Popular art was the only form of art that existed in Greece from 1453 up to the 19th c. It managed to maintain its distinct character based on the Hellenistic and Byzantine traditions, throughout the Ottoman occupation. Its main manifestations were illuminated books, wall paintings, wooden engravings, silver jewellery, and embroidery work. Secular painting first appeared in the 1750's in Epirus, W. Macedonia, Ambelakia, and some of the Aegean islands. It is not accidental that commerce and small industry had begun to develop in these areas from the beginning of the 18th c.
The surplus of wealth inevitably led to the decoration of houses. The task was undertaken by the painters of holy pictures, who brought to secular painting the technique of religious pictures. The style, however, betrayed the influence of Persian and Muslim art, since trade with the East had been now established. Two-dimensionality, the typical characteristic of Byzantine style, was blended with new elements such as panoramic view for the landscapes, bright colours, absence of gradation of colour, and strong outline for the figures (Spiteris 122-39).
The most outstanding popular painter of the 19th c is Panayiotis Zografos. He was commissioned by General Makrygiannis to paint a set of pictures illustrating the main events of the Greek War of Independence. Makrygiannis' intent, as he explains in his memoirs, was the representation of what he considered to be the historical truth regarding the Greek revolt. Panayiotis was from Vordonia, Sparta, and the only information that we possess about him comes from Makrygiannis' memoirs. He arrived in Athens in 1836 to work entirely in Makrygiannis' house. Apparently Zografos was not his real surname; it simply denoted his profession (Ragias 16-8). Spiteris suggests that Panayiotis' technique and style point to the fact that he must have been a self-educated painter of holy pictures (155).
Makrygiannis dictated to Zografos not only the theme of each representation, but also the way the theme was to be depicted, as well as the symbolism it entailed. Thus, the pictures possess a dual authorship by both Zografos and Makrygiannis. Out of the twenty-six pictures commissioned, twenty-one were to represent battles, a particular emphasis given on those of Roumeli. Three were to be allegories: the fall of Constantinople, God's decision to liberate Greece, and Armansperg eradicating the heart of Greece. The last allegory has not survived; Zografos destroyed it, fearing Armansperg's reaction. Another picture was a portrait of Makrygiannis, which also went lost. Finally, there was a list of the Philhellenes. All pictures were made in the traditional Byzantine technique: egg tempera on wood. Eight of them have survived and are today in the National Historical Museum. Four sets of copies were also made in watercolours on cardboard of which an almost entire set has survived, today in the Gennadios library (Ragias 18-9).
Zografos' style is simple and devoid of theatricality. Unable to create a realistic representation, he creates stereotypes of figures, animals, and landscape elements. The Turk soldier, for instance, is represented with his red "fesi", whereas the Greek one with his white "foustanella". The figures possess no plastic values. There is no use of chiaroscuro, but just plain bright coloured surfaces rendered by wide brush strokes. All of these characteristics can be observed in one example: The Various Sieges of Messologi.
It is worthwhile examining one of the allegories: God's Just Decision to Liberate Greece (tempera on wood). God is represented in the centre as a pantocrator; he is holding the globe. The motif clearly points to Byzantine influence. On the right we see the personification of Greece, framed by Otto and Amalia. An angel is offering them the royal crowns. On the left we see the three monarchs of Russia, England, and France, as well as people and clergy approaching in an attitude of celebration. The explanatory text on top of the painting, written by Makrygiannis, informs the spectator that God illuminated the three Great Powers (England, Russia, France) in order to liberate Greece (Ragias 49). This picture is a clear illustration of the Greek attitude towards the Great Powers in the years following the revolt.
Tsarouchis' opinion on these pictures is that they manage to depict the Greek soul. "Certain long lines that delineate trees or groups of soldiers depict something analogous to the movement of a dancer of zembekiko or tsamiko " (Ragias 32).
Zographos' pictures are real masterpieces of popular art. Makrygiannis, however, did not consider them as such. In fact, when he sent a set of copies to Queen Victoria of England, he apologized for the poor artistic quality of the pictures, which was due to the ignorance of the Greek people. "The example of Makrygiannis speaks for itself and should certainly silence those who maintain that modern Greek art might have taken a different turn , if it had been based on the purely indigenous values of tradition and popular culture" (Plaka 8). Modern Greek art, in fact, was not based on tradition, but it rather turned to Munich and the neoclassicism characteristic of that period. This did not constitute a choice, but a historical accident. In 1832, the throne of Greece was given to Prince Otto of Bavaria.
