Paradise lost

Tourism may have tarnished the Mediterranean’s beauty, but Europeans in particular will always be seduced by the region, says Oliver Bennett

The Mediterranean – what does it mean to you? Cradle of Greco-Roman civilisation, prototypical holiday destination, polluted pool of sun-burned depravity? Whatever, the chances are that the name of the sea itself lifts the spirits, as even the thronged Costas, with their promise of egg, chips and lager in the sun, offer escape to the promise that Matisse characterised in the title of his painting, Luxe, Calme et Volupte. Certainly the Mediterranean has long been a kind of mirage to the colder British, at least since Lord Byron (our first celebrity) went to Greece, Turkey, Malta and Sardinia in search of the beaches of the ancient Gods. It’s a short leap from there to thong-and-breezer hot-zones of Faliraki.

The assorted facts and fantasies about the Med are explored in Mediterranean: Between Reality and Utopia, at the Photographers’ Gallery. This group show is the kind of baggy theme that could come adrift, but the unifying force of the Mediterranean is strong enough for the show to crystallise as a multifaceted view of the sea. The show’s curator, Lisa Le Feuvre, claims that the Mediterranean is a ‘kind of projection’, and while you could extend that idea to a lot of high-traffic tourist destinations, there remains something about the Med that remains the most archetypal of real-life Eldorados. Small wonder that so many of us want to live there: indeed, Marc Rader’s photographs of Majorca show shimmering new developments that look all-too computer-generated: do they really exist?

These days, the once-simple pleasures of beach leisure are as likely to be associated with cancer and decadence, as evinced by author JG Ballard, who uses the French and Spanish rivieras as soulless backdrops. This spirit is illustrated by Eric Fischl’s photographs of St Tropez, which show lobster bodies on loungers, displaying the same toxic eroticism of his paintings. To find the Med’s real allure, we have to go back to pre-war photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue of the French Riviera: an entirely different place to Fischl’s malignant beach trap. August Sander also made a series of pictures of Sardinia in 1927, showing an undeveloped society with a troglodytic community.

Against this, tourism rhetoric had it that such places have been ‘spoiled’. But the Med’s beauty is durable. Julie Ganzin returns to locations depicted by early photographers to explore ‘generic landscapes’, a slightly contrived idea, but one that yields postcard-like views of the Med, as do Erik Kessels’ found photographs, which show an unknown woman posed at beauty spots.

However, tourism isn’t the only industry in the Med. For instance, Gabriele Basilico’s brooding images of Palermo and Beirut offer an industrial view of the sea at odds with the leisure activity with which most of us associate it. Then there are Ad Van Denderen’s pictures of Moroccan immigrants in Spain, and a creepy punter’s-eye view of a prostitute in Naples in a rearview mirror. The Mediterranean – or its northern shores – offers opportunity to Africa, an interminable hinterland that starts at the ocean’s southern shores. Literally and socio-economically, there are two sides to the Mediterranean Sea.

Mediterranean: Between Reality and Utopia runs from 13 August to 3 October at The Photographers’ Gallery, 5 and 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2

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