Excerpts from the Origins of Modern Greek Painting

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. 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. Scenes of battle are not numerous at this time and, unlike such scenes by contemporary philhellene artists, do not depict extreme violence.

When Otto, son of the fervent philhellene Ludwig I of Bavaria, was placed on the Greek throne in 1833, Greek artists turned their attention to Munich. This focus was reinforced by the founding in 1837 of the Athens School of Arts, which based its teaching methods on the German model. Though several Greek artists chose to study in other European capitals, such as Copenhagen, Brussels and Paris, Munich had the strongest appeal. Greek art would be permeated by German artistic currents during the second half of the nineteenth century.

At the Munich Academy, Greek students were imbued with ideas about art from academically conservative professors. The style in which most of the students expressed themselves-a high degree of attention to texture and detail-and which they brought back to the School of Art in Athens, became known as academic realism.

Greek painting in the second half of the nineteenth century was not different from elsewhere in Europe. Genre painting, portraying everyday tasks in urban centers and the countryside, was prevalent particularly in agricultural and pastoral scenes, festivals, and scenes of mourning. Of special interest were architectural features, local costumes, and objects of everyday life. Portraiture was the second most popular thematic subject, with a shift in focus from freedom fighters to merchants and the middle class and an interest in the psychological profile of the person portrayed.

Reaction against the Munich tendency for realism, a dark palette and broad brushstroke came not only from Greek artists who had graduated from other schools in Europe but also from former students of the Munich Academy who had been deeply stirred by the innovations of the Parisian avant-garde in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Paris began to supplant Munich as an art center. The City of Light introduced new ways of painting, freeing the work of art from the confines of visible reality and, thus, from the slavish imitations that Munich was accused of propagating. Paris also supported artists in their subjectiveness and welcomed freedom of expression. In Greece changes came about with the introduction of impressionism. This rejuvenating movement, which was not readily accepted, gained ground and managed to endure. This does not mean that the impressionist movement was fully understood or that it reached its full potential, for there were a number of inherent obstacles to its reception.

Born in northern Europe, impressionism was a medium for plein air painting conceived for the light atmosphere of the North. The subjects depicted, shrouded by the broken brushstroke of the impressionist style, lost their sharp outline and pureness of color. On the other hand, the Mediterranean light is bright and strong. This quality is faithfully transposed by Greek artists in paintings with sharply diffused surfaces, bold shapes, a lack of detail, and a flattening of the chromatic surface. This style and technique is distinctly different from the Impressionists’ with the dilution of shapes, fragmentation of the chromatic tone, and array of pure colors. The uniqueness of the Greek landscape called for an adaptation that came closer to the post-impressionist currents, such as the Nabis, fauvism and expressionism.