On the Origins of Modern Greek Painting

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Modern Greek Painters \\ On the Origins of Modern Greek Painting

ELPENOR EDITIONS IN PRINT

By Manolis Vlachos. — The painting above is Gikas’ “Mistras”.

There is no consensus among art historians about when modern Greek painting actually emerged. Some historians place its beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, in which case it would include late Byzantine art. According to others, it appeared in the eighteenth century as a derivation of the Italian Renaissance practised by artists in the Ionian Islands. The prevailing view, however, is that modern Greek painting emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century, after the modern Greek State was founded.

Modern Greek painting, whether evolved from late Byzantine or Italian art, is rich in religious and secular works, in which one can discern influences from the late Renaissance as well as from artists from the Greek islands, particularly Crete and the Ionian Islands. Some are imaginative compositions depicting a number of figures, and others are portraits with a profound rendering of their subject’s inner self.

This past would certainly include the Greek folk art tradition, which flourished throughout the nineteenth century and in the late decades of that century gave a prominent representative, also famous in Western Europe, Theophilos Hatzimichail (1871-1834).

From the outset, modern Greek art broke with its Byzantine past and defined itself as purely European. The shift toward Europe was bold, yet circumspect. Early in the twentieth century, Greek artists would turn to their past, in their quest for an identity and a source of inspiration.

The Greek artists producing paintings immediately after the Greek War of Independence, which ended in 1829, drew their subjects from Greece’s recent heroic past: battle scenes from the struggle against the Ottomans and portraits of famous fighters in the war. Two leading painters at that time were Theodoros Vryzakis (1814-1878) and Dionysios Tsokos (1820-1862). An idealized image of the freedom fighter can be seen in Vryzakis’s painting Karaouli. It is a romantic work with classicist undertones and a tendency toward a precise rendering of the human figure and inanimate objects. Tsokos painted a rugged and imposing portrait of an elderly leader in a heavy-handed plastic style.

Scenes of battle are not numerous at this time and, unlike such scenes by contemporary philhellene artists, do not depict extreme violence. Battles between Greeks and Ottomans were best left to the seascape painters of the next generation, Konstantinos Volanakis (1837-1907) and Ioannis Altamouras (1852-78), whose heroic views of naval engagements give a measure of Greece’s struggle for independence.

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