After 75 years, the work of Sabbides is rediscovered

The back of a woman’s head, neck and shoulders is not exactly the most stereotypical, nor the most flattering angle from which to paint a portrait. «Caprice,» which is the title of a painting by the late 19th century artist Symeon Sabbides, stands between the familiar and the strange, the modern and the classic. It is a figurative painting, a portrait one might say, yet its focus is light and color, not subject-matter. Approximating modern and abstract art, it does not reveal the sitter’s eyes yet communicates a sense of intimacy and atmosphere that competes with the most expressive gaze. «Caprice» is hard to place within a genre. It is an unusual work made by an unusual artist. Symeon Sabbides (1859-1927), one of the most esteemed artists of the so-called «School of Munich» painters, does not fall into the academic, conventional painting that he was trained in. Defying the strictures of genre painting that prevailed in the Academy of Munich, he dropped out one year before completing his studies and pursued committed, in-depth research into the properties of colors. His idiosyncatic work may very well be why his paintings never attracted great attention, either commercially or scholarly, although as an exhibition on his work – curated by Marilena Kasimati at the National Gallery – shows, it well deserved both. Sabbides painted mostly small-sized pictures, not eye-catching large compositions. Sophisticated and esoteric, his work is addressed to the discerning eye and will not satisfy a surface reading. Intrigued by the intimacy of his paintings and Sabbides’s scientific approach to the properties of color, Marilena Kasimati, who is art historian and curator at the National Gallery, began systematic research on the artist’s work back in 1998 when she stumbled upon one of his treatises on the subject of color (together with other essays it belongs to the National Gallery’s archives). Kasimati’s studious and insightful interpretation of the artist’s work led to the large retrospective on Symeon Sabbides (the only other large exhibition on the artist’s work was in 1931), an exhibition that includes 200 paintings and an equal number of drawings. Exhibition curator Kasimati is also author of a monograph on the artist to be released shortly by Adam publications. Although Sabbides’s art does not safely fit one style or genre, his work can be roughly divided into an initial orientalist phase and a later interest in outdoor scenes and a post-impressionistic use of color from around 1894 to the end of his life. The subject-matter changes from one period to the next, but his subtlety and the warm – at times even sensual – yet suave way that Sabbides sees the world remains the same. His paintings of the Orient – views of a city or people in their domestic space – are not painted from the distant perspective of a westerner. Unlike many other orientalist painters whose knowledge of the Orient were limited to what they saw in photographs, Sabbides was actually born in Asia Minor, as a Greek of the Black Sea region, and traveled extensively in that part of the world. From Asia Minor he went to Chalki to study commerce, following his father’s wishes, but because of his talent in drawing he was sent to the Athens Polytechnic to learn architecture under Ernst Ziller. Banker Stefanos Zafeiropoulos, whom he met in Athens, sent him on a scholarship to study painting in Munich, then a center of art and the city where most talented Greek artists would go for higher learning. (King Otto’s Bavarian roots had made Munich the most common destination). In the late 19th century, when Sabbides was already in Munich, orientalism was one of the most prevalent and commercially successful trends in painting. Sabbides’s paintings fall within that trend, yet do not view the East in terms of folklore or exoticism but focus on the intimacy of daily chores and take a human-oriented approach. As Kasimati aptly points out, Sabbides does not frame his subject-matter in a stage-like setting but offers an informal point of view as seen from the inside. Instead of intricate, peopled scenes, Sabbides focuses on a single figure and searches for the sitter’s inner world. Women are his preferred gender. Both in his orientalist phase and later paintings, ladies and female nudes are depicted with a loving and probing eye. Subject matter remains, however, secondary. Sabbides’s main concern lay with color and light. He was one of the few artists to use daring juxtapositions of color (combinations of cold hues with warm hues) and the only Greek artist to examine the theory of art, particularly of color. Influenced by late 19th century positivism, he took a scientific approach to painting and among other projects, actually developed a forecast calculation based on his observations of the changes in the sky’s color. His notes, essays and paintings are all the outcome of systematic observations of physical phenomena, a concerted effort to document the way that light and color defines, shapes or describes moods. Pretty pictures that reproduced the world were not his priority. Sabbides was – according to the exhibition’s curatorial position – a searching artist ahead of his time and well outside the conventions of academic painting. Visitors to the National Gallery will discover a modern painter, a great draughtsmanship that looked at small details and below the surface both for the human emotions and the rules that make up our physical world. «Symeon Sabbides,» to June 26. At the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, 210.723.5937).