A genre painter with an eye for emotions

The tormented artist who goes through hardships, leads a bohemian life and is recognized mostly after his death, may still be considered to fit the typical image of the late 19th and early 20th century artist. Yet, at the time, there were plenty of artists who lay outside this legend: artists who were not pushed to the margins of society and who actually experienced much success and fame during their lifetime. Giorgos Iakovidis, the late 19th century painter and one of the most classic names in Greek art history, is such an example. He was highly esteemed, earned a comfortable living from the countless commissions that he received, was given awards and was also appointed to public positions: He became the first director of the then newly established National Gallery in 1900 and taught at the Athens School of Fine Arts for 30 years. For many, the success of Iakovidis is ascribed to his academic and conservative yet highly skilled style. True, Iakovidis was not in the artistic avant-garde, did not take great risks or bring forth innovations, probably because he did not care to do so. Yet, he was an excellent draftsman and an artist who mixed and handled with imagination the academic, accepted styles that he was trained in at the Munich Academy of Arts during the last quarter of the 19th century. More than anything else, he was a man with an unusual talent for observing and painting the expression of emotions in the face and body language of his sitters. He was also an artist who showed the warmth of domestic, rural life, celebrated the tender relationship between elders and their grandchildren and made children and their world a serious and engaging subject matter for art. The full gamut of this artist’s talent is revealed in a retrospective exhibition of his work being held until the end of January at the National Gallery and curated by Olga Mentzafou. One of the most esteemed artists of the so-called School of Munich painters (the milieu of Greek artists who studied in the Academy of Munich from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th), Iakovidis was principally a genre painter who became known as a painter of children. His famous «Children’s Symphony» a lively, domestic scene of barefoot, raucous youngsters «performing» their musical skills in front of two elders, «The First Steps» in which a baby takes his first steps with the help of his grandmother, and «The Loved One,» the portrait of a grandfather looking adoringly at his granddaughter playing in his lap are just a few of the works that show Iakovidis’s penchant for producing images of domestic tranquility and idyllic family scenes. There is an interesting mix of realism and idealism. The exactitude with which Iakovidis paints the smallest detail and his skill in capturing all the subtleties in facial expression and body movement infuse his paintings with the vivacity of real life. It is in this sense that Iakovidis is a realist; he is not interested in making social observations, which is what realism did as a movement in mid-19th century art. On the contrary, Iakovidis isolates his subject matter from its social milieu and even when he paints young laborers, his point is not to make a social critique. His paintings of children show the innocence of those still unconstrained by social conventions in their behavior. His paintings are about the security of family life, the stages of life that develop within the protection of a familial environment and the genuine, untroubled existence of rural life. Nature, maternity and childhood innocence are all part of an idyllic and idealized existence, a notion that reflects the values of German society in the late 19th century. (Dimitra Makrinioti’s essay in the exhibition’s supplementing catalog offers an insightful analysis.) In this type of genre painting, Iakovidis was influenced by his fine arts teacher Nikiforos Lytras as well as by the German realist artist Wilhelm Leibl, who promoted regional characteristics, folk customs and natural virtues into issues worthy of artistic concern. During the last decade of the 19th century, the influence of French open-air painting comes into the work of Iakovidis. His palette becomes lighter, the brushstrokes less dense and his portraits are often set in outdoor settings. Iakovidis had always been extremely dexterous at rendering the effects of light on his subject. This, together with the psychological depth and liveliness of his portraits and children’s scenes, are perhaps the most outstanding aspects of his work. His talent in portraying light comes through in one of his lesser paintings, a still life with peaches; the painting radiates with a glow that makes the image come to life. Iakovidis was also a highly accomplished portraitist. Upon his return to Greece in 1900, all the members of the haute Athenian bourgeoisie wished to be painted by him. The portraits on the lower level of the National Gallery are indicative of the demand. Among them, portraits of King George I and Queen Sofia prove the artist’s popularity in society’s higher echelons. Compared to the portraits of children playing outdoors or being cared for by their family’s elders, these portraits provide a different angle on life. Yet, the psychological depth of the portraits and the vividness of the sitter’s gaze is still there. It shows that even in his commissioned paintings and within the confines of conventional portraiture, an artist of the talent and skill of Iakovidis can turn an image into something far more moving and generic than a mirror of the sitter. Iakovidis may be widely considered a skillful yet conservative artist, but the National Gallery exhibition is perhaps an occasion to revise such stereotypical notions and to realize that our image of the avant-garde, innovative artist can be just as limiting as that of the academic, conservative painter. «Giorgos Iakovidis, Retrospective,» at the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, tel 210.723.5937), through January 30.

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