Artist of the past seen in the present

The opening and the closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympic Games were occasions to ponder on how contemporary Greeks perceive their cultural identity and the ways in which their history and cultural past have made their way into the present. Drawing on the vast cultural well of Greek civilization, the opening ceremony followed its historical lineage from antiquity to modern Greece, reaching somewhere vaguely in the 1930s. Ancient Greece, seen as an archetype, and fused with universal themes, was the focus of an inspired and artistically innovative opening ceremony while folk, rural culture seemed to predominate in the closing ceremony, at least in its first and, for most, better part. Organized during the period of the Olympics, «Reference to Gyzis,» a contemporary art exhibition held at the House of Exhibitions venue on the island of Tinos, draws awareness to another period in Greek culture, perhaps less cliched but equally significant in the shaping of the Greek national consciousness. It harks back to late 19th century academic Greek painting and the work of Nikolaos Gyzis in particular – an emblematic figure in the shaping of national consciousness – and considers that side of Greek identity which is linked to European culture and the heritage of Romanticism. Art critic Nikos Xydakis, who is the exhibition’s curator, thought of asking 11 Greek contemporary artists to each make a work that references the work of Gyzis. The idea was to explore the ways that contemporary Greek artists interact with their past and to probe cultural continuity or rifts. It is a tribute to the past and a speculation on the culture of the present. School of Munich Nikolaos Gyzis was born in 1842 on the island of Tinos, the birthplace of other artists such as Yiannoulis Chalepas, and the place where the current exhibition is held as a symbolic tribute to the artist’s origins. The Panhellenic Sacred Foundation of the Evangelistria on Tinos granted the artist a scholarship to study in Munich, at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, a bastion of academic painting where Gyzis became a professor later in his life. The Bavarian origins of the Greek monarchs had secured a cultural tie between newly independent Greece with Germany and led many artists to leave for Munich to study art. Gyzis was one of a group of painters who became known as the School of Munich painters, a term that refers to an entire style in Greek late 19th century painting, in which academic painting is fused with themes taken from Greek life. It also marked the first major stage in Greek art since the country’s independence, and the origins of a post-liberation, non-folk Greek art. Nikolaos Gyzis was one of the group’s leading figures, of whom Nikiforos Lytras was the oldest. Despite the fact that Gyzis visited Greece only three times after he settled in Munich, his paintings were replete with themes and human figures from Greek rural life. His famous genre scenes, of which the «Kryfo Scholeio» is one of the best known, capture his distinct sensitivity toward post-liberation Greek life while also echoing the influence of Orientalism. In his artistic maturity, Gyzis turned to allegorical and religious themes, and painted images steeped in the mystical feeling that informed Symbolism. Spiritual revelation coupled with a painterly style that borders on abstraction was a far cry from his more academic training. So was the art nouveau influence that can be detected in his later work. Contemporary reading Most of the works in the exhibition make reference to some formal or painterly quality in Gyzis’s art, or reinterpret one of the artist’s paintings. Alexandros Veroukas, for instance, paints the image of a baby in an effort to mimic the inner luminosity with which Gyzis painted the human figure. Haris Kontosfyris carved images on a stainless steel surface in another attempt to reflect the distinct way that Gyzis handled light. Giorgos Rorris has painted one of his familiar atelier scenes, using the palette of Gyzis as a reference point. Peris Ieremiadis’s portraits allude to a style of drawing that is distinctly reminiscent of Gyzis. Xenophon Bistikas appropriates one of Gyzis’s best-known paintings, the «Glory of Psara,» and alludes to the influence of Gericault and Bocklin – a rough contemporary of Gyzis – in this particular work. A series of charcoal drawings on paper by Yiannis Adamakos are the artist’s study of the movement of the human body as depicted in the work of Gyzis. Together with Manolis Haros’s work, they are the most abstract paintings in the exhibition. A painting by Dimitris Zouroudis draws an interesting comparison between contemporary political reality and the war in Iraq with the spiritual, allegorical world that imbues the later part of Gyzis’ work. Marios Spiliopoulos replicated in digital prints some of the best-known images by Gyzis, which he has altered by laying an embroidery-like motif on them. The idea was to create mass-produced images of «old master» genre scenes. Eleni Lyra has used digital photography to create a Renaissance-like image and Manolis Zacharioudakis has made a video installation which animates the images of Gyzis. Each work is a free, loose interpretation of the work of Gyzis. For the artists involved in the exhibition, «Reference to Gyzis» must have seemed like an opportunity to look back on the work of one of the greatest figures in Greek art history and appraise his relevance today. What comes across to the viewer is an ambience more than definitive concepts and associations. «Reference to Gyzis» works by intimation; it is a subtle evocation of a period in Greek art and culture. At the House of Exhibitions, Falatados, on Tinos. Through Sunday.

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