Some Aspects of Modern Greek Art: The Blending of Contrasting Traditions



OF ALL, Europeans only the Greeks, and the Balkan peoples under their civilizing influences preserved the art forms, subjects, and principles of medieval Byzantium. Only if we fully appreciate this artistically unique phenomenon— the product of Greece’s moral and intellectual armor against a less cultured conqueror — can we explain the origin and singular development of Neo-Hellenic art and some of its present-day trends.

The establishment in 1830 of an independent Greek state set Athens up as a new art center and caused a reorientation among Greek artists. Young King Otto and his Bavarian court in Athens introduced the neo-classicism of the Munich of his father, Ludwig I. The Greeks were showing pseudoclassical inclinations in all spheres of life, both in turning to their forefathers for their models and in contemning their medieval past. Generations of nineteenth-century Greek artists learned and frequently practiced their art in Munich. Their subjects were often the heroes and glorious episodes of the recent liberation struggle. They strove to assimilate and to approach the technical skill of their foreign teachers. The learned classicists of the mid-nineteenth century urged artists to turn to the art of Western Europe.

Thenceforth Neo-Hellenic art faithfully followed European models, though lagging somewhat behind, for its delay in turning westward often forced it to accept schools of European art that had already become purely academic in their own lands. Yet Greek art continually endeavored to retain its own national character.

These tendencies in Neo-Hellenic painting assumed various forms at various times. During the nineteenth century, the vogue of European genre painting encouraged the leading Greek painters to portray historical scenes or the local color of scenes of Greek peasant life. These recognized artists, however, saw their subjects through aristocratic eyes and tried to make themselves understood in a foreign, conventional language inspired by academic naturalism.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the maturity of the Greek cultivated classes permitted more progressive movements. Impressionism reached Greece by way of Germany and even made its way into the School of Fine Arts. Thenceforward the Greek landscape became the main subject for painters.

The unsettled revolutionary spirit of that generation was embodied in Constantine Parthenis, who was born in 1878. Parthenis began his painting career with impressionism, interpreted decoratively, and worked his way through many Parisian schools, from post-impressionism to fauvism, cubism, and expressionism. Though of reflective and darting mind, he always proceeded with an inner cohesion, and his researches enriched his technical experience. These included a study of Byzantine painting, from which he learned the importance of style. Parthenis sought a rule that would govern the composition of contrasted colors, planes, and lines, and investigated the phenomena of optical illusion and distortion. The result was an entirely personal manner in which great economy of color detracts nothing from its exceptional intensity, while the reduction of form to patterns of rhythmical movement suggests the subtlest undertones.

In one of Parthenis’s large mature canvases painted in 1940—The Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos, which honors a hero of the liberation struggle — the artist’s idealism is evident in an unusual sparingness of color, while the disembodiment of form achieved through the abstraction of mass and material weight, and through a tranquil sublimation, contributes to the strength of his poetic power. This flat utterly modern composition is akin to the mannerist style of The Angelic Concert by the early Greek painter Theotokopoulos (El Greco), notable for his sublime symbolism, elongated figures, and the conjunction of the divine with the mortal.

The sound pioneering technique of Parthenis was to bear fruit among artists of the next generation who were his students at the School of Fine Arts. Parthenis taught them that the problem of formulating a national art lay not so much in subject matter as in form.

During the same period, other artists were making a name for themselves outside Greece. Among these we find George Bouzianis, born in 1885, who worked in Germany with the pioneer Munich group Neue Sezession and then in 1935 returned to Greece. His vast expressionistic canvases are covered with seemingly confused blobs of color lacking all semblance of composition. It is hardly surprising that this exaggeratedly emotional painting, in essence the very voice of despair, should find few imitators in Greece, with her agelong tradition of precise form and of balance between intellect and sentiment.

The style of George Gounaro is another purely personal invention, which reached maturity in Paris. It rests on the abolition of mass, on the use of a single source of light, and on emphasis of the third dimension. This anti-realistic painting, fundamentally romantic, though again without continuity, gave Greek art an impulse to strive after originality.

