From Paris to Athens and back again

Not all relationships can be defined as meaningful, yet the one developed in pre-PSI years between France and Greece has long been described as ?special.?

The artistic and intellectual exchanges between the enduring allies during the inter-war period became the focus of a three-day conference put together by the French School at Athens, the Benaki Museum, the Institute of Mediterranean Studies and the French Institute in Athens, on January 19-21.

?Paris-Athens: The Double Journey, 1919-1939? was the final step of a four-year research program on the ties between France and Greece, exploring how the two nations connected and meshed in the fields of visual arts, literature, architecture, photography, music, theater and the decorative arts, among others.

A roster of speakers shared their thoughts at the Benaki Museum?s Pireos Street Annexe on January 19, the first day of the conference, focusing on numerous themes, including the advent of tourism.

Similarly to fellow European states, the French had long nurtured a passion for ancient Greek heritage. But how did the idealized image of a country translate into its modern-day reality? The question was no doubt in the minds of those traveling to Greece in the inter-war years, visitors who, as archaeologist Alexandre Farnoux pointed out, belonged to a new kind of traveler category: the tourist.

Farnoux, director of the French School at Athens, noted that the period saw thousands of visitors heading to Greece for leisure and sight-seeing through organized trips, including cruises. And as organized tourism became de rigueur for wealthy Europeans, the Greek state adopted a national strategy of reconstructing ancient sites to welcome them. The policy was promoted by the government of Eleftherios Venizelos and later undertaken by the Metaxas regime, Farnoux said.

Many French tourists, according to the archaeologist, were disappointed by the dejected state of Greece?s archaeological sites and detected a considerable gap between what could be described as the idealized version of antiquity and the reality of a developing state. Among those who felt let down was Jean Cocteau, who described the Acropolis as ?a destroyed bird cage with nothing to see.?

Though works on display in local museums were not ideally restored, they nevertheless offered a panorama of the country?s history, making them popular with visitors.

Meanwhile, as the French were discovering original antiquities in situ, Greeks traveling to France rediscovered parts of their heritage, as showcased in French museums.

History Professor Aikaterini Koumarianou went on to recount how the modern Greek language turned up as a course at a Paris university. It was a long journey, which Koumarianou traced back to French King Francois I, who in 1538, by royal decree, ordered the establishment of printing presses for the publication of Greek texts, a pivotal moment in the history of Franco-Greek relations and the continent?s cultural heritage on the whole. While the king of France was adamant that Greek texts would prove useful reading to his country?s 16th century youth, it was not until some centuries later that the foundations were laid for modern Greek to be taught at university.

The occasion was a high-ranking meeting in 1931 between then-Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and French Hellenist Hubert Pernot, whose love for Greece was the product of family history: his divorcee French mother had worked as a governess for upper-crust Athenian families and, following his frequent visits, Pernot became fluent in Greek by the age of 16. Koumarianou recounted how the two men agreed to push for modern Greek to be taught at the Sorbonne.

Meanwhile, a French law allowing high school students to earn their Baccalaureate without studying Greek or Latin came into effect in 1902. According to senior lecturer Sylvie Humbert Mougin, this generated a renewed interest in the classics which eventually led to the emergence of specialized publishing houses editing novel editions of ancient works. Among the many aficionados of Greece was Mario Meunier, the son of a baker whose passion for the ancient Greek world had led him to translate numerous authors, including Sophocles, Homer and Plato.

The notion of disseminating ?propaganda? through cultural institutions was raised at the Benaki by lecturer Nicolas Manitakis, who referred to the establishment of various French organizations in Greece as tools used by France to communicate and promote its agenda. While a long list of French organizations, including the French Hospital and the Hellenic Pasteur Institute were established in Athens during the 1919-1939 period, Greece responded by setting up the Hellenic Institute in Paris. Manitakis concluded that the organizations established in that period still form the backbone of the French institutional presence in Greece.

Contemporary art professor Remi Labrusse focused on the world of Byzantium and how it acquired a ?new antiquity? status in the inter-war years. It was a landmark exhibition, Labrusse explained, that offered new insight into that universe. Breaking away from the religious aspects of Byzantium, the show, which took place at the Arts Decoratifs at the Louvre in 1931, brought together some 1,000 objects that showcased the mundane of Byzantine art and culture. This new view on history, said Lambrusse, led early 20th century avant-garde artists to reinterpret Byzantium.

Inspiration that leads to innovation is one way to describe the vision of couturier and bias-cut innovator Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975), whose love for ancient Greece was clearly reflected in her garments. While a number of fashion editorials of the period observed a neoclassical mise en scene, Vionnet was directly inspired by antiquity — both Greek and Roman — fashion historian and curator Lydia Kamitsis noted. A Vionnet expert, Kamitsis described how she came across some fascinating discoveries while studying the designer. Vionnet had donated both garments and books from her private collection to the Arts Decoratifs at the Louvre. As Kamitsis went through the publications, she came across a Greek vase that depicted the same motif as the designer?s celebrated ?Vase? dress, for instance. Kamitsis realized that Vionnet had not been solely inspired, but had actually reinvented the motif and transposed it onto the garment.

Vionnet went as far as to reinvent the ancient Greek ?peplos? (veil), demonstrating how the double journey from Greece to France and back again continued in modern times.