Cultures of the past, a lively part of modern art

Modern art has been paired with novelty, yet none of the great modern artists was indifferent to the art and civilizations of the past. Enchanted by what they perceived as the purity and archetypal shapes of pre-classical art or non-Western, «primitive» art, artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Moore and Giacometti actually looked back to antiquity for inspiration. The past served a twofold purpose: It was a source of renewal in the hands of artists who wished to distance themselves from the staleness of academic art but also served as a refuge from postwar uncertainties. «Ghikas: Modernism and Tradition,» an exhibition that just opened at the Cyclades Gallery on Syros, examines the ways in which the relationship between modern art and «tradition» applies to the work of Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghikas, one of the pioneers of modernism in Greece. The exhibition is being held on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth (a large, retrospective exhibition is also planned for the end of the year at the Benaki Museum) and is organized by the Municipality of Ermoupolis and the art collector Costas Ioannidis in collaboration with the Benaki Museum and the Ghikas Gallery. Curator Bia Papadopoulou has gathered 77 works dated from the early 1930s to the artist’s late works from 1992 and shows that the artist’s involvement with the pre-war European avant-garde was parallel and interrelated with his interest in and study of the art of the past, particularly of the Greek past. In the well-researched and informative essay that is included in the exhibition’s catalog, Papadopoulou refers to the painter’s writings and brings to life the artistic scene of which Ghikas was a part, both in Paris and in Greece. Two of his Greek friends, Stratis Eleftheriades-Teriade, an art critic, publisher and artistic director of the surrealist review Minotaure for several years, and Christian Zervos, art critic and publisher of the famed review Cahiers d’Art, contributed to placing Ghikas at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde of the late 1920s and 30s. In 1927, Ghikas had his first one-man show in Paris. It was prefaced by Maurice Raynal and held at the same gallery that had featured the Russian constructivists as well as Picasso. Ghikas was a great admirer of Picasso and painted in the cubist style from early on in his career. (A tapestry that Ghikas made in the 70s, based on «Party by the Sea» from 1931, one of his earliest cubist works, is included in the exhibition.) In later paintings, he combined elements drawn from cubism with other stylistic idioms that range from fauvism to symbolism and constructivism. An artist whose work is heavily based on eclecticism, Ghikas also studied the art of ancient, non-Western civilizations. «Egyptian Mask» from 1944 is an example of his interest in the Egyptian civilization. The drawings he submitted in 1941 to Athens Polytechnic as part of an application for a teaching position were also based on the art of different cultures of the past. Greek art, from ancient times to Byzantine and folk traditions, also stimulated his imagination. From the mid-30s, when he returned to Greece, Ghikas became involved in the search for a Greek, national identity, a quest that was largely triggered by the Asia Minor disaster and was to prevail in the cultural milieu of the time. The review To Trito Mati (The Third Eye), which Ghikas co-founded with the architect Dimitris Pikionis, the painter Spyros Papaloukas, the writer Stratis Doukas and the director Socratis Karantinos, put forward this idea of Greekness which it also linked with modernism. Just like the Cahiers d’Art publication on which it was largely modeled, the review made connections between modern, innovative art and the art of the past by juxtaposing, for example, works by Giacometti or Picasso with ancient Cycladic idols. Both in his work and his writings, Ghikas underlined the cultural continuity between ancient Greek, Byzantine and folk art and blended aspects from each with modernism. The influence of Byzantine art and of the Karaghiozis puppet theater is, for example, evident in the drawing of a set design that Ghikas made for the Matei ballets in 1952. Other works in the exhibition display references to Greek antiquity. There are drawings of ancient sculptures from the site of Delphi and a large selection of the drawings that Ghikas made for the illustration of an edition of «The Odyssey» that was translated by Nikos Kazantzakis in the late 30s. For Ghikas, antiquity, Byzantine and folk art formed an inseparable, lively cultural resource that modern artists could use to create original, contemporary works. This is the concept around which both Ghikas and most of the key figures of modern art in the mid-30s built their work. And, this is what makes his work relevant both to the history of Greek and international art. The Syros exhibition points out that underlying principle and therefore helps place the work in a broader, cultural context. «Ghikas: Modernism and Tradition» at the Cyclades Gallery, Ermoupolis, Syros, through August 28.