Certain trends noticeable around 1927 show that the younger artists were; endeavoring to adopt a conscientious and consistent attitude towards the problems of contemporary art. The more spirited sculptors, painters, and engravers — all of them either students of Parthenis or under the influence of Paris — banded together into a group dedicated to upholding modem theories against the academic survivals of nineteenth-century naturalism. These revolutionaries did not advance much beyond post-impressionism and the influence of Derain or Vlaminck; only a few, such as Ghika (Nikos Hadjikyriako), derived anything from the then comparatively recent cubist movement.

Simultaneously with this explicit attempt to catch up with contemporary Parisian currents, there developed a widespread interest in popular art and Byzantine and post-Byzantine painting, intensified in 1930 by the foundation of the Byzantine and Benaki Museums. The inclination of painting to return to Greek medieval prototypes was started and largely represented by Photis Kondoglou, an ecclesiastical painter, book illustrator, and prose writer who was born in Asia Minor in 1895. At a time when only a few experts had as yet begun to take any interest in the sixteenthand seventeenthcentury frescoes in the monasteries of Mount Athos and the Meteora, Kondoglou was studying their technique and absorbing the aesthetic conception of that monumental Byzantine mural art.

Later, when Kondoglou executed works free of religious content, such as the historical murals done in 1939 in the Athens Municipal Hall, his leisurely compositions represented ancient heroes as Byzantine saints, an ingenuous touch borrowed from popular painting. He gave a fresh and decisive turn to the ecclesiastical painting of the Orthodox Church. This essentially romantic revival led up to an anti-realistic stylo and thus had something in common with the aims of modern painting. Satisfying the demands of Greek tradition already brought up to date, Kondoglou’s teaching was accepted by elder, skilled painters, such as Spyros Vasiliou and Agenor Asteriades, and by younger ones whose technique, even when liberated from the direct influence of Kondoglou, never ceased to reveal the rudimentary traces of their apprenticeship.


THE contemporary scene in Greek art is changing so rapidly that I must limit myself to a short, account of main objectives and the most successful achievements since the end of the war.

A number of painters who have profited from the experience of the preceding generation and who are in direct touch with Paris have recently come to maturity. The tragic but heroic events through which they lived during the years of enemy occupation and civil war (1941-1949) forged in them an indestructible bond with their own soil and their compatriots. Their consequent reaction is to be found neither in huge canvases portraying heroic scenes nor in an escapism to anti-reality or total abstraction. These artists live in an objective world of ordinary men and dwellings and landscapes. But they have found the strength to invest what they see with their own thoughts and emotions, thus transforming them into symbols of a serene if afflicted spirit. It is no coincidence that a sense of death pervades the uncouth servicemen of Tsarouhis, the nude girls of Moralis, and the sculptured groups of Kapralos. The notion of death is wrought into these youthful figures — as on ancient tombstones — through an other-worldly calm, a modest melancholy of expression.

One might refer to the quality that permeates almost all Greek art forms today as Neo-Hellenic realism. The originality of this development lies mainly in the fact that its subjects are not chosen for their picturesqueness or folklore appoeal, but from modern Greek life as it is. In the landscapes of this school we see the barren soil, the geometric architecture, and the inexorable sunlight. Sharp outline is matched by brilliant coloring.


The feature which most distinguishes the Greek from any other Mediterranean landscape is its clear spirituality. Often simple buildings are so portrayed that they become symbols of the country’s fortune — of the sufferings of the people under the Turkish occupation, or the plight of the refugees driven from their homes. There is an undertone of human sympathy. This painting is neither uniform nor derived from a single source, but all of it has a common motivation: to portray a world rich in intellectual and emotional experience through simple but forthright means and a symbolism that preserves the appearance of things.

Our artists are experimenting with the whole Greek tradition — classical vase painting and Pompeian frescoes, Fayum portraiture, mosaic flooring, and Byzantine mural decoration, right through to contemporary popular painting — experimenting to find orientation for their own work. They hope both to perpetuate an agelong tradition and simultaneously to strive for the objectives of modern art.