King Otto was the one who in 1836 founded the Royal School of Arts in Athens. This was actually an elementary Architectural school, which functioned during the official holidays and Sundays. The professors were volunteers and they taught engineering and design. In 1840, Pierre Bonirote, an Ingres' student, became the first professor of painting in the new school. After the 1843 insurrection, the foreign professors were removed, and daily lessons in the plastic arts were established. The architect Lyssandros Kaftanzoglou became director of the school replacing the Bavarian Zetner (Tsouchlos 23). Furthermore, Bonirote was replaced by Philip Margaritis and the Italian Rafaello Ceccoli (Lydakis 82).
Margaritis (1810-1892) remained in the school till 1863, when he followed Otto in Bavaria. His artistic influences were David, Ingres, and the French romanticism of the early 19th c (Ioannou 214). Ceccoli left in 1852, and Ludwig Thiersch took his place. Thiersch was the son of a great philhellene who was a friend of Ludwig I, king of Bavaria and Otto's father. Thiersch had studied Renaissance painting. Once in Greece, he became interested in Byzantine art. He is often considered to be the discoverer of Byzantine art in Greece (Lydakis 86).
After the revolution of 1863 and the expulsion of King Otto, the sections of the Engineers and the Artists were separated. The school of Fine Arts came, thus, into being (Tsouchlos 23). In 1866, Nikiforos Lytras became professor of painting until the year of his death in 1904 (Lydakis 94). In 1873, the building located on Patission street was erected, thanks to the donation of the families Stournari, Tositsa, and Averof. The School of Fine Arts was transferred there from the house of Vlahoutsi on Pireos street, where it was originally located (Tsouchlos 24). Royal scholarships and private bequests enabled three generations of Greek artists to continue their studies in the Academy of Munich (Plaka 6). It is very interesting, as Lydakis notices, that the school of Fine Arts existed in period when the economic situation of the Greek State was disastrous and the capital hardly possessed any roads or public buildings (86). This mere fact shows the magnitude of idealism which characterized 19th c Greece. It is precisely out of this idealism that modern Greek art developed.
The French influence is present in 19th c Greek painting, yet it is limited. What had started with Bonirote and Margaritis continued with some other artists who went to study in Paris, like Andreas Kriezis, Ioannis Doukas, and Pericles Pantazis (Ioannou 216).
Munich, however, was the Mecca of 19th c Greek artists. Theodoros Vrizakis was the first who studied in the Academy of Munich. The information that we possess about his life is inadequate. The date of his birth together with the place where he spent his early years are highly controversial subjects. Some scholars, among which Lydakis, sustain that he was born in 1819, in Thebes (126). Others, like Vakalopoulos and Spiteris, probably deriving information from Giofyllis' history of art, claim that he was born in 1814 (Ragias 64) (Spiteris 272) (Giofyllis 133). The date 1819, however, seems to have been derived more accurately and it will be accepted with a question mark, as Plaka does (6). Vrizakis must have spent some years in the orphanage that Kapodistrias had founded at Aigina, since his father was beheaded by the Turks during the Greek revolt (Lydakis 126). Nothing is certain about Vrizakis' life until the year 1844, when his name appears on the register in the Academy of Munich. Some believe that he went to Munich at the age of 18, after having attended the School of Arts in Athens (Ioannou 62). Others sustain that he went to Munich at the age of thirteen (Lydakis 126).
Vrizakis was undoubtedly influenced by the philhellenism that characterized Munich in that period. Karl Krazeisen and Karl von Haidek, both Bavarian officers, had visited Greece and had tried to represent the battles and heroes of the Greek revolt, as well as Greek landscapes (Lydakis 126). Peter von Hess, a prominent German history painter, had accompanied Otto in Greece in order to depict the King's arrival (Ioannou 26).
If Vrizakis arrived to Munich at thirteen, he must have discovered Greece through the Bavarian paintings. He visited Greece during the years 1848-1851. He probably saw his country with the romantic and idealistic eyes of a European (Lydakis 127). At his return to Munich he set up his own atelier. He drew his themes from the Greek war of Independence. Because of the great demand that his works encountered, he took students from the Academy as his assistants (Lydakis 127).
