This is exactly how I became intrigued by the Greek primitive Theofilos Hadzimikhail - Theofilos, as he is usually called - years before I had ever seen so much as a reproduction of a single one of his paintings. There is an essay on him in George Seferis's Dhokimes (partially translated as On the Greek Style), which I read years ago. There Seferis describes how once Theofilos was executing the sort of commission on which he mostly lived: painting a mural in a Mytilene baker's shop - no more, really, than an elaborate advertisement. As was his habit, he had depicted the loaves of bread upright in the baking trays, like heraldic emblems on an out-thrust shield - so that no one could be in any doubt that they were loaves of bread and very fine ones, too. The irate baker pointed out that in real life loaves thus placed would have fallen to the floor.
"No," replied Theofilos - surely with that calm, implacable self-certainty which carried him throughout what most people would call a miserable life - "only real loaves fall down. Painted ones stay where you put them." I thought this delightful in its simultaneous naiveté and depth, a perfect statement of the self-sufficiency of art. From then on Theofilos was real to me, sight unseen.
When I finally saw my first Theofilos it was, very properly, completely by accident. I had been spending a couple of days in Volos, that big, drab, ugly bustling seaport at the foot of Mount Pelion, which seems such a grotesquely inappropriate place to have been the home port of the Argo, when for lack of anything better to do, I had caught a bus up the mountain to the village of Makrynitsa, with its carved marble fountains and plane trees and painted gables and the view tumbling down to the Pagasetic Gulf. I had quite forgotten (if Seferis mentions it) that apart from his native island of Mytilene, Mount Pelion had been Theofilos's main stamping-ground.
I had almost finished my ouzo in the dark, frowsly little kafeneio off the village square when I noticed, through the smoke and gloom, a mural entirely covering one wall. It was dark, as I say, and the forty-watt light did little to alleviate it. The painting, here and there, was sadly faded and stained and shredded. Besides, someone had elected to place a fuse box and assorted sockets in one of its corners at one time; but from what I had read already there was only one thing that mural could be.
This the proprietor confirmed. Yes, it had been done, many years before in his father's time by that crazy vagabond Theofilos, who went about in the gear of a hero of the War of Independence, only caring about painting. He was occasionally stoned by the village children; and he commonly worked, so the kafedzis had heard, in exchange for as much wine and food as he could get through while he painted. He'd been told, he said, that the painter used to leave the most important characters or images till last, so as always to have the threat of leaving the picture unfinished and meaningless should the supplies end. Crazy like a fox, evidently.
But the mural itself: In the foreground a band of kleftes [brigands] are feasting, laden with their usual magnificently dandyish paraphernalia, richly chased muskets and long pistols, fearsome silver-hilted yataghans, embroidered jackets in red-and-gold, fustanellas, huge fiercely waxed and curved moustaches. They are spit-roasting sheep, dancing and singing. One, I think, is playing a flute, and a barrel of wine is propped against a convenient rock nearby. One can only feel envious of the time they're having, and the kefi. Up the wall behind them stretches (in very uncertain perspective) that harshly beautiful landscape typical of the Greek mountains: jagged precipitous rocks, a few trees, a little stream.
And - but it takes a while to notice this, and it is the key to the painting - far, far up in the top right-hand corner, coming over a ridge, are betrayal and ruin. None of the merrymaking warriors is looking towards where a long column of tiny figures is stealthily descending upon them. You can just make out the red fezzes which tell you they are Turkish soldiers.
Even in its neglected state, in the darkness of the cafe, the mural was wonderful in its life, its rich abundance of detail, the loving particularity of the painter's eye, and its unashamed quality of telling a story. One can only imagine what it was like when the colours were fresh. It was my first Theofilos, and it was even better than I could have hoped for.
After that I combed the area of Pelion for more, and meanwhile found out as much as I could about the artist's life. There is an excellent little monograph by the poet Elytis - 0 Zoghrafos Theofilos - which gives more detail than Seferis could. From this I take the basic outline.
Theofilos was born in Vareia on the island of Mytilene in 1870. He started drawing all over every available surface in early childhood and was regarded as "odd" by other children. He must have seemed considerably odder when at seventeen - full of incoherent dreams of the War of Independence - he adopted the full national costume, fustanella and all, which he never abandoned. He put it on, like anyone else, for Carnival; and, unlike anyone else, kept it on.
"Am I a Frank," he would demand, "to dress Frankish style?" (This outfit of his reputedly got extraordinarily tattered and grubby over the years. He did have a Sunday-best fustanella but hardly ever wore it.)
Later he moved to Smyrna, where he somehow found a job at the Greek Consulate which not only permitted but required his mode of dress. And twenty years after that he suddenly turned up on the slopes of Pelion with his box of homemade paints and his notebook full of patriotic poems and selections from the Iliad.
There, as in Mytilene, to which he returned in his later years and where he died in 1934, he covered the walls of restaurants and cafés, shops and private houses, as well as boards and paper and pieces of furniture, with the evidence of his obsession - which seems to have been little less than to devour the entire real world and create in its place an ideal painted one.