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A window on Byzantine art

The extraordinary icons found in Cyprus are the reason one of the world’s leading art historians keeps returning to the island. ALIX NORMAN meets a man not yet ready to come as a tourist

I recognise Professor Robin Cormack because he’s wearing his trademark blue shirt. He smiles when I mention the many pictures of him on the internet – in all of which he’s sporting blue. Apparently he’s never noticed he favours the colour he says, though he recalls someone once telling him it goes well with his blue eyes. “But I wouldn’t know,” he demurs.

It’s strange, I think, that a man whose life is bound up in the study of art and art history – later he enthuses about the purity of colour in the icons and paintings which have been his life’s work – hasn’t given a moment’s thought to the aesthetic impression he himself creates. But then perhaps this is how it works in the higher circles of academia – nothing matters but the art.

As one of the foremost academics in his field, Professor Robin Sinclair Cormack, PhD, FSA, is a specialist in the field of Byzantine art. A classicist and art historian, his curriculum vitae includes a long list of posts chief among which are Professor (and Deputy Director from 1999-2002) in the History of Art at the esteemed Courtauld Institute of Art, visiting Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies, a scholarship at the Getty Research Institute and Senior Academic Visitor at Wolfson College, Cambridge. And, presently, he’s an Invited Lecturer in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge (where his wife, the renowned and controversial Mary Beard, is also a professor).What it all adds up to is a man who’s spent his life dedicating himself to his work, a true academic of the old school. And yet, he reveals, it all came about almost by chance.

“I belong to the generation that learnt Latin at six and Greek at eight,” he says. “In my time, there was an extra specialisation in education, so I dropped everything else – all the modern languages – and learnt all about ancient Greece and Rome; we’d do things like turn the headlines of The Times into Latin for fun.” It was a very literary education, he adds, but it did bring its own dilemmas when it came to choosing a degree. “It was a sort of benign crisis,” he muses. “I’d had an education that was almost completely literary. But I decided I wasn’t actually a very literary person. And so I became much more interested in art.”

Despite his admission, I’m sure that this is a man who would have succeeded whatever his chosen field; if he’d followed a literary path, I’d probably now be chatting to the foremost expert on Shakespeare, or Chaucer. Patient and humble, he’s highly informative about his work – though he seems to shy away from other subjects – as we whisk through the journey of his life.

He tells me of the gap year between his first and second degrees, in which he worked as the gallery manager of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (“It was more of a bar than a gallery in those days, people like Francis Bacon would drop in for a drink”) during which he was responsible for hanging Hockney’s first one-man exhibition. “This was the sixties, when you could get jobs quite easily,” he explains. “You picked up the Guardian or the New Statesman, looked in the classifieds and found employment. It was an extraordinary time.” And as a part-time job, he was also Museums Correspondent for The Times, something he admits to particularly enjoying: “It’s the immediacy, isn’t it?” he says, in an appealing tone, and I’m flattered that someone who’s worked for The Times should consider me a journalist on the same level. “There’s always something great, something new when you work for a newspaper.”

In some ways, it’s a surprising juxtaposition: an exponent of the history of art being fascinated by the immediacy of daily news. But then Professor Cormack is really quite an unusual person; despite being highly forthcoming on his subject, it’s a challenge to get a handle on what really makes him tick. He has a passion for modern art, developed, perhaps through his year at the gallery. “I like the avant-gardes of the 20th century,” he claims, though he adds that when it comes to artists of our own time, we seem to lack perspective. “We’re not very good at assessing them, are we? That’s probably why we’re not sure about Damien Hirst. But then people said Picasso couldn’t draw at the time!”

From a literary background to a fascination with the contemporary. How, then, did his passion for the far more historical field of the Byzantine era come about? “After my gap year, I was studying modern art at the Corteau. And then, one day, the director summoned me. ‘I’ve looked at your CV,’ he said, ‘and you know all these ancient languages. There’s a desperate need for people like you – why not consider a more historical era?’ And I was persuaded.” It was that simple, then; a choice made almost by chance, which -fortunately – turned out rather well…

“If you’re an art historian, you make your choice with regards to where the research is interesting, rather than what you like, and I found that research into the Byzantine area was fascinating. In some ways, an art historian of ancient and medieval information is not overwhelmed – you haven’t got very much to work with, and you have to work very hard to reasonably interpret what’s out there. It’s almost like being a detective.” An interesting point, and I remind Professor Cormack that he’s previously mentioned that, in another life, he would have chosen to join the police force.
“There you go then!” he exclaims. “It’s true, I’ve always enjoyed whodunits, Michael Innis, Dorothy Sayers – books where the detectives have to work slowly and surely through the clues.” He seems to have surprised himself with this insight, proving once again that this is a man who gives little thought to the personal, be it what he wears or what drives him. But this revelation sheds a great deal of light on his character: it’s easy to see him cast in the role of an artistic Inspector Morse – meticulous and erudite, patiently sifting through ancient evidence and uncovering the past.

