His few surviving works are of heart-wrenching beauty and acclaimed Greek architect Dimitris Pikionis had called him the “Greek van Gogh.” Even if you disagree over the magnitude of his talent, the parallel still holds in terms of the two men’s tragic fates. Looking at the life and art of painter Nikolaos Dragoumis (1874-1933), son of a reputed Greek family, you can only feel sympathy for a man who had the misfortune not to be born at the right time – that is, to have found himself in the family, social and historical context that would have allowed him to express all of the charisma of his idiosyncratic nature. The frustration he felt may even have played a role in triggering the mental illness that tormented his soul and led to his confinement in several asylums across Europe until his death at the Dromokaitio mental hospital in Athens.
An exhibition dedicated to this unique – in the annals of Greek visual arts – personality, recently inaugurated by the National Bank Cultural Foundation (MIET) in Athens (curated by Dionysis Kapsalis with help from Voula Livani and Ioanna Matzavinou), reveals a great artist whose name and work has remained relatively unknown to the mainstream public.
The precious fragments of his art and life were deftly and patiently compiled by Nikos Paisios, who studied archives and collections while conducting fieldwork in France, Switzerland and Greece. Paisios worked as a doctor at Gennimatas Hospital in the Greek capital, specializing in infectious diseases, but has dedicated all of his spare time to studying art. His knowledge and sensibility led him to study the life of Dragoumis after he first came across the artist’s his name in a newspaper article written by the first director of the MIET, Loulis Kasdaglis.
Sense of duty
Born into a family that always felt a profound sense of duty to the nation and produced a succession of politicians, Nikolaos Dragoumis was the grandson of an aide to Ioannis Kapodistrias (foreign minister during the eviction of King Otto and later independent Greece’s first head of state) and the son of a prime minister. The Dragoumis family, one of the few surviving clans of the country’s old and rather scant elite, became known not as an economic force but for its cultivation and patriotism. As the eldest son, the burden of a tradition of political engagement fell squarely on his shoulders.
But Nikolaos was destined for different things. As a young boy, he had taken painting lessons and developed a deep affection for nature and the sea. His early wish was to join the navy. He moved to Paris for training before taking the exams, unsuccessfully. His father, Stefanos Dragoumis, a renowned epigraphist, enrolled him at Sorbonne Law School against the young man’s wishes. Although Nikolaos managed to get a degree, it was clear that he was thoroughly uninterested in the law and was torn between his desire to study painting and his compliance to parental demands.
In 1897, Nikolaos confessed to his family that he aspired to become a painter. Thinking that they could push their son in the direction of the diplomatic service, they sent him to Volos, in central Greece, to help as a volunteer in rehabilitating returnees from the disastrous war between Greece and Turkey. Shortly after, Nikolaos made his own personal revolt. He moved back to Paris to pursue his true calling. He enrolled at the Academie Julian and took painting lessons. As a foreigner, it was hard to join the School of Fine Arts. His family continued to send him just enough money to paint and to get by. He gave his expensive clothes away to his fellow students and never missed a class.
His studies brought him close to painters Auguste Chabaud and Jean Balthus, both from Provence. He followed them to Graveson, where they set up a studio and where he spent long periods of his life. They were later joined by a Russian woman, Lidia Borzek, with whom Dragoumis fell deeply in love. It was around that time that Dragoumis’s most prolific period began. His themes were inspired by nature and rural life, which moved him deeply as opposed to the trappings of urban life. He led a moderate life and enjoyed manual labor. In a letter to his parents, he asked for their permission to marry Borzek. Their response was positive but the marriage was not meant to be. After a bout of sunstroke, he suffered his first mental breakdown.
The family was at a loss. In 1909, Dragoumis’s father, Stefanos, became prime minister on the recommendation of Eleftherios Venizelos, before moving on to serve as governor-general of Crete and later of Macedonia, at a tumultuous time for Greek politics. The elder son found himself isolated in a private mental hospital in Naples. A few months later, his health improved and Nikolaos returned to Athens, where he worked on his last pieces. He later suffered a relapse and was taken to a Geneva institution where he spent several years, as the family sought to avoid the stigma of mental illness at a time when Nikolaos’s younger brother, Ion, was taking his first steps in a promising political career.
The painter died in 1933 at Dromokaitio clinic. Borzek, who had stood by his side throughout his ordeal, had in the meantime settled in Athens.
The work of Nikolaos Dragoumis does not only showcase his talent but also his ability to absorb the zeitgeist. He drew from the pioneering work of van Gogh, adopted the broad strokes, vivid colors and lack of shading typical of the Nabis movement and was also inspired by the Japanese wood prints that were popular in the West at the time. In bold strokes, without hesitation, Dragoumis painted the rural landscapes in which he wished he had grown up, had destiny not willed him born into an upper-class family that bore the burden of an entire nation.
The exhibition runs until July 18, at the National Bank Cultural Foundation’s Eynardos Mansion, 20 Aghiou Constantinou & Menandrou, Omonia, tel 210.522.3101. It also features a documentary by Kleoni Flessa, “Nikos Dragoumis, a painter in the shadow of history,” with Dimitris Mothonaios performing the title character. Opening hours: Tue & Thur 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.; Wed & Fri 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 6-8 p.m.; Sat noon to 2 p.m.; Mondays closed.