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May 15, 2012

Byzantine Art Through the Eyes of Greek Modernists

Left: Polykleitos Regos, ‘St Artemios,’ copy of a wall painting from the Protaton in Karyes, Mount Athos, 1934. Right: Omiros, ‘The Annunciation,’ 1998, oil on canvas.

Iouli Eptakili
March 13, 2012

During a trip to the Louvre in Paris in the 1930s, Greek painter Yiannis Tsarouchis became enthralled with a Coptic icon from Bawit in Egypt depicting Christ with Saint Minas. Tsarouchis spent hours studying the icon and copying it down to the smallest detail.

The painter had already been apprenticed in the fine qualities of Byzantine art by his tutor Photis Kontoglou, with whom he painted copies of icons on trips around Greece, to Meteora and Mount Athos, as well as numerous churches.

Polykleitos Regos is another artist of Greece’s so-called Thirties Generation who was a great admirer of Byzantine art. His painting of Saint Artemios, for example, from a Mount Athos icon, clearly reveals the modernist influence from Regos’s studies in Paris, with Fauvist touches and obvious Byzantine techniques.

Tsarouchis and Regos were two of many modern Greek artists who were intrigued by Byzantium and whose works are not just reproductions of the originals but paintings that betray the way they perceived Byzantine art.

This perception of Byzantine art by Greek painters, the contribution of the Thirties Generation to the country’s cultural heritage and the influence Byzantine culture had on modern art are the subjects of an exhibition at the Byzantine Museum (22 Vassilissis Sofias, tel 213.213.9572, in Athens containing 20th- and 21st-century works from its own collections.

Most are copies (paintings, casts, mosaics, wall paintings) of works by 20th-century artists from Greece and abroad, as well as by conservators who have worked at the museum.

The artists showcased are Greece’s Photis Kontoglou, Demetrios Pelekasis, Yiannis Tsarouchis, Rallis Kopsidis, Polykleitos Regos, Aristotelis Zachos, Pantelis Zografos, Antonis Glinos, Antonis Paterakis, Omiros, Lambros Gatis and Markos Kampanis, as well as Swiss Emile Gillieron pere and Italian Francesco Novo.

“We observe the 20th century in a chronological sequence from the end of the 19th century to the present,” explained curator and archaeologist Ioanna Alexandri, who took us on a tour of the exhibition. “The aim was on the one hand to tell the story of the museum itself in the 20th century and, on the other, through specific works, to discover the way that Byzantine art was understood.”

The exhibition is divided into five sections: The reception of Byzantine art by European and Greek artists, its incorporation into Greece’s national cultural heritage by the artists of the Thirties Generation, the contribution of conservators to preserving Byzantine monuments, the role played by copies both in familiarizing a wider audience with Byzantine art and in documenting its monuments, and, finally, the impact of Byzantine culture on contemporary artistic production.

The first section represents the travelers of the 19th century who flocked to Greece from France, Britain, Germany and Switzerland either in search of work or inspiration.

“What is most interesting is the work of the Europeans,” argued Alexandri. “If you have a clear idea of what the originals are like, here you see that the reproductions are essentially a rerecording through the prism of a Western education. The faces of the saints do not have the Byzantine severity but rather the rosiness and poses seen in Western art.”

The exhibition includes works from the Dionysios Loverdos and Vasileios Lambikis collections which not only reveal the interest shown by intellectual circles and collectors in the interwar years, but are also an expression of highbrow patriotism.

Loverdos, founder of Laiki Bank, in 1938 commissioned Kontoglou and Pelekasis to make copies of the icons that were missing from a number of iconostases in his collection. He also purchased the Athens home of the neoclassical Austrian architect Ernst Ziller and assigned Aristotelis Zachos to make the necessary renovations so that he had a place to house his vast collection of post-Byzantine art. The building, located on the corner of Mavromichali and Academias streets, was eventually bequeathed to the Byzantine Museum and will be undergoing a full revamp with funds from the European Union-backed National Strategic Reference Framework.

Lambikis, meanwhile, was a doctor during the same period. He was interested in Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and commissioned Zografos to paint copies of icons and depictions of church architecture that was in a state of deterioration. Lambikis’s idea was to create a record of the icons and murals and other treasures of churches which could not be renovated due to lack of funding.

“There were many reasons,” said Alexandri. “Political developments in Greece, the Balkan Wars and the Asia Minor Catastrophe compelled Greeks to preserve their Hellenic heritage from the Byzantine period as well.”

In 1917, the northern port city of Thessaloniki was devastated by a massive fire that destroyed hundreds of buildings.

“Right after the destruction, the Byzantine scholar Georgios Sotiriou, who was appointed director of the Byzantine Museum in 1924, was assigned to oversee rescue work at the burned Church of Aghios Dimitrios and architect Aristotelis Zachos was put in charge of its renovation,” said Alexandri as we reached the second section of the exhibition.

“Sotiriou’s first concern was for paintings that were not completely destroyed by the fire to be copied before they were rained on and further damaged. A number of artists made reproductions of the surviving decorative pieces of the church that could be used after its renovation to restore the originals.”

In the third section of the exhibition, the Thirties Generation is represented by Kontoglou, Tsarouchis, Regos and Kopsidis, the latter a student of Kontoglou who did not technically belong to the group but who made a significant contribution to our understanding of the modernist view of Byzantine art today.

The exhibition then pays tribute to the museum’s conservationists with displays of copies and original works influenced by Byzantine art.

“Most of the best restorers of the post-World War II period in Greece did a stint at the museum,” said Alexandri. “They were all artists, trained, who spent most of their lives restoring art as a way of making a living.”

The final section presents the most recent works relating to the theme of the exhibition, such as Lambros Gatis’s 2011 mobile sculpture and a painting by Omiros blending Byzantine and abstract expressionist art.