Resplendent in all the colors of the rainbow, the trays on display at the Benaki Museum are decorated to reflect prosperity, to pay homage to female beauty, to laud natural landscapes or to reflect technological advancements. For most people, fancy tea and refreshment trays are normally found in dusty trunks among other pieces of dinnerware, bringing back memories of afternoons spent at the homes of elderly relatives.
Now, as Greeks start to re-embrace the idea of inviting friends for an afternoon refreshment and a sweet spoonful of fruit preserve, the Benaki presents a reminder of customs long forgotten.
“Rituals of Hospitality: Ornamented Trays of the 19th Century in Greece and Turkey,” which runs through November 17, is curated by Flavia Nessi-Yazitzoglou and Myrto Hatzaki, and consists of 110 trays, among other display items.
The decorative motifs on the trays range from urban landscapes to perceptions of beauty, portraits and still-lifes, as well as dream scenes.
According to Xenia Politou, director of folk art at the Benaki Museum, “an equal number of decorative or utilitarian objects, among them teacups, sweet jars, porcelain dishes, Beykoz glassware, nargiles, tobacco cases and even some clothes, supplement the exhibition, which is aimed at bringing an entire era back to life.”
The exhibits were part of day-to-day life in the Ottoman Empire and in the newly established Kingdom of Greece, and are testament to the complex social and cultural history of that era.
“It was a time during which the Ottoman Empire – a melting pot of cultures – was struggling to strike a balance between tradition and modernization. It was an era that saw the birth of Balkan nationalism and was marked by deep sociopolitical changes. It saw the rise of celebrities, the eruption of industrialization and the decline of small-scale manufacturing as it stood on the cusp of mass production. All of this is reflected in the trays’ illustrations and manufacturing techniques,” the curators say in the show’s catalog.
“A lot of work has gone into this exhibition,” says Politou, noting that the project was launched on a proposal by Nessi-Yazitzoglou, who had curated an exhibition of vintage tools at the Benaki’s Pireos Street annex when it first opened.
So, is this an exhibition of folk art?
The three ladies behind the show say the term is not quite precise, explaining that these objects were once very popular and widely used in the Ottoman Empire and in the new Greece.
“These are items that were cherished by collectors or heirlooms that went from one dowry chest to the next, sometimes stored for so long that the original owner had long forgotten their existence,” the curators say in the exhibition’s catalog. “Today they can be found in private collections and in museums in Athens and Istanbul, in renovated old homes on the islands of Lesvos, Syros, Myconos, Spetses, Hydra and Corfu, but also in Kastoria or Leonidio, or in the antique shops of Izmir and Ayvalik.”
The Benaki exhibition is organized in seven sections: from the workshop to the factory, Greek and Ottoman markets, royalty and celebrities, idealized female figures, urban landscapes, modernization and Europeanization, and flavors and aromas of the East.
“They mirror an age that was a lot more modern than we imagine. News traveled fast and even the front page of a newspaper could be mechanically imprinted on a tray,” says Hatzaki. “The aspect of hospitality is revealed more by the items displayed along with the trays, which may be glassware, nargiles, small jars for rose water or the spoons used to serve spoon sweet.”
For the curators, the focus of the exhibition is the rituals of hospitality. The objects, meanwhile, reveal as much about the identity of the hostess as they do about the guest. For example, while all guests would be treated to a cup of coffee, guests of a higher social station than the hostesses would also have their hands and hair sprinkled with rose water, and would be offered a pipe.
The exhibition also includes texts that reflect how Westerners saw the customs of the East, such as comments by one British traveler who said that he found the syrup in the cakes too sweet.
The time frame of the exhibition starts in 1730, when the first Pontypool japanware factory opened in the UK, producing wonderful pieces of wire and metal, before the industry moved on to Wolverhampton as it developed into a hub for the production of pewter-plated objects. At the same time developments were taking place in France, Germany and Russia. From the 19th century on, pieces that could once only be produced in an artist’s studio could be reproduced in factories that manufactured lacquered items and other elegant objets d’art.
Among the first adorned trays to come to the newly established Kingdom of Greece were those depicting images of King Otto and Queen Amalia, as well as scenes that exulted the Greek spirit.
“The two themes are oddly interconnected,” the curators say in the catalog. “As the spirit of Philhellenism swept across Europe, Otto’s father, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, contributed to the foundation of Philhellenism in Munich, supporting the Greek War of Independence.”
The curators also argue that when young Otto and his court settled in Greece, they most probably brought wonderful lacquered pieces from Brunschwig decorated with themes of heroism from the Greek struggle or scenes of poetic lyricism showing lovers in Greek costume against an Oriental backdrop.
The first residence of the royal couple was also decorated with silver dishes bearing their portraits, often dressed in traditional Greek costumes. According to the curators, this theme became emblematic of the illustrative trends of that time.
The exhibition also contains trays depicting Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the great Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, as well as politicians and rebels.
Benaki Museum, 1 Koumbari & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.367.1000. Opening hours: Wednesdays & Fridays 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursdays & Saturdays 9 a.m. to midnight, Sundays 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.