One man’s vision of Greece, tourism and the avant-garde

During the interwar period and just before dictator Ioannis Metaxas rose to power, a man by the name of Hercule Joannides envisioned an exclusive, culture-oriented voyage to Greece that would help focus the attention of the French intelligentsia and haute bourgeoisie on the country of his origin. His idea was to draw a picture of Greece as a destination that could open up a unique cultural experience, an experience that was, moreover, tuned into modernity and the European avant-garde. With this purpose in mind, Joannides, who was director of the Neptos Society, representatives of the Leonidas Embiricos shipping line, engineered «Le Voyage en Grece,» a publication that was available to the high-profile passengers of Patris II, a Neptos cruise ship that traveled from France to Greece twice a year. (Besides the cruise, it also plied the regular route between Marseilles and Piraeus.) The review, which was issued from 1934-1939 (a final edition was issued in 1946), was in essence a form of sophisticated cultural propaganda well tailored to the spirit of the European avant-garde. Primarily focused on art and aesthetics, it featured contributions by and essays on the work of some of the most esteemed, mostly French, artists and intellectuals of the period: Le Corbusier, Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Prevert, Fernard Leger, Francois Mauriac, Michel Leiris and Fred Boissonnas. Joannides, who had conceived of the magazine and was the man who financed it, appointed Greek art critic Stathis Eleftheriades-Teriade as the magazine’s artistic director and worked closely with him in creating a forum for the arts. Le Voyage en Grece served as a liaison between France and Greece and was a means of rejuvenating the phillhellenic sentiments of the French, which were severely ruptured after World War I. Seen today, it is also an engaging reflection of how Greece was viewed by the European avant-garde in the interwar period. The perspective of Greece that the French intelligentsia and the avant-garde had during this period was the subject of an engaging conference that took place recently at the Ecole Francaise d’Athenes (EFA). Coordinated by Sophie Basch, professor at the University of Poitiers and Alexandre Farnoux and professor in ancient history of art at Sorbonne-Paris IV, the conference brought together specialists in diverse fields – archaeology, art history, literature, history and architecture – to discuss the vision that the French, and particularly the French avant-garde, of the interwar period had of Greece – as seen through the contents of Le Voyage en Grece. What at first appears odd about the magazine is that it makes no references to contemporary Greek art and literature, with the exception of Theophilos. Seen in the context of the avant-garde’s ahistorical perspective, this absence does however begin to make sense. Alexandre Farnoux, who spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the conference and Le Voyage en Grece, explained that European artists and intellectuals had painted an image of Greece as a place offering an experience outside the specifics of time and place. Classical Greece was heavily associated with academic conservatism and for that reason did not interest them. Folk culture did not interest them either, because, Farnoux explained, it was seen as the proof of a continuity with the past and history. Of all the periods in Greek civilization, it is the Neolithic and Archaic periods that captured their imagination. They were the closest that Western civilization had come to the primitive, of something that lay outside the linear flow of history. Interestingly, the dates of the pictures published in the magazine are left out of the captions. The idea was to put across an archetypal image of Greece, an eternal, unchanging one that transcended history. A rather abstract image, it blends art, nature and people into a mythic concept and is meant to afford an authentic experience to the visitor. By combining tourism and culture, Le Voyage en Grece offered something entirely new at the time. Part of its success lay in this novelty. The other part lay in its echoing the interwar cultural mood in France and the prevailing perception of Greece as a place outside history. When history entered the magazine, it faltered. The issue that came out in 1946 featured the ravages of war and revolved around the idea of sacrifice. It was a foreign perception of Greece and completely different from the one in previous issues. This is how the story of Le Voyage en Grece came to a close. It is a fascinating story that provides a valuable insight both into tourism and the cultural values of the interwar period. The «Le Voyage en Grece» conference was organized by the Ecole Francaise d’Athenes, the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Institut Universitaire de France, Universite de Poitiers and the French Institute in Athens.