The Paris-Athens connection

A Cubist-like composition that Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghikas painted of houses in an arid landscape – probably of a Greek island – is juxtaposed next to «Sacre-coeur,» another Cubist painting, this time by Pablo Picasso, Ghikas’s senior by 25 years. The similarity is striking and the fact that Ghikas spent much of his early career in France partly explains the influence of Cubism on his work. Ghikas was not alone in assimilating the artistic currents of Paris in his work. Practically all Greek artists from the late 19th century (Munich was another major artistic center for Greeks at the time) to the mid-20th century period turned to the European cultural metropolis for their inspiration. The examples they drew and the way in which they synthesized the various stylistic currents in their work are unfolded in «Paris- Athens, 1863-1940,» a large, gratifying exhibition which opened recently at the National Gallery. Conceived by the gallery’s director, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, and realized by a team of the museum’s curators (Olga Mentzafou, who is also in charge of the catalog, as well as Efi Agathonikou, Maria Katsanaki, Marilena Kasimati, Nafsika Litsardopoulou and Lina Tsikouta), the exhibition includes more than 200 works as well as a large section of engravings by some of the biggest names in Greek and French art. Maurice Denis, Alexandre Cabanel, Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse are among the 60 French artists represented, and most of the works are presented in pairs to underline the effect that French art – including post-impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, symbolism, Les Nabis, abstraction, metaphysical painting, Dada and surrealism – had on the Greek artists. Compared to the effect that the Munich Academy of Fine Arts had on the development of Greek painting (on the so-called School of Munich generation of academic painters) in the mid- and late 19th century, the Parisian connection is much broader both chronologically and stylistically. This may be why it has not been adequately studied until now. One of the National Gallery’s objectives is to provide a realistic and unidealized understanding of the topic. One of its goals is to challenge the long-held notion that contrasts the Munich and Parisian-inspired Greek art, placing the first in the ranks of conservative, academic painting and the latter as synonymous with the modern and the avant-garde. An example is Thodoros Rallis, an orientalist painter who studied under Jean-Leon Gerome. The juxtaposition of his large, light-suffused paintings with that of Gerome or Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant are among the most impressive in the National Gallery exhibition. The academic tradition is definitely there and in some ways, Rallis’s paintings resemble the genre scenes of Nikiforos Lytras (a School of Munich painter). The exhibition begins its story in 1863, the year of the controversial Salon des Refuses. This date symbolizes the rift between academic and modern art in Paris and the resignation of King Otto in Greece, a turning point for the country’s history. Apparently, the flow of Greek artists into Paris increased after 1870, a period of cultural growth for the French capital. The case of Grigorios Soutzos, who lived in Paris earlier, is among the exhibition’s small revelations and the supposed effect that he had on his younger painter Edgar Degas is one of the exhibition’s few examples that shows the direct impact of a Greek on a French artist. Nikolaos Xydias was also in Paris before 1870 and actually exhibited at the Salon des Refuses. His large mythological and allegorical scenes are shown together with those of Ioannis Doukas and juxtaposed with those of Alexandre Cabanel and Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry. More along the developments of modern art, one will find some small, fine paintings by Pericles Pantazis (he only spent a few months in France) next to paintings by Edouard Manet, Eugene Boudin and Gustave Courbet. The elegance of Belle Epoque Paris typifies the portraits and urban scenes of Pavlos Mathiopoulos, a favorite painter among the Athenian haute-bourgeoisie. The parallelism with Jean Beraud is one of the most befitting. In the first decades of the 20th century, Paris attracted an even greater number of international artists. In the exhibition, the frieze-like, allegorical paintings of Constantinos Parthenis, a pioneering figure for the development of Greek art, is presented together with those of his contemporary Maurice Denis who at the time had painted the ceiling of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. A blend of symbolism and of the style developed by Les Nabis suggests an eclectic, distinctive visual language. Parthenis was a teacher for many of the Thirties Generation Greek artists who studied in Paris in the interwar period. Dimitris Galanis, a Greek artist who was already well integrated in the Parisian artistic scene from the beginning of the century, introduced many of them to the latest artistic currents. Galanis was a close friend of Andre Derain and in «Paris-Athens» nudes and portraits by both artists make a connection with the portraits of Yiannis Moralis or Orestis Kanellis. Paintings by Yiannis Tsarouchis and Diamantis Diamantopoulos are paired together with compositions by Henri Matisse. Except for the use of vividly contrasting colors and not counting the fact that Tsarouchis had once said that his work looks like that of Matisse, the connection between Fauvism and the art of the Thirties Generation painting is not as convincing as other links made in the exhibition. Perhaps the inclusion of explanatory panels would have helped deepen the understanding behind the connections made and guide the viewer through what is an abundance of good painting. Still, «Paris-Athens» remains a pleasure to the eye and an incentive for further reading into the development of Greek art. At the National Gallery (44 Alexandrou Soutzou, 210.723.5937) through March 31. Eurobank-Private Banking is the exhibition’s sponsor.

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