Theofitos Hadjimichail (Greek, 1976-1934) 180 x 273 cm.
Lot 55
Theofitos Hadjimichail
(Greek, 1976-1934)
180 x 273 cm.
Sold for £ 288,000 (US$ 379,442) inc. premium

The Greek Sale

15 May 2007, 14:00 BST

London, New Bond Street

Lot Details
Theofitos Hadjimichail (Greek, 1976-1934)
Katsantonis in the Ravine near ‘Pende Pigadia’
inscribed in Greek middle left and lower center
fresco painting transferred onto canvas
180 x 273 cm.


  • The fresco was originally painted by Theofilos in a café in the village of Parakila, Lesvos island, and was transferred onto canvas in the 60s. Since then the work has remained in the same private collection.

    One of the few surviving murals by Theofilos, rescued from destruction or decay in the early 1960s thanks to the efforts of prominent intellectuals and collectors, this signature work of the great 20th century. Greek artist was transferred onto canvas from its original wall in a coffee-shop in the village of Parakoila on the island of Lesvos (Mytilini) and restored with great care by an Athens National Gallery expert. 1 The restoration project was a challenging one, since in addition to the ravages of time it had to overcome a 30-year accumulation of soot and smoke residue from the coffee-shop’s stove, gas cooker and cigarette smoking patrons.

    In this great work, Theofilos shows a predilection for history, paying homage to Katsantonis (1873/5-1807/8), one of the great figures of pre-revolutionary Greece, who was a constant source of inspiration throughout his career. (compare Katsantonis in Tzoumerka, A. Mastrokostas collection, Volos, and Katsantonis in Tzoumerka, mural in a coffee-shop in Makrynitsa, Mt. Pelion). This legendary klephte is portrayed at a moment of leisure, possibly after a victorious battle, playing a string instrument (a small pandouris almost identical to a modern day baglamas), while around him his young men revel, feast and dance in an unspoiled natural environment. The locations inscribed by Theofilos on the mural - the ravine near ‘Pende Pigadia’ (Five Wells) on Mt. Tzoumerka and ‘Krya Vrysi’ (Cold Spring), where according to local lore Katsantonis defeated the troops of Velingekas, Ali Pasa’s henchman - are taken from different folk-tale sources and combined to create an imaginary setting. According to G. Petris, one of the leading scholars on the artist, “Theofilos invented this historical amalgamation to create a monumental piece that would allude to a multitude of incidents from the notorious chieftain’s eventful life. This device also served another purpose - one that would delight his own artistic temperament. It allowed him to place his hero in a diverse landscape of luxuriant vegetation, reminiscent of the lush countryside he enjoyed during his stay on Mt. Pelion. These inscriptions betray his enchantment with a magnificent mountain range and its steep ravines, cold springs, giant plane-trees and five wells where foustanella kilt-wearing warriors dwell.” 2

    His subjects drawn from the Greek War of Independence comprise a major subset of his iconography; used as a backdrop, they allow Theofilos to express his fascination with the mythology of the 1821 uprising without having to succumb to historical accuracy. History is filtered through his rich imagination and transformed into the enthusiasm sparked in him by historic events probably based on conventional folk lithographs but ingenuously reworked or even altered to fit his vision. The great hero, whose depiction is also a synthesis of different sources, is identified as such not by an inscription but by purely pictorial means: he is handsome, much bigger than his troops, sporting a large moustache, a flintlock musket (kariofili) resting on his lap. For Theofilos, a true Katsantonis is unthinkable without his ubiquitous kariofili. The hero’s grandeur is emphasized by the figure of a reclining warrior on the bottom left, which is much smaller in size despite being in the extreme foreground and, consequently, much closer to the viewer’s eye. 3 Theofilos does not hesitate to even depict a boat floating in the ravine’s stream, taking full advantage of art’s liberating freedom that recognizes no limitations when it comes to scale or perspective. 4

    Abolishing of the rules of perspective that could impede his creative zeal and rejecting the illusion of depth was a deliberate choice made by Theofilos. Especially when he painted murals in stores or coffee-shops frequented by many people, he knew that his work shouldn’t undermine the wall’s optical stability by penetrating its surface through the use of deep, illusionistic perspective. On the contrary, all painted images should remain flat. He also knew that to provide a full description of his subjects he must leave nothing obscure. Everything must be explained and clearly expressed. Therefore, all phenomena are trust forward to the narrative surface where they receive even illumination in a flat, continuous present.

    Gallantry is indicated through the repetition of pictorial and iconographic conventions, an approach to painting rooted in Byzantine and folk tradition and reminiscent of the Karaghiozi shadow-puppets or descriptions found in demotic songs. The linear arrangement of the warriors, the symmetry and rhythm of the composition and the impression of an immutable reality, take one even further back to Archaic Greek vase painting and the narrative arrangement of that precursor of folk poetry, the Homeric epics – where all parts are generally set side by side in a paratactical presentation, a style in which sentences, ideas, episodes or figures are placed one after the other like beads on a string. 5 Directing his brush to such expressively condensed notations, Theofilos unknowingly combined the age-old Greek tradition with some of the fundamental stylistic premises of European modernism, “coming to parity with all the modern ‘primitives’ and today’s most innovative painters, whose inventive audacity he possessed to a point that amazes us.” 6

