Rare show of 20th century Greek art

Besides museum collections, some of the most important works in the history of Greek painting are found in private art collections. This is why the public can’t see them, unless the works appear in some auction or are presented on loan in the context of a larger exhibition. This is what makes the first public presentation of the Alpha Bank Greek art collection such a special occasion; it’s an opportunity for people to access the important works of Greek art as well as view them in the context of a single, cohesive collection. The exhibition, which opens at the Pireos Street branch of the Benaki Museum a week from today, draws from the collection of Alpha Bank – a total of 5,000 works (paintings, sculpture and engravings) of Greek artists from the late 19th century to the present. The exhibition marks the 125th anniversary since the foundation of Credit Bank and the 165th anniversary of Ionian Bank, the two banks that merged into Alpha Bank in 2000. The exhibition is curated by Irini Orati, curator of the bank’s art collection, and designed by Stamatis Zannos. It is also supplemented by a copious catalog available both in English and Greek. Structured chronologically, the exhibition begins with works of the so-called School of Munich, the great Greek masters of academic painting who studied in the Academy of Munich during the second half of the late 19th century. One of the greatest strengths in the collection is a number of impressive seascapes by the great maritime painter Constantinos Volanakis. Among them, a view of the Keratios Gulf painted in 1886-90 seems like one of the artist’s more unusual works. Roughly dating from the same period but completely different in style and concept are the beautiful drawings of another great master, Nikolaos Gyzis, perhaps the most representative painter of the School of Munich. «The New Century» from 1895-95 is an allegory of the arts heralding the dawn of a new century and, like most paintings by Gyzis from the period, is heavily influenced by symbolism. If the School of Munich formed the basis for Greek art, the artists of the interwar period prepared the ground for Greek modernism. Constantinos Parthenis, one of the pioneers of modern developments in art, is represented in the exhibition by a set of lovely paintings, typical of his style in their pastel colours, elongated forms and barely visible forms. «Orpheus and Euridice» is one of the most remarkable works and also reminiscent of symbolist art. There are also a number of paintings by Constantinos Maleas and a varied selection of landscapes (from the artist’s series of Byzantine sites or views of Mytilene) by Spyros Papaloukas from the 1920s. The bright chromatic hues and color contrasts set Papaloukas’s paintings apart from most of the other landscapes of the period. The exhibition moves to works by artists of the so-called «Thirties Generation.» Two impressive large paintings by the naif painter Theophilos (one of them is a wall painting that has been removed from its site) signal the interest in Greek themes and Greek national identity that is said to describe much of the art of this generation. The exhibition gradually moves on to the postwar period. In some cases, early and later works by the same artist allow for interesting comparisons in each artist’s style. When compared to his view of Athens from the early 1970s, for example, Spyros Vassileiou’s depiction of Arditos Hill from 1930 hardly looks as if it was made by the same hand. Contrasting differences in style are also noticeable in an unusual landscape painted by pioneer of abstraction Yiannis Spyropoulos when compared to one of his typical darkly colored abstract paintings from the early 1960s. Among the works from the period, the collection includes a large, captivating Alekos Kontopoulos painting that shows an abstract depiction of a gate; the bright orange color of the painting’s background is striking. Works by artists who have become associated with an earlier period in Greek art also spill into the exhibition’s contemporary section. Examples include «Young Woman,» a painting by the Thirties Generation painter Yiannis Moralis. It is an unusual painting, less abstract and tectonic than most of the artist’s other works, and shows the elegant, geometrically shaped body of a reclining woman. There is also a fine selection of Theodoros Stamos’s «Infinity Field» series from the 1970s. In these paintings, expanses of a single color obtain a throbbing effect and endow the canvas with a pulsating yet calming effect. A use of color that manages to convey the striking effects of light defines the work of Panayiotis Tetsis and his three large paintings included in the collection. Other artists represented in the exhibition include Chryssa, Yiorgos Zoggolopoulos, Pavlos, Stephen Antonakos, Takis, Froso Michalea, Anni Costopoulou (sister of Yiannis Costopoulos, the president of Alpha Bank), Evridiki and Daphne Costopoulou (mother and cousin of Costopoulos), Yiorgos Lappas, Costas Tsoklis and Lucas Samaras, to name just a few. The exhibition ends with a selection of engravings. The largest and strongest part of the engravings collection originally belonged to the Ionian Bank art collection. When the banks merged, so did the collections. Happily, there were no jarring contrasts and the collection as a unified whole turned out to be a smooth continuation from one period of Greek art to the next. One of the most worthwhile aspects of the exhibition is that it puts across the personality of each artist’s style and manages to show the variations in Greek art. This is achieved both in the way the works are arranged to create interesting juxtapositions and how each artist is represented by more than one work of art (and, in many cases, several). This takes away the fragmentary understanding of the history of art – a trap every survey exhibition tends to fall into. At the New Wing of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos, 210.345.3111) from 12/10 – 20/11.