Greek art traces its cultural identity

In a photo-collage from the late 1930s, the distinguished photographer Nelly’s combined images of some of the most important sculptures of classical Greek antiquity with portraits from Greece’s rural population. The photograph is probably one of the most extreme expressions of an ideology that professed a cultural continuity and prevailed in Greece throughout the interwar period. In their effort to build a solid cultural identity that was quintessentially Greek, artists and intellectuals were reinventing their country’s cultural past and establishing different degrees of connections between tradition and the modern. For many of the so-called «Thirties Generation» artists, the avant-garde was not a rift with tradition, but a natural continuation of it. This explains how Teriade – a Greek intellectual in the midst of the Parisian avant-garde – discovered the naif painter Theophilos and proclaimed him as Greece’s Henri Rousseau, or why Fotis Kontoglou found elements of modern art in Byzantine religious painting. «The Search for Modernity: The Transition to Greekness» is an exhibition that explores this connection between the past and present, tradition and modernity, a relationship that is considered to have defined the art of the Thirties Generation. Held at the Portalakis collection exhibition hall, it presents works (all from the Portalakis collection) painted by three seminal artists of that generation: Yiannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989), Diamantis Diamantopoulos (1914-1995) and Nikos Engonopoulos (1907-1985). Giorgos Bouzianis (1885-1959), whose works are also included in the exhibition, did not share the same concern about a Greek identity as the other three artists and indeed belonged to an older generation. Yet the modern style of his work served as an example for many Greek artists who emerged in the mid-1930s. At the time, Bouzianis, who was enjoying a successful career in Germany, was promised a professorship at the Athens School of Fine Arts. The promise was not kept and the art of Bouzianis would not be acknowledged until 15 years later. Even though this was a time when Greece was receptive to modern developments in art, the artistic establishment was still unprepared for the sophistication of Bouzianis’s expressionistic style. Moreover, the search for «Greekness» sometimes clashed with the quest for modernity. This is one of the points explored by art theorist George-Byron Davos in his thorough and scholarly essays presented in the exhibition catalog. Davos describes the political and social context in which the new ideology and aesthetics developed and uses many examples from Greek interwar literature to illustrate his point. His essay provides a useful appraisal on the topic of ellinikotita (Greekness), reveals both its conservative and progressive aspects and helps cultivate understanding about a subject that is often examined in simplistic, cliched terms. Of all the works in the exhibition, it is the paintings of Tsarouchis that seem the most «Greek,» mostly because of their subject matter. In the frieze-like painting «Tsamikos and Zeibekikos» from 1971, young soldiers and sailors are dancing against a background that resembles a set design. The painting is an ode to masculine youth (influences from the poetry of C.P. Cavafy can be traced in the work of many of that generation) and Greek folklore (laiko). From his teacher Fotis Kontoglou, Tsarouchis had picked up the flatness of Byzantine painting, a style that was seen as pertinent to the flatness and schematic compositions of modern art. Tsarouchis had also designed sets for the theater of Karolos Koun and carried the horizontal, frontal arrangement of theater sets into his work. In his paintings, Tsarouchis also incorporated influences from Western, renaissance painting. «Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,» from 1970, is one of the clearest examples of how Tsarouchis appropriated Western themes and placed them in a Greek context. Elements from Byzantine painting, especially in the use of color and lack of perspective, is also apparent in the work of the surrealist poet Nikos Engonopoulos, who had actually depicted himself as a Byzantine saint in a self-portrait from 1939. Engonopoulos made references to Greek antiquity – one example being «Heracles» from 1959 – but was heavily inspired by surrealism and Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical period paintings. Even though modernity and Greekness were paired together to suggest connections and continuity, his art was apparently considered too daring for its time and not properly recognized. This is also true of Diamantis Diamantopoulos, an artist who chose to stay on the fringe of the artistic establishment for more than 25 years. «The Sketch,» a portrait of a man reading a book, is one of the most impressive works of the exhibition. Compared to the works of Tsarouchis or Engonopoulos, there is nothing openly «Greek» about the artist’s paintings. Diamantopoulos was more interested in the actual properties of painting, in volume, color and line. Between the «quest of modernity» and the «transition to Greekness,» his art was inclined toward the former. However, his work is still part of the complex cultural phenomenon that developed in the interwar period and in which an entire generation of artists was fostered. Rooted in a need to establish a national, cultural identity that had been severely threatened by the Asia Minor disaster, this phenomenon cultivated an awareness that had a profound effect on future generations. The exhibition of the Portalakis collection indicates both its significance and complexity. «The Search for Modernity: The Transition to Greekness» at the Portalakis collection exhibition hall (8 Pesmazoglou, 210.331.8933) to 31/7.

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