Vrizakis' work presents overall a certain naivite, a certain provincialism. This is exemplified by his painting Welcome of Lord Byron at Messologi (1861). Lord Byron, accompanied by his attendants and a group of soldiers, is received by representatives of the Greek authorities and the Church. The bishop is shown in an attitude of blessing. Behind him, a priest is holding an icon with the depiction of the resurrection of Christ alluding to the "resurrection" of Greece. In the background, a broken minaret symbolizes the end of the Turkish domination (Lydakis 130). The composition is rigid, and the figures seem more like waxworks, rather than real people.
There are some smaller compositions with fewer figures. These are more romantic with warmer colours (Spiteris 274). They give the impression, though, that they are representations of a set up, assembled model. It is during this period, that the German painter Piloty used waxworks or real people in order to set up the scene he was to paint. This theatricality can be observed in Vrizakis' The Oath of the Fighters and the Blessing of the Flag by Palaion Patron Germanos (1865). The fighters are gathered around the bishop forming a semicircle, a very well known Renaissance prototype of organization. Everything is represented in great detail; notice the guns and the uniforms. For the interior of the church, Vrizakis has used as a model the Russian church of Munich (Lydakis 131).
Vrizakis was also a portraitist. His subjects were the heroes of the Greek war of Independence. One of his finest portraits, and actually one of the finest of Greek painting, is that of Anagnostopoulos. It is characterized by beautiful bright colours and clarity of design (Lydakis 132). The eyes betray a strong, almost melancholic mood (Spiteris 274).
Vrizakis' style can be described as that of historical romanticism. He has often been accused of having idealized the rough-hewn heroes of the Greek revolt, as they are always represented...wearing immaculate, snow-white, freshly-pressed 'foustanellas'...but one has only to look at the earliest photographs of the Veterans of the revolt to see that the transformation from uncouth warriors into dapper townees had already taken place in real life. The men who had won undying fame as freedom fighters were now engaged in political in-fighting, scheming for senior posts in government.... The art of Vrizakis...was well suited to the ideology and aspirations of this new class (Plaka 7)
Vrizakis represents the Greek history painter of the 19th c. Ironically enough, though, Greece ignored his existence until 1878, the year of his death and bequest of all of his works to the University of Athens. Vrizakis did not have the chance to play an influential role in Greek painting. His works were transferred to the National Gallery only in 1900. Even the other artists who studied in Munich did not have the possibility to get acquainted with his work. Vrizakis belonged to a different generation, that of the first half of the 19th c. Thus, Vrizakis, although he is the first of the "Munich group", he has no actual connection with it. Some consider Vrizakis as the "most Greek" of the Munich group painters. Certainly his provincialism distinguishes him from his masters and his fellow painters. He undoubtedly possessed a natural talent. Perhaps if he had remained in Greece, he would have become a great popular artist like Zographos (Lydakis 132-3).
Before discussing the second generation of the Munich group, it is necessary to refer briefly to Karl von Piloty (1826-1886), who in 1856 became professor at the Munich Academy. Piloty was the master of both Lytras and Gyzis, the major exponents of the Munich group, and Greek painting of the 19th c in general. Piloty's most important work is Seni before Wallenstein's Corpse (1855). It depicts the assassination of the imperial general Wallenstein, one of the main protagonists of the Thirty Years War, which took place in 1634. Wallenstein lies on the floor. Before him stands Seni, his astrologer, the man who had foreseen this unfortunate destiny. The composition presents all the characteristics that will persist in Lytras' and Gyzis' work. It is divided in two unequal parts thanks to a contrast in axiality and colour scheme. On the right, there is an emphasis on horizontality and bright colours, whereas on the left, an emphasis on verticality and dark colours. This painting set the standard of Realist history painting. It defined a new style "whose gravity-bound, theatrical character swiftly replaced the airborne idealism that had dominated Munich's official painting....It provided an artistic equivalent for what the period of Bismarck called 'Realpolitic' " (Janson, Rosenblum 267-8). Piloty's students were free to choose their subjects; historical themes were not obligatory. The master insisted, though, on the technique and the faithful representation of nature (Ragias 102).