    The painter Orestis Kanellis, one of the first to discover the work of Theofilos, made the following insightful remark: “Without realizing it, Theofilos sought to illuminate two kinds of truth: The truth of Greek nature (with man being a part of it) and what he thought to be true about Greek history. In his paintings he displayed/delivered both truths, the difference being that he incorporated the latter into the former. Whether his subject is Alexander the Great or Katsantonis with his troops, his painting is a field of shapes and patches of colour that are integral parts of the natural environment, helping him to express an overall feeling emanating from life itself, a feeling based on pure vision, on the observation of nature. When we see an outdoor scene by Theofilos we hardly think that we see the landscape from a distance, but rather that we live in it, that we actually walk through it. Any sense of distance is eliminated and we are surrounded by lush trees, pristine grasslands and crystal clear waters in a lucid, diaphanous atmosphere. Only Bonnard and Theofilos were able to convey this feeling. His piercing blue eyes gave us a world full of gallantry and freshness.” 7

    The landscape, either as a separate genre or as a backdrop for human activity, always fascinated Theofilos. Based on his instinct, he painted it the way he imagined it and experienced it. We shouldn’t forget that arid Mytilini is sparsely dotted by fresh water sources surrounded by fertile patches of land, both pleasing to the eye and refreshing to the traveller. And to the end Theofilos remained an unrepentant wanderer, travelling from village to village and “painting masterpieces on the walls of coffee-shops which were painted over when the time came to whitewash again.” 8

    Around 1926, after a forty-year odyssey, Theofilos returned to his native island and humbly took up his profession as an itinerant painter, welcomed by simple people who allowed him to decorate their shops, houses or cafés. 9 “In Mytilini he enjoyed a very creative and prolific period, during which he painted some of his best works.” 10 “In his murals the outlines are boldly drawn, the chiaroscuro is strong and the details and trimmings of costumes are rendered with rapid brushstrokes.” 11 Most of these masterpieces are long lost. “Those that were rescued are now owned by genteel and wise people who appreciate their value and bless the humble painter for the gifts he gave them - feasts for the senses and true delights to the eye.” 12

    In his famed Mytilini wall paintings, Theofilos presented his national epic in its entirety. 13 His work, born of his native land, like trees, helped shape a national painterly consciousness. 14 Nobel laureates G. Seferis and O. Elytis considered him an uncorrupted student of the senses who made us see the world with a different eye and gave expression to the true face of Greece15, while the great Le Corbusier thought of him as a medium through which we delve in the essence of Greekness.” 16 The novelist K. Ouranis describes his feelings when he first saw Theofilos’ murals in the village of Agiassos, not far from Parakoila: “I felt a child-like joy, pure and deep. The village coffee-shop under the plane trees seemed like a magic cage, adorned with dazzling gems, inside which sang like a bird the Greek soul.” 17

    1. See The Painter Theofilos in Mytilini [in Greek], exh. cat., Tourist Pavillion, Mytilini, 1962.
    2. G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Athens 1978, pp. 42-43. See also D. Stamelos, Katsantonis, Estia publ., Athens 1980, pp. 292-297.
    3. See G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Exantas publ., Athens 1978, pp. 42-43.
    4. L. Papastathis, “Theofilos in Mt. Pelion” [in Greek], Lexi magazine, no. 172, November-December 2002, p. 945.
    5. See H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art-The 20th Century, Athens 1999, p. 43.
    6. S. Eleftheriades-Teriade, “A Great Unknown Painter” [in Greek], Athinaika Nea daily, 21.9.1935.
    7. O. Kanellis, “The Painter Theofilos” [in Greek], Tachydromos magazine, no. 379, 15.7.1961.
    8. S. Melas, “The Painter Theofilos” [in Greek], Elefteron Vima daily, 21.9.1935.
    9. See E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, “Theofilos: the Artist and the Legend”, in Theofilos, exh. cat. Municipal Art Gallery, Thessaloniki, 1998, p. 32.
    10. N. Matsas, The Tale of Theofilos [in Greek], Estia publ., Athens 1978, p. 153.
    11. K. Makris, “The ‘Relevance’ of Theofilos” in Theofilos, exh. cat., National Gallery, Athens, 1983, translated in Zygos Annual Edition on the Hellenic Fine Arts, vol. 3, 1984, p. 98.
    12. Matsas, p. 153.
    13. See J. Kontis, “The Legend of Theofilos” [in Greek], Eolika Grammata journal, no. 80-81, March-June 1984, p. 87
    14. A. Fassianos, “Theofilos, the Friend of God” [in Greek], Lexi magazine, no. 172, November-December 2002, p. 920.
    15. See G. Seferis, Angloelliniki Epitheorisi, vol. 3, no. 1, May 1947 and O. Elytis, The New Greek Myth, [in Greek], Asterias publ., Athens 1973.
    16. Ch. Le Corbusier, “Theofilos”, Le Voyage en Grèce, no. 4, Spring 1936.
    17. K. Ouranis, “The Painter Theofilos” [in Greek], Nea Estia journal, no. 19, 15.11.1936. See also A. Thrylos, “Theofilos and his First Praiser” [in Greek], Eleftheria daily, 25.9.1965.

Saleroom notices

  • The artist's correct name is Theofilos Hadjimichail and not as published online.
  • This lot cannot be exported out of Greece.
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