The Diaries of Christophoros Sava
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Christodoulos E.G. Moisa
I have never met the Cypriot modernist artist Christophoros Savva, who died in 1968. All I know of him is what I was told by my father, what I have gleaned from looking at his work in the Famagusta and Nicosia State Art galleries and from what I read by him when, in 1973, I briefly had in my possession his diaries.
In 1971 my parents returned to Cyprus after living in New Zealand for eleven years.
I joined them in the summer of 1972 and I lived with my family for the next eighteen months in Angastina on the Messaoria plain, known for it's Neolithic burial site and historic Railway Station, on the now defunct Famagusta to Nicosia railway line.
My father, Evangelos (Georgiou) Moisa, had left Cyprus during the Depression and eventually arrived in New Zealand just before the beginning of the Second World War. During the war years because of ill health he avoided conscription and worked as a labour volunteer on a farm before setting up his own restaurant business. He returned to Cyprus and married my mother in 1946 after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had three children.
In 1954, my father was given six months to live as he had developed asthma and bronchiti. In pre prednisone steroid times this combination was a death sentence. He gathered our family and returned to Cyprus. After several operations and after Cyprus was declared a republic in 1960, he and my mother took us back to New Zealand. Ostensibly it was so my sister and I could benefit from the free secondary and tertiary education that was available to all New Zealanders at the time.
My mother was from Angastina, the same village as my father's mother.
My father grew up in his father's village, Marathovounos, a town perched on the spur of a hill that rose sharply from the northwest but sloped towards the southeast. It takes its name from the marathos (fennel) shrubs that once covered its slopes and was renowned for its magnificent multi-belltowered church of Saint Ilia and its progressive town council. My grandfather, Makri Giorjis (Evangeli), was a renowned throughout Cyprus as a greyhound hare-hunter and storyteller. According to my father, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship, he was a useless parent.
My father left school to become a shepherd, when he looked after his family's sheep and the flocks of others. After he married, he at one stage worked in several mines in the Troodos mountains, including Foukasa and Amiandos, and later as a salesman selling wares from village to village. About 1936 he left Cyprus for England . He joined the merchant navy, working as a coal stoker. Eventually he ended up in Australia and from there he immigrated to New Zealand.
In 1974, two years after their final return to Cyprus from New Zealand, my parents became refugees, and eventually they settled in Kaimaklin, a suburb of Nicosia, until their deaths. My father died in 1997 and my mother in 2002.
When I was growing up my father would tell us about Christophoros Savva, a fellow villager who after the war "won a scholarship” and went to London to study art. " Through that he found fame. He repeated this story over the years, always adding more information. He'd tell us how Savva did not get on with his father, who did not approve of his chosen career, and that he would ( that is, my father) buy him coffee at the kafenio as Savva was always short of money.
There was an irony in all this as he would tell this story to guests sitting around our dinner table when I was present. My father never approved of my feeble attempts to attend art school, and although he'd put down Savva's father for not treating his son with the respect that was due to him he had no hesitation emulating the elder Savva when it came to his own son.
In 1973, I decided to leave Cyprus and to try entering the Sir John Cass School of Art in London. Before my departure on the 29th of September, 1973, I sought out Savva's brother, Nicola, in Marathovounos, and returned to him the diaries that he had given to my father.
Savva's brother had heard that I was an aspiring artist and he gave them to my father who brought them to our house. I wrote in my diary on Wednesday, 23rd May, 1973: “ Today I was given by uncle Nicolas the diaries of Christophoros Sav(v)a, the Cubist artist from Marathovounos.”
I suspect that I referred to Savva's brother as “uncle”, using it as an honorific title (as it is a tradition in Cyprus to refer to one's older acquaintances). It is possible, though, that my father and Christophoros were third cousins.
On the 24 May, 1973, I wrote into my diary:
“Last night I started reading the diaries of Christophoros Sav(v)a the Marathovouniotis artist that dad always proudly talked of. To my surprise, I found his art was mostly representational and that he followed the cubist school of ART . Although I only saw black and white photos of his work I am not rapped (enthralled). Surprised also to see that he followed the same pattern (approach) that I follow in my diaries except his are not as descriptive. He was well read too. I am reading through the 1954 diary now. I was, I admit (now) thrilled to have those diaries come to me . I wonder how much Savva will influence me (?).” (As an artist).
On Friday the 25 th of May I wrote in my diary:
“On the 25 th of May 1955 C. Sav(v)a got up late … (then he) went with a friend to lunch and visited (an) exhibition … in the evening he had supper with some friends.”