Nikiforos Lytras was Piloty's first Greek student. He was born in 1832 at Pirgos, a village of the island of Tinos. During the period 1850-1860, he attended the School of Arts in Athens. He frequently distinguished himself in the contests of the school (Ragias 102). In 1858, he was awarded a thousand drachmas prize (Kaftanztoglou 8). In 1860, he left for Munich with a state scholarship (Lydakis 137).
Apparently, after a number of years, Lytras managed to enter Piloty's class. This must have been a great achievement, since Piloty's criteria were severe and Lytras' previous studies in Athens thoroughly inadequate. Exactly like his master, Lytras chose dramatic, heroic, historical subjects. Few works are known from this period, among which Antigone before Polyneices' Corpse (1865) (Lydakis 137). The composition is the same with Piloty's Seni before Wallenstein's Corpse.
In 1866, at his return to Greece, Lytras became professor of painting in the School of Arts in Athens. In his first works, he combined what he had learnt in Piloty's workshop together with the characteristics of Rubens and the Venetian painters of the 16th c. Paintings of the latter he had a chance to see in the Munich Gallery. He started slowly passing from history to genre painting (Ragias 108).
What, however, proved to be fundamental for Lytras' artistic development were the trips he undertook during the years 1872-1880. In 1873, he traveled in Asia Minor together with Gyzis. In 1874, they both returned to Munich with the intention of settling there. Lytras, though, stayed only for a year (Lydakis 141). Gyzis' letters provide us with valuable information regarding Lytras sojourn in Munich. "Lytras finished a small painting. It was exhibited and it was much appreciated...." (Gyzis 1953, 29). This is the only evidence that we possess that Lytras ever participated in an exhibition in Munich (Lydakis 141). Furthermore, Gyzis mentions that "Lytras works during the day and in the evenings he reads Plutarch's Parallel Lives. He says that if he had read these books fifteen years ago, he would have been a great man..." (Gyzis 1953, 31). In 1876, Lytras together with Gyzis visited Paris (Gyzis 1953, 55-6). In 1879, Lytras visited Egypt (Gyzis 1910, 8).
Lytras borrowed from the East a variety of local themes, types of people and costume, as well as the strong light and bright colours. The year in Munich strengthened his preference for genre painting. During this period, genre painting was popular in Germany, France, and Holland. Lytras will use, later on, the Dutch genre paintings of the 17th C, as his models (Ragias 110).
The works of the period 1872-1880 are characterized by the predominance of the warm brown yellow tone. One of them is The Setting on Fire of the Turkish Flagship by Kanaris. This constitutes Lytras' last historical composition. It is interesting to notice that even in a historical scene the emphasis is placed on the genre element. The Psarian boat with the muscular sailors occupies the foreground and dominates the scene, whereas the actual historical episode, the flagship on fire, serves as the background (Ragias 110). Here, as in the totality of his paintings, the figures play the most important role. Lytras' painting can be described as anthropocentric.
Another painting from the same period is Carols. It is dusk. Five children dressed in their local costumes are singing the carols to a lady who is standing at her door with her baby in her arms. The whole organization reflects Piloty's influence. The composition is divided in two parts, one broader on the left, and one narrower on the right. On the left, the young singers form a semicircle and an emphasis on horizontality is given by the wall behind them. On the contrary, on the right there is an emphasis on verticality given by the female figure, the architectural elements, the piece of sculpture behind the door. The predominant colours are sepia and a variety of whites (Ragias 110). What is unique about this painting is the antithesis the artist has created. The children's natural innocence sharply contrasts with the seriousness with which they perform their task. This painting is a masterpiece of genre painting. Although the style is German, the painting is undoubtedly Greek. Only someone who has sung the carols on a full moon New Year's eve can capture the atmosphere of solemnity and joy, characteristic of that night.
