4 Δεκ 2009

displaying modernity v

Organic continuity in Greek art – pre-classical, classical, byzantine – is thus taken for granted, and used to redeem Classical Greece in view of its prehistoric self. Only implicitly does Zervos, in his Art in Greece, give a reason behind the singular (if not uniform) grandeur of Greek art: it would have to be the natural spectre, the landscape. No other factor determined the Greek spirit more poignantly than the landscape, the plains, the mountains, the sea, and above all the light, the light of Greece. Continuity of landscape is all we need to establish the uninterrupted sequence of Greek art-history, even if we cannot really argue that it was the same “collective consciousness” of the Greek city-state that actually produced the spirituality of Cycladic sculpture.

This strongly emotive language evokes the enthusiasm of Greek intellectuals over the potency of the Greek landscape and its mystical powers. Through their politically unstable, and in parts quite shallow rhetoric, monotonously repeated for the benefit of anyone who would care to listen, Greek intellectuals and their fellow-Hellenists attempted to develop a bi-focal strategy: on the one hand, to prove – or merely state – that Greek art was still valid as a stimulus to modernity, that the “Greek miracle had not yet outlived its life-cycle”; and on the other to claim the Greekness of what had recently come to be highly valued by European modernists: Greek prehistory.

This is a conscious effort on behalf of Greek thinkers, at home and abroad, to claim the ethnic origin of prehistoric Hellas, in order to consolidate its (and theirs) European identity. As the international avant-garde was appropriating Cycladic art, in particular, it was fitting to remind them that what they treasured so much was actually Hellenic, therefore they had Greece to thank for it.

Modernity had espoused Greek Neolithic and Cycladic art because it was not Greek; Zervos was now arguing that the Europeans should learn to love it because of its Greekness – its hellenicity to be exact; and with it, restore Classical Greece to its former glory. Since archaeology was being claimed by modernity, as one of the modern sciences par excellence, Greek modernists had to come up with an archaeology of their own.

Greek modernist intellectuals, like their fellow-compatriot painters and poets, constructed their vital space allowing for the ample presence of Greece’s past. Rather than a symptom of the nation’s embarrassing parochialism, its devotion to antiquity could pass as the main trait of its singularly modern nature – idiosyncratic but admirable nonetheless.

Christian Zervos maintained close contacts with the avant-garde painters in Greece, enabling them to communicate with the ideas developed abroad. His ideas on the singular essence of Hellenic art – Cycladic to Byzantine – are well within the ideological framework emerging in Greece in the 1930s. Greek painters in particular were heavily influenced by the discussion on hellenicity in the 1930s and 1940s. Sensitive to tradition, they turned to the past, resurrecting techniques and motifs from ancient and medieval Greek art and trying to pick up the thread with folk culture in the post-Byzantine period. Eclectic and cosmopolitan, these painters (most of whom also designed for the stage, including performances of ancient drama) created their own version of hellenicity in their art, faithful to the concept of continuity in the Greek tradition from antiquity to the present. Tsarouchis, Moralis, Nikolaou, and the afore mentioned Ghika became the main exponents of this movement, combining their cosmopolitan outlook with their idiosyncratic approaches on the Hellenic (ancient, modern, timeless).

Yannis Tsarouchis, in particular, perfected an idiom based on Byzantine and traditional Greek painting, which he however applied to motifs borrowed from ancient Greek art.

His characteristic homoerotic images of naked or semi-naked sailors and soldiers converse with the erotes of Greek reliefs and vases. Major and minor artists, of progressive or conservative disposition, seemed now more and more often to be making the obligatory stop at Greek antiquity at least once in their career. Others perfected a more persistent and authentic rapport with (their own perceptions of) Greek antiquity, notably Moralis or Nikolaou.

Nikos Nikolaou actually dwelled on Cycladic art, especially the figurines. His many essays on the monochromatic, stony-faced versions of a contemporary Hellenic face betray a sincere intellectual as well as aesthetic interest.

He also produced an extensive series of stones painted with facial features, in an idiosyncratic rendering of one’s impression of a finished Cycladic head.

At the same time Greece was gradually regaining its prehistory, as the frank efforts of Greek and international archaeologists were finally bearing fruit, and Greek prehistory was becoming a fully-fledged scholarly subject – built as a proper scientific discourse. Cycladic artefacts were excavated, catalogued and published, and were now scientifically interpreted as remnants of a pre- (or proto-) Hellenic Aegean culture.

Thus, (as stipulated by Christos Doumas in 1991), ‘by the early 1960s Cycladic culture had firmly staked its claim to a place among the major civilizations and its study became increasingly thorough’. This study endeavoured to arm Cycladic archaeology with a system cemented in rationalist (hence heavily empirical) archaeological discourse, a self-evident narrative which would “make sense”. Sophisticated taxonomies were introduced to the study of the figurines, providing us with elaborate genealogical trees spanning across the millennia – though ignoring anything that was created beyond the Aegean, anything that did not ooze this vibrant hellenicity I just spoke about.

These genealogies are based primarily on stylistic criteria empirically employed onto a disparate mass of material largely produced through pillaging, thus leave little room for results based on archaeological data. The widespread faking of Cycladic figurines (the more we like them the more we collect them and the more we collect them the less we are likely to come across legitimate specimens in the market, not to mention unquestionably authentic ones) has caused a severe handicap in our attempts for scientific study. Still, these art-historical, quasi scientific and blatantly empirical classifications persist to the present day, forming the basis of our museum displays. The National Museum in Athens, for example, offers in its recently refurbished Cycladic gallery a mix of aestheticised displays and others based on taxonomical systems, including a complete “taxonomy case” illustrating a typological genealogy produced through macroscopic observation and stylistic analysis.

displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

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