Gyzis, artist of vision and ingenuity

The second half of the 19th century was for art a period both of enormous change and variety. It was also a time of great antithesis which in artistic practice produced such contrasting works as Manet’s highly controversial Olympia and William Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, a work that, at least by contemporary standards, is dismissed for its saccharine sentimentality and as being the reactionary continuation of an academic style. But to view avant-garde art in contrast with academic, official art as two uncompromising poles of segregation is to oversimplify the intricate artistic climate of the time. For while it is true that avant-garde artists were rejected by the official salons (finally giving way to the Salon des Refusés in 1863), many of them, including Manet and Renoir, continued to try and exhibit their work in them. As for the Academy, its taste was not anchored in rigidity but over time was subject to change, following the developments of the avant-garde while simultaneously relying on its own roots in traditional art. While the distinction between the two artistic directions gradually became clear-cut, it is important to bear in mind that this happened through a process of cross-associations. It is in this context that the complexity and variety of Nikolaos Gyzis’s work begins to make sense. The large retrospective on the work of the country’s great academic painter, which opens tonight at the National Gallery on the occasion of the centenary since his death, provides the opportunity to think about how an artist who was trained in a typical academic institution, the Academy of Munich – where he also later became a professor – was also sensitive to aspects which over time became associated with a modern aesthetic. Having spent most of his life in Munich where he went to study fine arts in 1865, Gyzis was, of course, removed from the artistic climate of Paris, the quintessential city of the 19th-century avant-garde. But modernism, although rooted in France and the political climate that nourished it, was not an isolated phenomenon and by the late 19th century had expanded its influence across Europe. The famous Sezession, for example, a name associated with a group of artists in Germany and Austria who broke away form the official academies, emerged from Munich in the early 1890s but today are more linked with their Viennese counterparts and artists like Gustav Klimt. Gyzis was deeply influenced both by Art Nouveau (Jugestill in Germany) and symbolism which were also prevalent at the time. His later works show the impact these had on his painting, especially symbolism, in all its intensity. In sharp contrast with his earlier paintings of genre work and happy family scenes for which Gyzis became so famous, these are allegorical paintings steeped in the mystical; the religious feeling that gave rise to symbolism. The Archangel and Behold the Nymphaios series are images symbolizing spiritual revelation with transparent forms that melt into abstraction, a visual corollary to the mystical subject-matter. But traces of modernism can already be found in a work from more than 20 years before the artist’s latter phase. In Art and its Spirits, one of the National Gallery exhibit’s highlights, the figures are arranged along a sinuous line that descends down the center of the painting, its fluidity an anticipation of art nouveau. The painting’s loosely painted figures also mark a daringly sharp contrast with the high finish of academic painting. Gyzis spent years laboring over the work but its avant-garde style was probably precocious for its time and the painting was never sold during the artist’s lifetime. It was 10 years after Art and its Spirits that Gyzis painted Spring Symphony, the most translucent and visually delicate painting in the exhibition. Bathed in a cloud of pinkish and grayish, impressionistic-like tones, the almost invisible dancing forms of angels seem to fade into evanescence, their very airiness imbuing the composition with a quality of musical rhythm. (An analogy between music and painting was very much part of the Symbolist movement. Redon’s paintings, for example, were compared to the scores of Debussy. Gyzis himself was very much interested in music, practiced the guitar and particularly admired Beethoven’s compositions). As is the case with many other of Gyzis’s paintings, what is also striking about Spring Symphony is his care for detail. In certain areas of the painting, small dabs of color are applied to create a low bas relief and although this is not readily apparent, the shimmering transparent effect that it creates is the most obvious and impressive aspect of the image. In another painting titled Arab Smoking, Gyzis has placed a tiny dab of yellow color on the tip of the cigarette. Again, though imperceptible, it is a crucial detail that imbues the painting with charm and ingenuity. At the same time that he painted Summer Symphony, Gyzis completed Kryfo Scholeio (Secret School), one of his most famous paintings. The figures here are both prominent and fully defined, and the composition shares nothing of the Summer Symphony’s transparency. But the sketchy style in which the man holding a rifle in the composition’s upper right corner is painted, shows an artist steadily – but in differing degrees – essaying into a modern visual aesthetic. Kryfo Scholeio is also worth mentioning because of its strange position between historical and genre painting. Gyzis illustrates an important period in Greek history but instead of emphasizing sentiments of national pride, he creates a scene of familial warmth, touched by a certain, romantic nostalgia for agrarian Greece. (The works of Papadiamantis,Vizyinos and later Drosinis show a similar interest in agrarian Greece, as expressed through literature). It is this type of genre painting, showing scenes derived from rural Greece, that both Gyzis and Nikiforos Lytras (another seminal figure of the Munich School) are famous for. Although at the Munich Academy Gyzis studied under Karl von Piloty, a German painter known for his opulent historical paintings – he must also have felt the resonance left by the Biedermeier style, in which genre scenes – in a sentimental tone entirely different from the one employed by Gyzis – proliferated and catered to the tastes of the bourgeois middle class in the first half of the century. Children are a central feature in most of those genre scenes. Rooted in the German tradition of children’s scenes – the so called Kindermalerei – the depiction of children in Gyzis paintings is usually set within a family setting and underlines the steadfast, affectionate ties between the adults and their offspring. The artist’s deep affection for children reaches its most eloquent expression in the numerous children’s portraits, particularly the portraits of his own four children whom, as his letters to his family show, he held in adoration. Gyzis also painted other members of his family, including his father-in-law Nikolaos Nazos, a wealthy man from Tinos (also Gyzis’s birthplace) who helped finance his studies in Munich. Gyzis painted his wife Artemis Nazou, his brother-in-law, and his parents. These portraits are all non-idealized, and are more prone to casualness than poise. The Confectioner, painted two years before the artist’s death, carries this to an extreme; the image of a confectioner about to lose hold of his tray is spontaneous, warm and humorous. Oddly enough, Gyzis painted this image at about the same time that he began his darkest, Symbolist-inspired phase. Contrary to most of his other works, he also chose an almost monochromatic palette of whites and grays, interrupted by dabs of a vibrant red, a color which he came to master after a visit that he made to the Orient with Nikiforos Lytras. Although not a famous painting, The Confectioner is still a pleasantly distinct work, especially when compared to Gyzis’s more academic compositions, such as his numerous still-lifes or austere allegories titled History and Harmony, or better yet, the frieze-like Apotheosis of Bavaria. It is just one example out of a broad repertoire of images richly varied, both in terms of subject-matter and style. It is also one of the many moments of inspiration in the career of an artist who mastered various artistic influences at a time of major changes in art to produce a distinct and memorable record in the history of style in Greek art. The school of Munich painters During the second part of the 19th century a great many of the nation’s painters left Greece to study abroad. Those who studied in Paris include Nikolaos Xydias, a student of Cabanel; Theodoros Rallis, an apprentice of the famous orientalist painter Gerome; Odysseas Fokas; and Pericles Pantazis who was actually based in Brussels. Another group of painters were schooled at the Academy of Munich and came to be known as the School of Munich painters. With Nikiforos Lytras, the eldest of the group – who later returned to Greece and became director of the Athens School of Fine Arts – other leading figures of the group included Nikolaos Gyzis, Giorgos Iakovidis and Constantinos Volanakis, the latter is known for his evocative seascapes. Although each artist developed his own style, the School of Munich is usually referred to denote the Greek version of an academic style that developed in the second half of the 19th century.

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