The last years of Lytras' work, 1880-1900, constitute his mature period. Some of his best portraits date from this period. Lyssandros Kaftanzoglou, where the dark colours are predominant, and Woman in White, where the white colour is predominant, are just two of them. One of Lytras' latest works is Psarian Bewailing. It was exhibited in 1888, unfinished at Zappio. It depicts a custom of the area of the Aegean islands. When a sailor drowned, his friends and relatives mourned over his death, gathered around his 'fesi' hat (Ragias 111). This is another typical German composition. The scene is divided into two unequal parts by the contrast of light and shadow. On the left, the brighter side, women and children are seated in front of the white wall. They form an open circle whose centre is occupied by the red 'fesi'. On the right, the figure of the father occupies the foreground. A deep grief is depicted on the faces. The figures appear motionless, inanimate, literally sunk in pain. This work, being unfinished, and therefore lacking the elaboration of academic painting, becomes very suggestive, a simple, clear statement of pure grief.
Nikiforos Lytras died in 1904, at the age of seventy-two, of an illness due to colours' intoxication. Painting, which seems to have governed both his life and death, did not constitute for him a mere means of artistic expression, but a way of being at the service of common good. As he himself believed: "The painter should devote himself to genre painting, and to subjects that move, delight, and educate the people" (Sochos 40). For him the "real artist" has no vices or character flaws and certainly no wealth, since "wealth transforms the artist into an ordinary man" (Sochos 40). Lytras, in his effort to become a "real artist", provided 19th c Greece with a great painter. Only Gyzis can compete with him. No comparison would be fruitful, however, since these two artists, although close friends, followed very different paths.
Nikolaos Gyzis was born in 1842 at Sklavochori, a village of the island of Tinos. Ten years younger than Lytras, he attended the Athenian School of Arts during the period 1854-1864. His teachers were Margaritis, Ceccoli, and Thiersch (Lydakis 167). In 1864, Lytras introduced him to Nikolaos Nazos. In 1865, Gyzis with Nazos' help obtained a scholarship from the monastery of Virgin Mary in Tinos, and he left for Munich (Ragias 140).
Gyzis kept a diary, which was destroyed during WW II. He was also in steady correspondence with Nazos for his entire lifetime. Montandon managed to study and publish Gyzis' diary before its destruction. The letters, on the other hand, were gathered and published by Gyzis' sisters in law (Lydakis 168). We possess, therefore, an abundance of information regarding Gyzis' life and work.
Gyzis, once in Munich, got acquainted with the neoclassical works of sculpture, as well as with the paintings of the Dutch masters, including Rembrant, existing in the town's museum and Old Gallery (Ragias 140). In 1868, he entered Piloty's class, and in 1869 he won the Academy's annual first prize for his sketch Judith and Holophernes (Gyzis 1953, 17). Piloty impressed by Gyzis' work proposed to him a post in the Academy. Gyzis, however, in 1872 returned to Greece. The same year he followed Lytras in Asia Minor (Lydakis 176).
Gyzis, just like Lytras, turned to genre painting. A work dating from the period after the Asia Minor trip is Paidomazoma (Devshirme). A Janissary is ready to take a young boy from his mother's arms. The simplicity with which the scene is rendered imbues it with a rare immediacy. The Janissary's bright red cloak appears like a river of blood (Ragias 150). The composition reminds us again of Piloty. It is divided in two parts by means of verticals and horizontals. The tall figure of the Janissary is emphasized by the presence of the vertical wall behind him. His size together with the colour of his garment render him impressive, almost fear inspiring.
Gyzis' sojourn in Greece did not last long; Athenian artistic life was almost non existent compared to that of Munich. In 1874, Gyzis returned to Munich, this time for good. His only luggage were his memories from Greece, memories that will accompany and haunt him for the rest of his life. One of his first paintings in Munich is Engagements. It depicts the custom of engaging boys and girls at a very young age. The composition is semicircular and the monk engaging the two youths occupies the centre. The boy is already wearing the engagement ring whereas the girl has to be encouraged by her mother. On the right, we notice the presence of many everyday objects, a characteristic of Piloty's style (Lydakis 178). The design, however, has nothing to do with that of the Academy; it is more clear and, thus, more powerful. This type of design will characterize all of Gyzis' Greek genre paintings (Tsatsos 937).
In 1876 Gyzis visited Paris which, unable to fit his idealism, appeared to him as a city of corruption. "If one goes there, then he must be young and have a rich father..." (Gyzis 1953, 55-6). In 1877, he visited Greece only to marry Nazos' daughter. In 1880, Gyzis became honorary member, and in 1882 professor in the Academy of Munich (Ragias 143).
