The aptly titled, “Cavafy’s World: Hidden Things,” takes us to Alexandria, Egypt, in the opening decades of the 20th century. Alexandria was a city divided into two distinct halves, one marked by upper-class sophistication and the other by low-rent bars and shops.

Paul Wong
Cavafy in Alexandria. (Courtesy of UMMA)

Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy wrote about the latter half, a place where he took pains to hide his homosexuality. His poems discuss secret, fleeting sexual encounters with numerous men, as well as his ongoing struggle to suppress his inner desires. British artist David Hockney, an avid enthusiast of Cavafy’s, composed a series of 13 sketches based on his poems, all of which are featured in this exhibit.

Hockney’s drawings are an ambitious interpretation of Cavafy’s poetry – one that effectively conveys his sensual, emotional language. The artist’s style is remarkably simple, using only black ink to draw the rough outlines of his figures. Hockney does, however, give considerable detail to certain aspects of his subjects, particularly their skin, hair and neckties. Perhaps he uses this as an attention-grabbing device, drawing the viewer into his characters’ faces rather than the landscape.

Most of Hockney’s subjects have expressionless faces, allowing the poetry to convey their emotions. Cavafy uses his characters to express the feelings associated with one-night stands and short-lived relationships. In the poem, “Their Beginning,” Cavafy describes a sexual encounter between two men that seems forbidden or taboo: “Something about them betrays what kind of bed they’ve just been laying on.” In the accompanying sketch, the blank stares on Hockney’s men show their feelings of regret for having committed a homosexual act.

At the time, homosexuality was largely condemned in Egypt and the sorrow in Cavafy’s characters reflects his own personal struggles with it. Cavafy lives vicariously through his subjects, generally choosing young, attractive men to act out his stories. It’s unclear whether Cavafy experienced some of the anecdotes himself, but each tale seems authentic and intimate. One particular poem, titled “He Asked About the Quality,” describes a meeting between a shopkeeper and a man in a handkerchief store. They pretend to be appraising the different cloths, but it is only a disguise for a subtle flirtation between them.

Hockney provides us with two portraits of Cavafy, one of him as a young man and the other near the end of his life. In both drawings, Cavafy appears as an outsider, with the Alexandrian skyline in the background. These representations convey the poet’s feelings of being unwanted and unwelcome by this city that served as his greatest inspiration. In “Portrait of Cavafy II,” we see the poet’s eyes: tired, weary and drained of life.

While Cavafy was forced to hide his sexuality, Hockney lives openly as a gay artist, forging a connection between the past and the present. The artist’s sketches, drawn simply but lovingly, are ultimately a celebration of Cavafy’s poems. “Cavafy’s World: Hidden Things” may not be the most eye-catching exhibit you’ll ever see-but it is certainly one of the most powerful, easily warranting a trip to the Museum of Art.

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