Honoring a female sculptor

As a young woman nearing her 20s, Natalia Mela was expected to marry a respectable, well-off husband, to «await the groom and wear a twin set and a rang de perles» as she recalls in a conversation with her friend Nelly Kyriakopoulou. But Mela turned her back on convention and became what she always wanted to be: an artist. After her volunteer service as a nurse during the Second World War, she enrolled in the sculpture department of the Athens School of Fine Arts, where she studied with Constantinos Dimitriadis and Michalis Tombros, both distinguished Greek sculptors of the time. In the years to come, Natalia Mela, now 85 years old, produced a substantial body of figurative sculpture. More than 160 of her works are presented in «Natalia Mela,» a major retrospective that is currently being held at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum and is curated by the artist’s daughter, Alexandra Tsoukala, with art historian Constantinos Papachristou as the exhibition’s coordinator. Her most typical works are those inspired by Greek mythology. They are large sculptures made of bronze and representing ancient Greek deities. The bird- or animal-shaped sculptures are among the artist’s most original works. Closer to ready-mades than to sculptures, they are made from utensil parts and carry the influence of surrealism. Collage is the closest that Mela came to painting. An exact reproduction of the artist’s impressive studio, filled with all the tools, casts and half-finished works that exist in that original space, gives an unusual note to the exhibition. Also shown are two short films that Maria Papaliou and Mary Koutsouri have directed on the life of Natalia Mela. Mela’s upbringing in an haute bourgeois environment makes a charming story that evokes the sophistication of a now bygone social class for which a comfortable lifestyle was bound to values and culture. Mela was the offspring of influential families. Her father, an artillery officer, was the son of the Greek army officer Pavlos Melas – a symbol of the early 20th-century Greek struggle for Macedonia – and Natalia Dragoumi, sister of the diplomat Ionas Dragoumis. Her mother was the daughter of the banker Ioannis Pesmazoglou (co-founder of the National Bank of Greece) from Alexandria, Egypt. In the book published (by Okeanida) on the occasion of the exhibition, Natalia Mela recounts to Nelly Kyriakopoulou her childhood and adolescent years. She weaves a charming story of a protected childhood spent first in the family’s mansion in Kifissia and later at their home on one of the most elegant streets in the center of Athens. A tennis champion, Mela initially enrolled in law school but soon quit to register at the School of Fine Arts. Her parents disapproved of her decision, yet, being the young rebel that she was, Mela took the uncoventional route, at least during those early formative years. She was equipped with the luxury and sophistication of her social class to make that turn. Like other artists and intellectual friends, she became a communist but quit the Communist Party when Kitsos Maltezos, a friend of the family and a poet, was executed by communist factions. She was friends with the poets Nikos Gatsos, Miltos Sachtouris, Odysseas Elytis, Nikos Kavvadias and Nikos Engonopoulos and part of an elite, intellectual milieu. In 1951, she married the well-known architect Aris Constantinidis. This was around the same time that she worked with the respected architect Dimitris Pikionis on the construction of a monument in Leontion, in Nemea. A few years earlier she had worked with Pikionis on another project. According to artist Alekos Levidis, who writes in the exhibition’s catalog, Pikionis helped Mela go beyond the conventions of the post-Rodin style in sculpture in which her teachers at the School of Fine Arts had trained her. The sculptor Thanassis Apartis also had a similar influence in her work. As Levidis notes, Mela was bred in the spirit of the «Thirties Generation.» Engonopoulos, Moralis, Tsarouchis and Embeirikos among them were key figures in Mela’s artistic milieu. It was a generation that combined precepts of modernism with a certain Greekness born out of their search for a national, cultural identity. In a way, the work of Mela shares this concern. She never fully adopted abstraction and wanted her sculptures to refer to a specific subject. After the birth of her first child, she started to work less on sculpture and more on set design for the Theatro Technis of Karolos Koun. During the 1960s, she returned to sculpture and started working with metal more than marble, which she had been using until then. Her public projects came later. In the mid-1980s, her sculpture of the Greek revolution heroine Bouboulina was erected on Spetses, the island where Mela and her husband spent much of their time in a house that they designed and built. Other important public commissions include the four large sculptures – one in the Athens suburb of Kifissia, two in Thessaloniki and the fourth in Epirus – honoring Pavlos Melas, her grandfather. As in her «Warriors» series, those public works have a heroic, commemorative aspect. And, like the sculptures inspired by Greek mythology, they celebrate the higher human values. Her work contains a certain idealism. But, as the Benaki exhibition reveals, it also shows a sense of humor and playfulness. The combination enhances the character of this significant Greek woman artist. Natalia Mela, at the Pireos Annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos, 210.345.3338) to May 4.

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