One of his last genre paintings is the Offering (1886). There are two earlier versions dating, one from 1874, and the other from 1876. A girl suffering from a heart illness is taking together with her mother an offering, a golden heart to a chapel. It is not clear whether they will manage to arrive there, since the girl already exhausted has fallen into her mother's lap. The words "faith, hope, love" found at the upper right corner indicate that not everything is lost yet. The light illuminating the horizon and the distant chapel denotes the presence of God. This painting is a real masterpiece. It conveys true passion; any trace of sentimentalism is absent. Only Lytras' Psarian Bewailing can be compared to it (Lydakis 140-3).
From 1886 onwards, Gyzis moved from genre to idealism. Piloty's death, which occurred the same year, could not possibly be a coincidence. The new period is inaugurated by his Pastoral Symphony (1886). Angels and putti are depicted in a very happy atmosphere, where the only sign of pain is a thorn in a putto's foot. The removal of the thorn by another putto is remnant of genre painting. This work bears the influence of Goethe's poems and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The transparency of colours aims to the blending of earth and sky in a celebration of life. The refinement is so great that the composition becomes almost purely decorative (Lydakis 194-199).
Gyzis was a deeply religious man. He believed that if one is "good", he has no reason to fear "Christ the Bridegroom coming through the darkness" (Gyzis 1953,177). During the years 1893-5, Gyzis executed many studies for the work Christ the Bridegroom (1895). This impressive work has remained unfinished (Lydakis 209). The composition is entirely symmetrical. The simplicity of design and colour further enhance the symbolism entailed by the subject matter. The incandescent "cloud" surrounding Christ renders him awe-inspiring. To all but an entirely clear conscience, this red becomes threatening, reminiscent of hell.
That same year, 1895, Gyzis was commissioned an important work intended to decorate the ceiling of the museum of Nuremberg. The theme was the Apotheosis of Bavaria. Gyzis worked on it for four years. The outcome, perfect from the point of view of the technique, can not be considered as a great work of art. It is purely decorative and rhetorical. It lacks completely the spirituality of his religious works, dating from the same period. Some of its studies, however, possess a high artistic quality. These together with the religious paintings from the last years of his life constitute Gyzis' most mature works (Lydakis 209-211).
Gyzis never managed to compromise with the idea of Greece being unable to satisfy his spiritual and artistic needs. He never actually stopped feeling as a "prodigal son". In October 1990, while suffering of leukemia, he was writing that he felt that marine air of Tinos island would be enough to cure him (Gyzis 1935, 266-7).
Gyzis died in January 1901. Munich honoured his memory with an exhibition comprising his major works. It is clear by now that Gyzis was greatly admired and appreciated in Munich during the nineteenth century. As a result, Greece was proud of this son of hers who glorified his country abroad. The evaluation of Gyzis' work, though, became controversial in twentieth century Greece. Tsatsos, fifty years after Gyzis' death and at the end of WW II, claimed that "Gyzis' work seems like a calm platonic dialogue in the uproar of a demonstration of revolutionaries who can neither listen, nor understand..." (996). Spiteris, on the other hand, considers Gyzis a great master of line and design, yet blames him for the fact that subject matter remained his main preoccupation, in a period of a major aesthetic revolution (impressionism in France) (306). Ioannou goes to the extent to consider Gyzis as just a "philhellen German teacher" (80).
There is a general tendency in Greece to blame the academism of Munich for the academic approach that characterized Greek painting in the 19th c. Probably, though, "Greek artists took from Munich neither more nor less than they were ready to take" (Plaka 6). In addition, these first and obligatory, in a sense, contacts with Munich have a great merit. Greeks realized that Western art owed much to Classical Greece. The least they could do, therefore, was to try to discover this antiquity, so highly valued in Europe. Modern Greek artists discovered their past in Europe. Academic art is nothing more than the visual equivalent of "katharevousa"; they both embody the dream of discovering and returning to antiquity. This actually represents the Greek national ideology of the 19th c, which according to Plaka is most accurately expressed in the following lines by Seferis:
I awoke with this marble head in my hands which is exhausting my elbows and I do not know where to put it down. It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of dream: so our lives came together and it will be very difficult to separate them (6).