Since I returned the diaries and after what happened in 1974, when the village of Marathovounos was occupied by Turkey and they were presumably were lost, I wished that I was unscrupulous enough to have kept them. If I had not returned the diaries to Savva's brother, they would possibly still be around and would be an invaluable resource to art historians who would have documented proof of Savva's life and times.
However, at the time I felt that the diaries belonged to his daughter Kika and his son Markos. As I said to his brother Nicola when I returned them:
“ ... one day his children will come searching for them.”
Savvas died in 1968, a month after he represented Cyprus at the Venice Biennale. Kikka was three and Markos was two when they were orphaned.
The diaries covered the period Savva lived in England and Cyprus. They were small Collins “Gentleman” type of diaries, with short entries. There was nothing profound in them and I suspect his real thinking was expressed through his work. They noted the day-to-day events that coloured Savva's life, like an evening having dinner with friends or attending some event or other.
Before I handed them back, I copied a few excerpts from the diaries at the back of my own similarly small “Star” diary. My diary was full of the minutiae of my - what I thought was an uninteresting - life while Sava 's comments were stoically brief.
One of the things that I remember well about those diaries was that his entries in England were in Greek while in Cyprus they were written in English. All the entries quoted above are in English. I suspect the reason behind that was that he did not want others in his immediate family to read them.
He wrote on the 1st April 1955 which was a Friday:
“ Work(ed) till lunch … about one I heard the news the noise of the night were some dynamite thrown by some people call themselves members of E(O)KA … went to Costa's shop met Canthos. Went out and had coffee at Enube shop more explosives in the evening.”
On hindsight, I think what I copied out from Savva's diaries was what was coloured by my own experiences. I, too, felt isolated and lonely during my stay in Cyprus and due to the lack of money was given to seeking free entertainment wherever I could find it.
During my stay in Cyprus in 1972-73, EOKA B became active. They were led by the former leader of the guerrilla movement that fought the British from 1955 to1959, George Grivas. Grivas was sent by the Junta that ruled Greece at the time to destabilise and overthrow the government of the Cypriot Republic led by Archbishop Makarios. Makarios had resigned himself to the reality that “union with Greece”, was not achievable and was following a non-aligned foreign policy which had provoked the ire of the Americans and the British.
There was the blowing up of police stations including the one in my mother's village (housed in the previously mentioned, proudly restored, but now non-existent old railway station) and the assassination of supporters of President Makarios, and vice versa.
Sunday 3rd April 55:
“More bomb explosions last night … I couldn't go to church as I did not have a suit. Went to soccer match Marathovouno's team won. Walk by myself feel very lonely see F and A Poumpouri. Stay(ed) home at the evening …”
In 1979 I returned to Cyprus after an absence of six years. In hindsight, I realise that my plan to try to generate some sort of support for taking an exhibition of Savva's paintings to New Zealand was over-ambitious and naïve. At the time, I was given generous access to the State Gallery's Savva collection. I took photographs of the paintings to back up my proposal. However, in going through airport security the films, which were of a low ASA, were somehow damaged, maybe by exposure to Customs x-ray machines. The other thing that I never counted on was the utter provincialism of New Zealand interest in international art.
There was an interest in mainstream 20th century artists, and occasionally one saw an oddball show in a minor gallery. One was an exhibition of cutting-edge South American photographs. No one was interested in Christophoros Savva, not even the Cypriot community of Wellington, most of whom did not know that he even existed.
In 1987 I heard that, Cypriot artist Costas Economou was writing a biography of Savva. I wrote to him sending him photocopies from my diaries. I don't know whether I wrote separate letters, one informing him of the diaries and another that included relevant photocopies from that diary and whether they arrived too late or not at all. At the end of his section of the book co-written with Christine Savva-Duroe, he acknowledges that I had informed him that the diaries existed, but he states:
“ that the notes he (Christodoulos Moisa) made from it were lost with all his other things in Angastina, where he had left them, when the Turks occupied the village.” 1.
However brief, the notes of Christophoros Savva recorded in my own 1973 diary still exist, albeit in notation. I regret that they are only a very small part of the diaries that were handed to me in 1973 in an old shoe box.
Sometimes I fantasise that those diaries will be found in Marathovounos by some Turkish archaeologist and that he or she will hand them over. Or someone who may have kept them for no other reason than that they are someone's notations of a turbulent time, and because of it of some ephemeral value, may eventually give them back to Savva's children, to whom they rightly belong.
20th of August, 2006 Copyright © C.E.G.Moisa All rights reserved
1. Savva, Christine–Duroe, Economou,Costas, Christoforos Savva –His life and his work, Cultural Service Ministry, Nicosia, 1988.