And his methods seem to owe a lot to the painstaking process of police work: as he talks about his specialisation in El Greco, he refers to “trying to get inside the art, trying to find out all you can, however challenging that might be”. It’s one of the reasons he first came to Cyprus, back in the seventies – this drive to understand the details of Byzantine art. “I’ve always had a strong view that if you lecture on a subject, then you ought to have seen what you’re lecturing about,” he says. “So I made myself a crazy rule that I wouldn’t lecture on it unless I’d actually seen it. And, as Cyprus is a major part of the Byzantine world, it was one of the first places I visited.”

At the time, he tells me, there was a lot of renovation of Byzantine monuments. “I came to Cyprus as an art historian, not as a tourist. I came to see the restorations, the churches, the wall paintings,” he recalls. “But when I returned to England, I realised that what had really fascinated me was the icons of Cyprus. There was a particular development in the style of icon painting from the crusades onwards that’s exceptionally striking.” So inspired was he by his time on the island, that he’s returned a number of times over the years – though never yet, he jokes, as a tourist. He’s even made a short film about the monastery of Saint Neophytos, which lies outside Paphos, for Getty Press.

“It’s called A Window to Heaven,” he says, when pressed for details of this award-winning project. In keeping with his gentlemanly reserve, he doesn’t seem overly keen to blow his own trumpet. Or perhaps it’s the fact that his wife is the television personality in the family: her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as ‘Britain’s best-known classicist’. By comparison, Professor Cormack’s forays into the world of visual media have been trifling, his main focus resting with the lecture circuit, and the world of El Greco.
“I have a great interest in El Greco,” he says of the subject which frequently takes him to all four corners of the globe – he has, in fact, just come off a flight from Los Angeles, though the nine-hour time difference seems to have left this remarkable man none the worse for wear. “What has happened in the last twenty years is a complete revelation in our knowledge. We’ve discovered that, far from being a Greek who moved to Spain and becoming a Spanish artist, El Greco was already an accomplished painter of icons when he left his native Crete.” Instrumental in this discovery, Professor Cormack is animated about the clues that led to this breakthrough – as seemingly excited as a detective breaking a case.

“We’ve found signed El Greco icons from his time in Crete,” he enthuses, mentioning how he and a colleague identified a panel – which was to be auctioned at Christie’s – as an early work. “It looks as if it might have been one of his first works when he reached Venice, the date tallies perfectly with his arrival. And it’s instrumental in showing the evolution of his style: the change from using egg tempura to oils that allows a tone and unity across the picture in a way you wouldn’t have originally had with icons. And the colours,” he adds, “the colours become very pure. That rich blue.”

Is, then, his choice of shirt subconscious – could this professor be echoing El Greco’s mastery of a certain hue? It’s a question I dare not ask –though the answer would interest me greatly, the triviality of the query would sit ill with the rarefied atmosphere of our discussions. So instead I wonder if there’s anything other than the world of art which has the power to capture his passion.

“I’m pretty absorbed in what I do,” he says – a fact which has become entirely apparent over the last hour. “But I have learnt, late in life, to play the harpsichord.” His fascination, he claims, is with old music, which tallies nicely with his chosen profession: “There’s an intensity to the music, especially with Bach for example, that you get from this very pure sound. And my ambition is to master the Goldberg Variations. It’s the most difficult thing to play,” he adds, and suddenly it all becomes clear to me…

There will be weeks, no doubt months, of work involved in realising such a challenging and lengthy musical achievement. Hours spent poring over each bar, attention given to every nuance and, finally, the total mastery he seeks in all his doings. And this I think, as I leave him to another round of interviews, is what Professor Cormack is really all about: diligence and perfection, utter focus on the matter at hand. Case closed.

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