Greek art in European context

During the first part of the 20th century, Paris was the city where artists from all over the world wanted to be: An artistic metropolis and a center for avant-garde developments in art, this was where artists pursued their training and strove for international exposure. For most Greek painters, leaving for Paris after studies in Athens was almost standard. Many of them stayed in the city for years; once back in Greece, they were credited with introducing European avant-garde experimentations to their country and with helping to modernize Greek art. But except for this sweeping and often simplistic understanding of these artists’ work in pioneering modernism in Greece, it is often the case that their work has not been studied in detail and, more importantly, has not been appraised within the context of wider European developments. If many of those artists were indeed pioneers of modern art for Greece, how important were they in an international context? This is the task that a freshly published book addresses in respect to the work of Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghika, one of the most eminent Greek artists of the 1930s and ’40s. «Ghikas and the Avant-Garde in Interwar Europe» – the title of the book-album – has been published by Efessos in cooperation with the Benaki Museum in anticipation of a major exhibition on the artist’s work to be held at the Benaki Museum. Based upon an idea by the museum’s director, Angelos Delivorrias, the book examines in detail the works that the artist produced during his stay in Paris from 1921-34 and appraises them against the background of the Parisian avant-garde artistic scene of the time. In contrast to most of his contemporaries, Ghika went to Paris at a very early age, when he was just 13. He was sent by his parents to school in Paris but a year later returned to Greece. As early as his teens, he received painting lessons from the eminent painter Constantinos Parthenis. In the early 1920s, he left again for Paris, this time to study literature at the Sorbonne. Once there, he also registered at the Ranson Fine Arts Academy, where he studied painting under Roger Bissiere and engraving under Greek artist Dimitris Galanis. Ghika had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1927. Apparently, Stratis Elefteriadis-Teriade, his compatriot and an influential person in the arts (he was a collaborator of Christian Zervos at the prestigious art periodical Cahiers d’ Art and was later to become a celebrated publisher of luxurious art books), wrote an extensive article on the occasion of the show. This marks the beginning of a career marked by active involvement in the Parisian artistic scene. This involvement is the book’s focus. Art historian Jean-Pierre de Rycke traces in detail Ghika’s artistic development during his years in Paris and draws comparisons between the artist’s paintings and those of some of the greatest masters of the time, among them Picasso, Matisse and de Chirico. Visual juxtapositions help make the author’s point clearer: The geometric structures and flat compositions typical of Ghika’s work in the mid-1930s, for instance, are seen as stylistically akin to paintings by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, and carry the influence of purism. Before returning to Greece, Ghika helped organize the Fourth International Congress on Architecture in Greece, an internationally significant event that shed light on how the avant-garde viewed Greece and interpreted its culture. In the book, one reads about the significance of the congress and gains an understanding into how the work of Ghika fits within the greater outlook that the European artistic milieu had of Greece during the interwar period. There follows an extensive essay by N.P. Paissios on the works Ghika produced in Greece during 1935-1950. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the artist’s years in Paris and the emphasis is on proving that Ghika was a «European» artist, in tune with the most advanced currents of the time and well-received by the artistic scene in Paris. Reviews that were written on Ghika’s works during the ’20s and ’30s by Maurice Raynal, Christian Zervos and Teriade are included in the book to substantiate Ghika’s involvement in the avant-garde milieu of Paris. Coupled with a detailed account of the artist’s exhibitions, the inclusion of the reviews in the book show an attempt at making an objective, well-documented criticism of Ghika’s work. Angelos Delivorrias writes an extensive essay on the book’s concept. Clearly favoring the artist’s work, he goes to great lengths to refute the skeptical criticism that art historian Nikos Hadzinikolaou has made of the work of Ghika. Delivorrias also raises a series of important issues related to the international exposure of Greek art. He regrets the superficial way in which Greek art is reviewed in foreign publications and ascribes part of the responsibility to Greek cultural politics. Delivorrias’s argument places the pertinence of the book in a contemporary context. It informs the reader of the difficulties that curators and museums face in organizing exhibitions on the work of Greek artists abroad. A systematic and in-depth analysis of the work of Greek artists would be one way of gradually overcoming such difficulties. This is what makes the book on Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghika a valuable tool not only for understanding his work but for opening up new possibilities for Greek art in the future.