It was also, we discovered, a place of hidden treasure.
We had been told that there were old soldiers’ barracks high on “Diapori,” a hill overlooking Xerocampos, where we stayed for several days. They had been used in World War II, first by the occupying Italians and later by the Germans. The Italians had taken to painting frescoes on the walls, we were further told, some of which were worth seeing. (In light of what we later found, it was strange that we were told, again and again, that they were “Italian” paintings.)
We packed up Alexander, got final directions to the place, and started up a sometimes steep, winding road to the top of Diapori. It was late in the day, so we had a spring to our step.
A little over an hour later, we found what we thought to be the place. White, one storied and low to the ground, it had no doors or window panes in the open frames. A sturdy structure, to be sure, but it was not in good shape. The doorway was blocked by some chicken wire and a crude fence. We were told that we could move this aside and go in, and we did.
The inside was like a barn. Local farmers had for years been using the place to shelter animals, and the floor was covered with hay and manure. We stepped gingerly around it, and began to look for the paintings. In light of the building’s poor condition, not to mention the smell, we didn’t expect much.
Boy were we surprised.
We discovered four different types of paintings. The first we came upon were in the biggest room, which appeared to be the sleeping quarters. These were both crudely drawn, crude in subject matter, and not well preserved. If this were it, we wondered what the fuss had been about.
But we moved on, and found a second collection of two paintings that were worth the hike. They were beautiful works and, we later determined, copies of “The Peasant Dance” and “Peasant Wedding,” done as a pair in the 16th century by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The paintings are supposedly full of imagery and “[g]luttony, lust, and anger” are represented in the wedding scene:
The man seated next to the bagpipe player wears a peacock feather in his hat, a symbol of vanity and pride. The occasion for the peasants’ revelry is a saint’s day [isn’t it a wedding?!], but dancers turn their backs on the church and pay no attention whatsoever to the image of the Virgin which hangs on the tree. The prominence of the tavern makes it clear that they are preoccupied with material rather than spiritual matters.
Another source identified the artist as one Hauptfeldwebel (“Sergeant”) Herbert Freund, who had been stationed here with his artillery unit. We couldn’t find out much about him. One wonders about his motives in doing the painting. Did he mean to be commenting himself about the vices supposedly depicted in the paintings? Or maybe he was already familiar with the works, and painted what he knew. Or maybe these were in the pages of the only book that he could get his hands on. We have no answers.
As skilled as the Bruegel copies were, the remaining works that we came upon won our hearts. There was a series, painted on several different walls, of a pint sized dog chasing a fox fur stole that is draped about a woman’s neck.
The final two sketches were the most simply drawn, almost cartoon-like.
The first showed a fellow cooking dinner with several shapely-drawn women about them.
The last painting was our favorite, perhaps because of its simplicity. Just a handful of lines to suggest a telephone, a blissful soldier’s face, the female form.
We went back to have a second look at the peasant paintings, and thought some more about them. They were more elaborate than the caricatures, but yet seemed to say less.
We hiked home in the twilight, the goats and sheep clanging about in the increasing dark of the surrounding hills. We continued to talk about what we’d seen.
Was there a lesson here? Wasn’t it OK to be so drawn to such an uncomplicated sketch? Simple lines and light touches, impressionistically conveyed more meaning and feeling than something that took many more hours to complete. Maybe we could find ways in our own lives where simpler could be more meaningful.