Impressions of Salonica from years gone by

Putting together an exhibition featuring works by travelers on the subject of Athens might not provide much fresh material to what is already known – but that is not the case when it comes to Thessaloniki. Both the Greek capital and southern Greece in general have attracted many travelers over many years, as they were identified with the remains of the ancient world. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire (until 1912), incorporated its Byzantine past and seemed less appealing to those looking for traces of antiquity. This makes the Kalfayan family’s initiative to collect works executed by traveling painters on Thessaloniki even more valuable. The collection goes on display for the first time in a show at the port city’s Municipal Art Gallery, running to December 20. The collection’s foundations lie in the mid-1980s, when siblings Arsen and Roupen Kalfayan discovered a series of paintings by Charlotte Smith – most likely an eccentric Briton – dating back to 1834. That was just the beginning: The show features seven 19th century works, the most prominent being an oil painting by Ludwig A.J. Thiersch in which the Bavarian artist depicts the northeastern section of Thessaloniki beyond the city walls. The bulk of the collection stems from the 20th century, depicting life in Thessaloniki in the century’s first two decades when the presence of occasional visitors and military officials increased. Visitors to the Municipal Art Gallery will come across a multiethnic, bucolic Thessaloniki – almost exotic from today’s perspective. Are all the works on display by professional artists? As Fani-Maria Tsigakou, the show’s curator (and also curator of the Painting and Engraving Department of the Benaki Museum), points out: «The origins of the majority of the artists are unknown. The sole proof of their presence in Thessaloniki is in their works: scattered sketchbook pages, some the fruit of in situ observations, others unofficial representations by the artists, combine authenticity with immediacy.»