THE work of Ghika (born in 1906), the most modern of Greek painters, lies within the scope of this intellectual movement. A student of Parthenis, he spent his early years in post-cubist Paris, where his work acquired a cosmopolitan character. More recently his researches into Greek tradition have clearly begun to bear fruit. Modern painting, Far Eastern art, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Greek popular painting have been combined and sifted by a fine intellect that imposes its own laws on reality: a balance among the main moving elements on a plane surface, an almost geometric arrangement and elevation of plan, and a transparency of pure color brilliant with the intensity of Greek light.

Ghika’s mercurial and inventive mind, rich imagination, and acute sensibility turn ordinary subjects —roof tops, common plants, and landscapes — into an other-world of magic, convincing because of its own aesthetic truth. In the large canvas, painted in 1949, of the small island of Hydra where he was born, the composition is held together by bold horizontal and perpendicular lines. The surface is filled with houses and walled gardens, streets and vaulted arcades of the island town, but their logic is all their own: they are viewed after the fashion of early Christian mosaic floors — now from above, now from the side, according to the requirements of the composition. On the left this mysteriously moving arabesque is illuminated by the warm orange reflections of the setting sun, while the rising moon casts its pallid beams over the right. The contrast between these two elements gives dramatic movement to the whole work. In Ghika’s latest paintings, still-life objects and architectural and plant themes occur side by side. The severity of his geometric approach is now more relaxed and festive, but his colors retain their brilliance.

The work of John Tsarouhis (born in 1910), a student of both Parthenis and Kondoglou, is imbued with faith in the unity of form in Greek art throughout the ages, a unity which he wants to preserve. Tsarouhis is well grounded in the fundamentals of Greek painting and has a purely personal feeling for color. His work approaches that of the Paris school, while remaining fundamentally Greek. His main interest, is in the human being who, in his hands, tends to become a monumental figure. Lightly modeled, his subjects fill the picture to the point of suffocation, and are elevated to an impersonal type of being full of dignity and grandeur. His colors, limited to a minimum, give a particular quality to his work and function in a calm and stable manner, as in the paintings of Matisse and certain Byzantine artists. Tsarouhis has lately tried larger group compositions with a setting of coffee houses at night. Within this geometric frame lives a whole world of Greek type-characters.

Diamandis Diamandopoulos (born in 1910), who developed in the same atmosphere of reverence for things Greek, expresses his ideal in a precise style. A feeling of magnitude, strength, and stability derives as much from the size of his canvases as the significant outlines that clench pure flat colors into figures of bulk and weight. As with Tsarouhis, Diamandopoulos’s chief concern is with various types of man, whom he portrays in huge canvases or polychrome statues.

Nikos Engonopoulos (born in 1910), poet and painter, also studied under Parthenis and Kondoglou. His lyric and volatile imagination was quickly attracted to the surrealist art of Chirico. In a typically Neo-Hellenic context he combines fantastic beings with realistic objects: the setting, for example, of a painting of the mythical Minotaur is a nineteenth-century house in the Peiraeus, the word LABYRINTH written over it as if it were the name of a popular tavern. His frequently epic compositions reveal a fruitful contact with Byzantine art, and sometimes relate in an impressive and serious mood tales from an invented mythology. The unexpected and the anachronistic are forms which Engonopoulos often uses ironically, but his purely artistic gifts of brilliant color, sure design, strength of composition, and acute sensibility are most apparent in works such as his portrait of the poet Kavafis, in which a poem written by the subject is painted on the scroll of the Byzantine mural in the background.

The paintings of Nikos Nikolaou (born in 1909), George Sikeliotis (1917), and lastly of George Mavroïdis (1913) are interesting because they produce with a maximum economy flat compositions of a monumental order. Their sharply outlined figures in fresco or tempera, while strictly composed, nevertheless vibrate with restrained passion.

