Even a White Wall Is Beautiful

Christian Brechneff

When I got off the ferry in the harbor of the Greek island of Sifnos in 1972, I was 21 years old and very serious about being a painter. I had had three successful shows and I had just been accepted to a three-year Master of Fine Arts program at the Royal College of Art in London. I was, I guess, a little full of myself, but very disciplined. Drawing and painting were all that mattered to me, and I had come to Sifnos looking for a quiet place in the sun to work in peace.

The landscape and architecture of Sifnos are very sculptural, and the nature overwhelmingly beautiful and very alive, and, from the start, the island totally captivated me and set me working right away. Because of the almost constant wind, it was impossible to set up an easel and work on a large scale as I had at home in Switzerland. But I hiked all over the place all day long, always with a sketchbook in hand, and the pages began filling rapidly. I carried a little foldout stool with me and worked usually in the shade of olive trees or the wind protection of a church wall, and I sat for hours, working on drawing after drawing.

The drawings were, for me, quite tentative at first, almost timid; I was used to drawing in the mountains in Switzerland, and of course this was all new to me, the winding paths, the stone walls, the terraces covered with olive trees. But I discovered that summer that the drawing subjects were endless: mountains topped with monasteries, perfect white churches on rocks thrust into the sea, twisting village streets, fields with ancient Cycladic towers, and always the sea and mountainous islands in the distance. My hand flew over the pages of my sketchbooks.

I never got bored working there, drawing and eventually painting as well, painting the light, the sky, the sea, the wildflowers. Summer after summer, for thirty-five years, I would get there and the beauty and the magic of the island would take hold of me, and I would start working, throw myself into work.

One day, sometime after I bought my house there in 1977, I was raving to a Sifniot farmer about the views from my terrace. He replied proudly, “Any view on Sifnos is beautiful—even a white wall.”

How right he was.

The islanders respected me and loved me, I knew, but deep down I think they must have thought sitting there under a tree sketching away a rather strange activity. Farming and fishing were their lives; little else existed for them. In those days they lived so far from the world there on their island that the world I came from was a mystery.

Born in the former Belgian Congo in 1950, Christian Brechneff was educated in Switzerland, England, and the United States. In 1975, he received his master of art degree from the Royal College of Art in London. He shows regularly in Basel and Zurich, and Three Oceans, his one-man show in New York in 2001, was with Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. He is also the author of Homage: Encounters with the East, a book of travel drawings published in 2007. You can find Christian Brechneff online at www.christianbrechneff.com.