Honoring the Greek landscape

After a visit to Greece during the mid-1950s, Albert Camus wrote of how impressed he was with the Greek light. «For me, Greece is a big, bright day,» he noted. Camus was not the only intellectual to have remarked on the distinctive quality of sunlight in Greece. Especially during the summer months, the brightness renders colors pale and makes shapes lose their weight and volume. Spyros Papaloukas (1892-1957) was an artist captivated by that effect. Throughout his remarkable work, he explored color and light in the Greek landscape. The wonderful, large exhibition on his work which opened a couple of months ago at the Vassilis and Marina Theocharakis Foundation for the Visual Arts and Music, shows the profound understanding that Papaloukas had for the Greek landscape, his favorite subject. The exhibition is curated by Takis Mavrotas and includes works that Mina Papalouka, the daughter of the artist, had donated to the foundation which now owns the greatest number of the artist’s oeuvre. The work of Spyros Papaloukas is usually classified according to the places he visited and the landscapes he painted. It begins with small paintings of Aegina and ends with the paintings of Hydra from the mid-1950s. Landscapes from Mount Athos, where Papaloukas spent a year in 1923, are followed by views of Mytilene and Salamina. There are also the paintings of Paros from 1948, a distinctive entity singled out for the wonderful use of cobalt blue painted in broad, horizontal, sweeping lines across the canvas. In these works abstraction, which Papaloukas explored throughout his work, reaches its fullest expression. «Landscape is the genre that allows me to define and appraise all the potential of painting…» he wrote. Besides the landscapes, portraits and still lifes make up another important part of his work. For Papaloukas the Greek landscape was unique. «The vision of the Greek landscape develops simply, calmly and clearly, in a way that is not encountered either in the East or the West,» he wrote. He studied its lines and shapes, not with the intention of producing naturalistic representations but of capturing its essence. A true modernist, he believed that what matters in painting is its own properties rather than the subject. «Painting means color… It should move one by its own materials not by its subject matter,» he wrote. In many ways, this belief reflects the influence that the work of the French, late-19th-century Nabis painters had on his work. In his famous pronouncement on art, Maurice Denis, a member of the group, had written, «Remember that a picture – before being a war horse or a nude woman or an anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.» Papaloukas shared this emphasis on the intrinsic language of painting. His work carries the influence of the Nabis especially in the use of color and flat patterning but also bears the imprint of post-impressionism, particularly Cezanne and his exploration of structure. Papaloukas must have scrutinized those works during the three years from 1917-1921 that he spent in Paris studying at the art academies of the Grande Chaumiere and the Ecole Julian. This was when the Dada movement was already well under way. But it was also a time when painters were turning to more classical, traditional norms, the period of the so-called «return to order» movement in art. Papaloukas would soon turn to his own cultural roots. Like the painters of the so-called Thirties Generation that followed (Yiannis Moralis, Nikos-Hadjikyriakos Ghikas and Spyros Vassiliou among them), he would delve into Greek tradition and combine certain of its aspects with the precepts of modern painting. Together with his close friend Fotis Kontoglou, he anticipated the so-called search for «Greekness» in painting. (Kontoglou remained much more rooted in tradition.) For Papaloukas the connection was with Byzantine tradition. He left Paris to join the Asia Minor campaign as a war artist. In 1923, devastated by the great disaster that had ensued, he withdrew for a year – after his stay in Aegina and together with his friend Stratis Doukas – to Mount Athos. He produced studies of Byzantine art and painted rhythmic compositions of the surrounding nature and the architecture of the monasteries. Papaloukas believed that an understanding of the Byzantine tradition was vital for the quests of a modern artist. «Whoever does not understand aesthetically the Byzantine period cannot wholly comprehend the ancient Greek period. And, when an artist does not understand the Greek past, it is impossible to create the Greek future,» he wrote. Papaloukas believed that the issues pertaining to painting remained unchanged through time. He did not make any clear-cut divisions between the art of the past and the present, yet he also believed that an artist should always strive to express modern times. Yannis Tsarouchis once said that the «rediscovery» of Byzantium by artists such as Konstantinos Parthenis, Fotis Kontoglou and Spyros Papaloukas had helped the artists of his generation to better comprehend impressionism, post-impressionism and European art. Utterly modern and innovative, the art of Papaloukas, his beautiful landscapes from all over Greece, are based on a solid understanding of both Greek and European art, of tradition and modernism. They are a masterful, modern exercise in color and light and an eloquent expression of the Greek landscape. The Spyros Papaloukas exhibition will be open at the Vassilis and Marina Theocharakis Foundation for the Visual Arts and Music (9 Vassilissis Sofias & 1 Merlin, tel 210.361.1206, to April 20.

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