Issue 07, January 2008
homepage > "Classical Memories in Modern Greek Art": Exhibition in Beijing

"Classical Memories in Modern Greek Art"
Exhibition in Beijing

By Leda Bouzali
 
 

The exhibition of Classical Memories in Modern Greek Art held by the National Gallery, which was realized with the sole sponsorship of the Onassis Foundation and under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Culture in Capital Museum, the largest and most impressive museum of the Chinese capital, commemorated with immense success the Cultural Year of Greece in China in view of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

The exhibition was concluded a month following its opening in the Chinese capital, after having received over two thousand visitors and having obtained positive comments from diplomatic and artistic circles alike. It has then returned to Greece, and more specifically in the National Gallery – Alexandros Soutzos Museum, where it was enriched and inaugurated by Mr. Karolos Papoulias, President of the Greek Republic. The exhibition was supervised by Dr. Olga Mentzafou-Polyzou, Director of Collections and Museological Programming of the National Gallery and included sixty- three works of contemporary Greek art selected from the National Gallery, as well as from collections of other museums, individuals and foundations. It must be noted that this exhibition was first presented at the inauguration of the Onassis Cultural Center of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, in October 2000.

Chinese visitors were introduced to the work of distinguished Greek artists, like the Chariot (1969) by Christos Kapralos
Chinese visitors were introduced to the work of distinguished Greek artists, like the Chariot (1969) by Christos Kapralos

The exhibition in the Chinese capital was solemnly inaugurated by Michalis Liapis, Minister of Culture, in the presence of Michalis Kabanis, Greek Ambassador in China, Antonis Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, and Marina Lambraki-Plaka, Director of the National Gallery. The Minister of Culture of China, the General Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, the President and General Director of the Capital Museum and many Chinese officials attended the splendid ceremony and extended cordial welcome to their guests also stressing that they look forward to further collaborating with the Onassis Foundation in the cultural field. Indeed, the 32,000 sq ft museum halls were packed with visitors during the month that lasted the exhibition, and the entire organization was commendable.

Mr. Antonis Papadimitriou, president of the Onassis Foundation, Mr Michalis Liapis, Minister of Culture, and Mrs. Marina Lambraki Plaka, Director of  the National Gallery, who presents the works of art to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Mr. Karolos Papoulias, during the opening of the exhibition in Athens in December 2007
Mr. Antonis Papadimitriou, president of the Onassis Foundation, Mr Michalis Liapis, Minister of Culture, and Mrs. Marina Lambraki Plaka, Director of the National Gallery, who presents the works of art to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Mr. Karolos Papoulias, during the opening of the exhibition in Athens in December 2007

As Antonis Papadimitriou said in his speech, "the exhibition offers an intuitive answer to the obstacles hindering Greece to approach the Chinese civilization; a civilization which is equally old, if not older, so close and yet so far away." "The paintings of select ‘classical’ contemporary Greek painters that were exhibited reflect a view of the future and a glimpse of the past. The apparent simplicity of their inspiration approaching these two time extremes […] offers contemporary man, who has experienced globalization and has been exposed to the conflicting and contrasting trends of our time, a fixed point of reference. "Just like the Parthenon, which in its ideal shape remains everlasting as it gazes at the centuries passing by, the ancient Greek culture remains firm upholding the rules ordaining the present and reminding us of the miracle of Democracy and that great Art can only be created by free people," concluded the President of the foundation.

As pointed out by the Minister of Culture during the inaugural ceremony, "the exhibition of Classical Memories in Modern Greek Art has given Chinese friends of Greece the opportunity to learn some of the most prominent Greek artists of the 20th century [...] The gold-bearing heritage of ancient art has constituted a challenge for contemporary Greek artists, enchanting but at the same time disheartening and daunting [...] It is therefore intriguing to see when contemporary Greek artists overcame their hesitations and engaged in discourse with the classical world and its mesmerizing myths, as well as how they have been portrayed in their works through the refraction of contemporary sensitivity. This exhibition has attempted to answer this question. And it is an answer replete with surprises," concluded Michalis Liapis.

The entrance hall of Capital Museum
The entrance hall of Capital Museum

Marina Lambraki-Plaka hailed as "a lucky coincidence" the fact that the two successive Olympiads, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, have created an intellectual bridge of communication between the two most ancient and magnificent civilizations that the world has ever witnessed, the Chinese and the Greek. The exhibition can be seen as a reply to the question of how contemporary Greek artists have been inspired by this boundless wealth always in line with the spirit of modern art and their own personal quests.

