CULTURE

Praising life’s beauty in war and peace

Ironically, times of war have enriched the history of photography by producing some of the most compelling images in its history. But they have also inspired photographers to use their art, not only toward aesthetic ends but for a vital social function. The images of human pain and hope in the face of tragedy that the great Greek photographer Voula Papaioannou captured during World War II in Greece are among the most moving documentations of war in the history of photography. But besides their aesthetic value and their significance for documenting history, these images played a humanitarian role at the very time they were produced by sensitizing international humanitarian organizations to send food and financial support to Greece. This double role in the work of Voula Papaioannou comes through in a wonderful and large presentation of her work held at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum. Conceived by the Photographic Archives Department of the Benaki Museum – which owns Papaioannou’s archives – the exhibition is being held on the occasion of the 13th Month of Photography, the established annual event that is organized by the Hellenic Center of Photography and includes photographic exhibition throughout Athens. A voluminous publication on Papaioannou’s work has been published on the occasion by Agra publications in collaboration with the Photographic Archives of the Benaki Museum. The chronological structure of the exhibition follows the work of Papaioannou from the beginning of her photographic career in the mid-1930s through the early 1960s. All along, it tells the story of modern Greece and captures some of the most dramatic moments in its modern history. The first photographs that Papaioannou took were of Greek antiquities and the Greek landscape. They often combine the two to suggest a cultural continuum from the past to the present and promote an «archetypal,» «eternal» image of Greece in which the past, art and nature exist in one uninterrupted whole. In the vein of the photographs of Nelly’s or Herbert List, these early images reflect the cultural policy of the Metaxas regime and its concerted effort to promote the country as a tourist and cultural destination. The idealized images of antiquities and the Greek landscape share nothing with the human-oriented war photography of the later period for which Papaioannou became known. Yet the life and sense of movement that the photographer brings into ancient sculptures (she was commissioned to photograph the holdings of the National Archaeological Museum) are an early expression of her talent in capturing human expression and emotions. The declaration of war in 1940 marks a turning point in Papaioannou’s work. The photographs she took document the lives of the civilians or of the wounded soldiers that returned home. They show men mobilized for war, civilians waiting in line for mess or wounded soldiers offered aid by the Red Cross. With the help of her friend Amalia Lykourezou, who worked for the Near East Foundation, Papaioannou secretly sent many of those images to international humanitarian organizations, asking that help be given to Greeks. Some of those images are excruciating. The series of portraits that show the starved faces of children, men and women show cruelty in all its blatant, inhuman force. They are almost too harsh to face. The images from the 1944 liberation retrace the course of history on a more hopeful path. In the images of that period, there is hope and celebration but also the irreparable, traumatic vestiges of war. The mass graves in Kaisariani, where relatives have arrived to identify members of their family, is one of the most macabre scenes and an allusion to the Dekemvriana, the month-long bloody civil war between the leftists and the right-wing government. Right after the war, Papaioannou became director of the photographic department of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She also worked for the American Mission for Aid in Greece and the Economic Cooperation Administration. From that post, she traveled throughout Greece photographing the repercussions of war with the purpose of gathering international aid. Her images show the slow, painful recuperation of a poor nation. Many of them feature children, one of Papaioannou’s favorite subjects, which is here treated as a sign of hope for a better future. By the 1950s, there is no trace of postwar pain. Papaioannou began to work for the Greek National Tourism Organization and together with the Swiss Guilde de Livre publishing house, produced albums on the photographs she took of the Greek landscape and islands. The images of Greek antiquities, the brightness that natural light has in Greece and the soothing quality of the Mediterranean landscape remind one of the photographs that Papaioannnou took in the 1930s. Yet the presence of man and his ties to nature are far more evident in this later body of work. The ode-like quality and deep respect to human existence that was so prevalent in her photographs from the war period has found its way in those photographs of postwar Greece. They serve as an epilogue to the work of an artist who, in times of both war and peace, praised the beauty of life and defended its value. «The Photographer Voula Papaioannou, 1898-1990» from the Photographic Archives of the Benaki Museum, at the Pireos annex of the Benaki (138 Pireos, 210 345.31.11) to Dec 3. Open Wed, Thur, Sun 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Fri, Sat 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (www.benaki.gr)