A museum pays homage to founder

The continuity of past into present and the great effects that one man’s commitment to culture and social causes has had through to the present are the ideas that resonate from a large, group painting exhibit organized by the Benaki Museum as part of a broader tribute to its founder Antonis Benakis (1873-1954), marking 50 years since his death. «Near Likeness: Approaches to a Portrait of Antonis Benakis» is the title of the exhibit that brings together almost 80 portraits of Antonis Benakis that Greek artists of different generations – a few exceptions include portraits of foreign artists who were Benakis’s contemporaries – provided on the occasion of this tribute by the museum. Arranged not in a chronological order but across different styles of portraiture (examples include the portraits as allegory or the conceptual portrait), the exhibition has its foundations in a touching concept yet runs the risk of repetition and cliche. With the exception of a few artists who were contemporaries of Benakis, the majority never met the philanthropist. They worked from photographs of him and other documents from the past to get a better feel for the life and personality of the man. This has led to some overlapping (one well-known image of Antonis Benakis comes up again and again) and, in some vague way, has also imparted the exhibit with a kind of melancholy that any attempt to enliven the past is almost certain to evoke. The distance of time cannot be easily bridged and the fact that most of the artists had not known Benakis and did not live in his time adds to this distance and rather melancholy mood. However, one can also view the exhibition as an exercise in different kinds of portraiture. (On January 18, the museum will hold a conference on the topic of portraiture in art.) Two pencil sketches by an artist by the name of Nikolay from 1922 with Antonis Benakis as a model are the exhibition’s earliest portraits, both set in an academic style and noteworthy for capturing a lively expression in the eye. A closeup portrait by contemporary artist Savvas Georgiadis also focuses on the sitter’s eyes for an immediate effect. Christos Bokoros offers an unusual depiction by painting a very realistic portrait of Benakis on the upper half of a long wooden plank, evoking Faiyum portraiture and, by extension, the artist’s life in Egypt. Alekos Levidis alludes to Benakis’s patriotism and vision by depicting him in a Greek fustanella, and standing over a column that bears a model of the Benaki Museum. The painting makes a reference to one of the most well-known photographs of Benakis. Artist Marios Spiliopoulos also used photographs of Benakis and his family at different stages of life. He has placed them on large wooden triptychs on which he has also painted. The effect is a nostalgic throwback in time. Some artists employ humor. The images of an artist known as Kem from the late 1920s are satirical sketches on the theme of art collecting and the social circles in which Benakis circulated. In the same line, contemporary artist Antonis Kyriakoulis pokes fun at the superficially highbrow aspirations of museum-goers. While some images try to capture broad themes and convey a contemporary relevance, others focus on the personality and contributions of Benakis. They all serve as reminders of a man whose vision has greatly enriched the cultural life of Greece and continues to do today. «Near Likeness: Approaches to a Portrait of Antonis Benakis» at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, 210.345.3111, through January 30.