"The dialogue of modern Greek art with classical antiquity is neither simple nor self-evident", she explained in her speech. The continuous coexistence with the remains of antiquity and the survival of classical elements through tradition up to the modern times have functioned as the basis on which artists engaged in discourse with antiquity, as well as a source of tension. As noted by the Director of the National Gallery, the creation of the independent Greek State in 1830 placed the dialogue of Greeks with their classical heritage on a new foundation. Neoclassicism was the predominant stylistic trend in Europe while Romanticism also favoured a new passion for Greece, ancient and modern. "Despite favourable historical circumstances, the Academicism of the School of Munich, which dominated 19th century painting in Greece, lacked the necessary prerequisites to engage in any kind of meaningful discourse with antiquity. It isn’t until the end of the 19th century that we encounter an intense revival of both the spirit and form of ancient art in the mature symbolist period of Nikolaos Gyzis’ painting."

"Antiquity’s time in Greece was destined to arrive during the period between the wars, following a turn of art toward tradition taking place throughout Europe. The selfsame forward-looking revolutionaries, with Pablo Picasso at their head, turned toward classical antiquity during the years immediately after the war [...] Encouraged by this European turn of art, Greek artists would reafffiliate themselves with their ancestral heritage."

Chinese visitors were introduced to the work of distinguished Greek artists, like the Chariot (1969) by Christos Kapralos
Chinese visitors were introduced to the work of distinguished Greek artists, like the Chariot (1969) by Christos Kapralos

In the works of Constantinos Parthenis (1878-1967) we can trace "this alchemical amalgam of ancient and Byzantine sources." Nikos Chatzikyriakos-Ghikas (1906-1994), upon his return to Greece from Paris, created a heliotropic, Mediterranean, brilliantly illuminated cubism, which was able to unfold on the painting surface the melodic rhythms of the Greek island architecture or to incorporate in the dry stone walls the paganistic spirit of ancient mythology.
In the work of Engonopoulos (1907-1985) "coexist and cohabit, by means of a surrealistic license, the gods and heroes of antiquity with Byzantine saints and legendary heroes of our modern history."

Yiannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989) "vacillated between these two traditions: The eastern, the Byzantium, and the western, the Renaissance. His subject-matter, where handsome adolescents and the male nude play the leading roles, freed of Christian guilt, spontaneously encounters the ancient paganistic spirit."

Yiannis Moralis’ (1918-) portraits of the years of the German occupation and the first years after the war, "done with perfectly realized technique, displaying a latent geometrical schematization [...] exercise on the spectator the same hypnotic attraction as the death-masks from Fayum. During the ‘50s, the latent classicism of Moralis would come to fore in a style which drew its inspiration from ancient gravestones and the wall paintings of Pompeii.

Mr Anthony Papadimitriou during his speech at the opening of the exhibition in Beijing
Mr Anthony Papadimitriou during his speech at the opening of the exhibition in Beijing

Nikos Nikolaou (1909-1986) was also inspired by ancient frescoes, Fayum and ancient vase painting, while Alekos Fasianos (1935) "inheritor of the tradition of the 1930s generation and one of those who carried it on, created his own formal codes for the expression of the ideological hobbyhorses of his predecessors: hellenocentricism, the incorporation of the doctrines of modern art and the memorializing of everyday working class life." Dimitris Mytaras (1934) and Christos Caras (1930) also incorporate the images of ancient statues into their compositions, Sotiris Sorongas (1936) "turns to antiquity in order to stress the existential questions posed by his painting" and Paris Prekas "is inspired not only by the schematized horses of archaic art, but also by the free gallop of the horses of the Panathenian Procession on Parthenon’s frieze."

Giorgos Lazongas (1945) "took his inspiration for a series of paintings from the agitated drapery of the winged Nike of Samothrace." Sarandis Karavouzis (1938) in his "metaphysical painting" used the codes established by De Chirico in an utterly personal manner. Achilleas Droungas (1940) "has crystallized his lucid images in the climate of Hyperrealism" and in the exhibition he was represented by his work entitled Olympian Spirit. In the work of Tasos Christakis (1949) in the exhibition "a doorless neoclassical edifice, something between a house and a mausoleum, lit spectrally by an invisible moon, refers to a dead antiquity." Antiquity is represented by the capitals of the three main styles in the post-modern construction of Panagiotis Tanimanidis (1957).

As Marina Lambraki-Plaka explained in her speech, Greek sculpture was represented in this exhibition by only two artists, due to the limited space and the difficulties of transport. The following works were exhibited:Chariot and Centaur by Christos Kapralos (1909-1993), the bronze Epitaph by sculptor Theodoros Papadimitriou (1931), Kouros and the Seated figure by Ioannis Avramidis (1922), the triptych Enigma of Parrhasius by Christos Bokoros, the resting Apollo by Angelos Papadimitriou (1952).

"The contiguity of ancient classical masterpieces with the works of modern Greek artists constitutes a risky challenge. The visitor is invited to judge if the distant descendants of Pheidias can bear the weight and the responsibility of this heritage. We believe they can," concluded Marina Lambraki-Plaka. The exhibition in the National Gallery will last until February...

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