Outstanding among the younger members of this generation is John Moralis (born in 1916), notable for a mastery of the means of expression which links him to the nineteenth-century painters. He is the least revolutionary of his age group, but his mature style, sure and well balanced in composition, transforms works of fine lyrical sensibility into an intellectual accomplishment. Like the youthful figures portrayed on Attic funerary steles of the fifth century B.C., his nude women belong to some other-world of silence and contentment. Their delicate limbs lose none of their rotundity nor their skin any of its freshness despite a partial absence of space, a static pose, a rhythmical interlocking of limbs, and a sparing use of color; the warm gray tones of the flesh are often set against a striking blue ground.

Some of the painters already mentioned are also engravers of note, but there are Greek artists too who work exclusively at copper and wood engraving. The development of modern engraving has occurred only during the past twenty-five years, under the influence of Dimitrios Galanis, a Paris Greek, and of John Kephallinos, a teacher in the School of Fine Arts. About 1930 Angelos Theodoropoulos applied to engraving the lessons of post-impressionistic painting, Efthimios Papadimitriou reverted to compositions of an expressionistic nature often borrowed from Byzantine art, while Spyros Vasiliou (born in 1902) applied with ingenuity and talent his knowledge of Byzantine techniques to woodcuts. Of the younger artists Anastasios Tassos (born in 1910) creates larger pictures of landscapes, figures, and still-life objects, whose strict distribution of black and white does nothing to dull his truthful interpretation of Greek reality.


THE roots of modern Greek sculpture must be sought in nineteenth century neo-classicism, when Greek sculptors, bent on continuing the art of Praxiteles, accepted Canova as their model. John Halepas (1854-1938) in the first phase of his career raised classical idealistic sculpture to its peak, but then in a reversal of intellectual position returned to sculptural creation free of classicist reminiscences.

Contemporary Greek sculpture possesses certain constant qualities: a feeling for measure, economy of means of expression, awareness of rhythm, and sensibility to the medium. This anti-romantic art does not expend all its efforts in searching for originality, but rather enriches its eloquence through a study of that never-ending source of wisdom, the human body, in order to find a more apt expression for its structure, for the melody in its rhythmical movement, and for the poetry of its animated surface. The work of Michael Tombros (born in 1889) is distinguished by the solidity and cohesion of its planes, tending to extreme simplicity. Though his work sometimes has a touch of coldness, it has harmony and unity of style. The Greek inheritance of Athanasios Apart is (born in 1899) helped free him from the extremes of his teacher, Bourdelle, and enabled him, in a series of remarkable heads, to convey character with utmost feeling. In larger compositions, such as the sculptured reliefs on the monument erected to the memory of the slaughtered Jews of Thessaloniki, Apartis contrives to convey deep emotion in a simple but expressive language of symbolism. The work of John Pappas (born in 1915) moves from a study of man to solid monumental pieces in which lyric sensibility submits to idealistic realism. Pappas has a great, gift for portraiture, suggesting an inner spirit without resorting to surface devices.

After executing a number of outstanding statues of his mother, Christos Kapralos (born in 1909) has devoted himself to the epic narration in sculptured friezes of the Greek people’s misfortunes during the war. An intense feeling for rhythm combined with an acute awareness of reality gives a particular quality to the revival of this ancient art. Clearhos Loukopoulos preserves — sometimes in relief carvings— the religious spirit of our popular artists, mellowing it with rhythmical movement of an elevated character. Antonios Sohos is another who has used both popular and ancient techniques with success. A bold attempt at revival is the largescale monument, The Women of Zalongos, executed by sculptor George Zogolopoulos and architect Patroclos Karandinos, which is being erected on the site where Greek women chose in 1803 to dance and then to throw themselves, over a cliff rather than submit to the enemy. Some Greek sculptors, such as Kostas Koulentianos and Kostas Andreou, are working successfully in Paris — most of them in sympathy with the Paris school — while others again, like Polygnotos Vagis and Michael Lekakis, are at work in America. Here in Greece a generation of young sculptors is following with self-assurance and talent in the path of the older masters.

The proud ambition of contemporary Greek art is to give form to Neo-Hellenic reality, both intellectual and emotional, as molded by centuries of historic continuity in a corner of Europe that has ever been a meeting ground of civilizations.

Translated by John Leatham