AT THE CENTRE of Greek culture, both ancient and modern, is the Greek sea, coupled with Greek light. From Odysseus’s seafaring adventures, to the naval battles for Greek independence, to the recent tragedies in the Aegean, the Greek seas have seen plenty of action, and have played a central role in shaping this country’s character. The spectacular show at the V & M Theocharakis Foundation, entitled ‘By the Sea: Sea Themes in Neohellenic Painting’ , brings together most of the acclaimed Greek painters from the 19th century up to the near present that have tackled this subject. Thus the exhibition’s journey through the seas of Greek art starts with the more traditional and academic painters, moves on to the modernists and ends with the contemporaries, and comprises outstanding works from four collections: Greece’s National Gallery and the E. Koutlides Foundation, the Ministry of Culture and the Sotiris Felios Collection. Furthermore, it is an exhibition that appeals to all ages, not only because of its historical vista, but also because the sea is a beloved theme of both young and old.
This show of 74 masterpieces is also accompanied by a splendid catalogue (in Greek), including texts by National Gallery Director Marina Lambraki-Plaka, and National Gallery curator Lambrini Karakourti-Orphanopoulou (also the curator of the show). It’s always a pleasure to read Mrs Lambraki-Plaka’s inspired art historical writings, so I have provided some extracts (which I have translated into English): “It’s not by chance that on the shores of the Mediterranean the most ancient, most beautiful, the most humane civilizations saw the light. The eternal Mediterranean summer gave its craftsmen the most precious primary material of every art form: light. Ethereal light, revealing light, wonderful light, like the truth.” She goes on to state that it cannot be by chance that the greatest Greek poets’ works – pointing out that many of them were islanders or had lived by the sea – were also inspired by the sea.
Lambraki-Plaka goes on to trace the sea’s inspirational influence in Greek art starting from antiquity: “The sea and sea themes dominate art which developed in Greece from 3000BC – from the frescoes of Thera and Minoan Crete to the vase designs with triremes, sailing ships or sea gods and heroes. Seascapes survive in folk art during the long period under the Turkish yoke in order to be reborn with the renaissance of the Greek state after the War of Independence. The foremost role played by Greek mariners during the fight for freedom, the bold sea missions, the sea battles, will provide many themes for the historical paintings of the Munich School. Nikiforos Lytras, Nikolaos Gyzis, Konstantinos Volanakis praised the passions and achievements of the Greeks at sea.”
Now, let’s set sail through this exhibition, starting at the beginning, on the 4th floor, with the more traditional artists: Konstantinos Volanakis, Ioannis Altamouras, Grigorios Soutzos, Emilios Prossalentis, Georgios Hatzopoulos, Angelos Giallinas, Vasilios Hatzis, Nikolaos Himonas, Georgios Roilos, Sophia Laskaridou, Thalia Flora-Karavia, Symeon Savvides. Apart from the precisely painted sailing ships by Volanakis and Altamouras, you will also find here a work by Soutzos entitled ‘View of Piraeus’, which is believed to be the oldest painted view of the port, according to the curator of the show Lambrini Karakourti-Orphanopoulou (she also sites art historian Marinos Kalligas in her text). In fact this view shows Piraeus with hardly any buildings at all.
The more traditional painters such as Volanakis, Hatzis and Altamouras show their adherence to the Munich School’s Academic style of painting, using darker tones, although Impressionism’s lighter more colourful palette and freer brushstrokes can be found creeping into the works of Altamouras and Pantazis.
Let’s move on to the 3rd floor, where the Greek modernists are to be found: Constantinos Parthenis, Konstantinos Maleas, Spyros Papaloukas, Nikolaos Lytras, Michalis Economou, Gerasimos Steris, Valia Semertzidis, Georgios Samartzis, George Gounaropoulos, Giorgos Sikeliotis, Kostas Grammatopoulos, Yannis Tsarouchis, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Here one witnesses how at the beginning of the 20th century, Parisian art trends are more influential, and make their way into Greek art. From Parthenis’ move towards formalism, symbolism and art nouveau, to Lytras’ more fauve aesthetic, via which he renders the blues of the Greek sea with thick, broad layers of paint; or the surreal undertones in Gounaropoulos’ depiction of the seabed.
Last but not least, is the dynamic Post-war and contemporary scene, on the 2nd floor, with works by: Thanos Tsingos, Thanasis Stephopoulos, Costas Tsoclis, Paris Prekas, Panayiotis Tetsis, Vassilis Theocharakis, Dimosthenis Kokkinidis, Mary Schina, Yiannis Adamakos, Thanassis Makris, Christos Bokoros, Kostas Papanikolaou, Michalis Madenis. In Tsingos’ work ‘Ships’ (1956), blue is done away with altogether, instead, white paint pervades the picture-plane, but effectively captures the waving masts of the sailing boats. Tsoclis has incorporated the readymade material of a ship’s wooden planks into his work, with which he has framed his seascape. Bokoros’ ‘Sunset’ albeit contemporary, seems to also hark back to the romanticism of Claude Lorrain. A grand double-panel work by Tetsis, completed in 2014, is also included. This and other works in the current show, were also part of Tetsis’ last show before he passed away, having been presented in 2015 at the Theocharakis Foundation. Perhaps this great Greek plein-air master’s expressionistic rendering of the Greek sea, is the most energising and dramatic, suggesting the wild and dark side of nature’s majestic, fluid force.
• Runs till May 7. Open Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10-6. Thurs 10-8. The V & M Theocharakis Foundation is on 9 Vassilisis Sophias Ave, (tel 210-3611206).Tickets at 6 euros (3 euros concessions).
- Guided tours of the show with Mrs Karakourti-Orphanopoulou, will take place on March 4 and 18, at noon; April 1 at noon; April 11 and 25 at 1 and May 4 at 1.