THE EXHIBITION ‘Konstantinos Parthenis: Painting an Ideal Greece’ at the National Gallery of Greece, is the first comprehensive retrospective of this artist’s exquisite works, and comprises the whole range of his oeuvre: from his progressive religious works to his sublime landscapes, atmospheric portraits and esoteric works. This was an artist who was interested in both exploring modernism and spirituality, and searched for that spirituality even in the natural landscape. There is a nobility not only in his figures of saints, but even in his trees. His enormous ‘Christ’ portrait of 1900 (pictured below), rendered with a pointillist technique, has an emotive force that is breathtaking.
Parthenis was born in Alexandria (1878/79) and passed away in Athens (1967). This exhibition, was also the last one that the former director of the National Gallery, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, worked on before passing away, literally on the job, prepairing the exhibition, on June 13 (the exhibition opened to the public on July 5). Her text on Parthenis presents the important and pioneering role this artist played in the course of Greek art history in particular.
When Parthenis was still living in Egypt, he studied painting under the theosophist German artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach. He then went to Vienna and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Conservatory (1897-1903). He visited Greece for the first time in 1903, and took part in the International Exhibition of Athens, winning the silver medal for his painting.
From 1905-1909, Parthenis spent his time between Athens and other destinations, in order to complete commissions for decorating church interiors with byzantine paintings in Poros and Cairo. He married the musician Julia Valsamaki in Pessada, Cephalonia in 1909. From 1909 to 1911/14 Parthenis lived in Paris. When he returned to Greece, he also lived on Corfu for a while.
Apart from his commissions to decorate church interiors with byzantine frescoes, Greek nature and its landscapes also inspired Parthenis to paint. The exhibition at the National Gallery includes excerpts from the artist’s notebook, such as the following, in which he praises the Greek landscape and its light: “Oh joy! To escape modern life, engulfed in tumult, to drink of the ambiance of antiquity in front of the four caryatids… (of which one is darker…or surrounded by nymphs playing with satyrs, landscapes filled with scents and trees!…Light. […] give me an impression of sensuousness and reality…”
The balance and spirituality in Parthenisis’s landscapes is unique. Another excerpt from his notebooks presents his spiritual approach to painting: “One must paint what one feels, rather than what one sees, but first see clearly. Depending only on what the [artist] sees. Ignoring the vital spirit, he ends up seeing and painting only the superficial appearance of form. […] Forms are neither beautiful nor ugly; it is the encounter with our own spirit that makes them seem beautiful or ugly. Light is the quintessential quality of every form – it is the glow of beauty”
In 1917 the Parthenis family settled in Athens and Parthenis was introduced to the painters Konstantinos Maleas, Nikos Lytras, Periklis Vyzantios. Together they formed the Omada Techni group, with the aim of moving away from academic painting. In 1929, Parthenis became a professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts. In 1934 he was the first artist to represent Greece at the Venice Biennale. However things turned sour after a long-lasting dispute over a commission with the Athens Municipality, that ran till 1954, and ended with policemen breaking into his home and confiscating artworks. Furthermore, after being offended by colleagues at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Parthenis resigned and lived in poverty…
An article published in 2020, in ‘Lifo’, presented how from 1923 to 1967, Parthenis lived in a Bauhaus style house under the Acropolis. Sadly, the state decided this house had to be destroyed, but Parthenis refused to leave the house. He passed away in 1967, in a state of paralysis, and his children later agreed to the house being pulled down, so that it wouldn’t obscure the view of the Acropolis from the café-restaurant Dionysus.
Despite Parthenis’s non-idyllic experiences in Athens, he was still in awe of this city and of the Greek light, as evident from his writings in his notebook, and from his painting of the Acropolis, entitled ‘The Immortal Song’ (pictured above). There are also some small still lifes by Parthenis in the exhibition (pictured below), one of which shows the Acropolis in the window in the background. This still life, painted in 1931, entitled ‘Still Life with Acropolis’, must have been realised in the artist’s house which had such a wonderful view of the Acropolis. One can imagine the artist at work in his house, setting up this little still life, with the Acropolis peaking in through the window. This little painting now serves as a documentation of sorts, or a remnant from that life in that house (that was later demolished). Another example of how art transcribes life moments/moments in time in the most unique manner.
- ‘Konstantinos Parthenis: Painting an Ideal Greece’, runs till February 28.
- National Gallery of Greece is on 50 Vasileos Konstantinou str. (nearest metro station: Evangelismos). Tel: +30 214 40 86 201. www.nationalgallery.gr
- This article has been written by artist/journalist Stella Sevastopoulos, who runs Art Scene Athens. You can check out her online art portfolio here