Landscape signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 65.5 x 90 cm.
Painted c. 1914-1917.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Literature: Antonis Kotidis, Maleas, Adam publications, Athens 2000, p. 93 (illustrated).
Exhibited: Athens, National Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, C. Maleas, May-July 1980, no 47.
A masterpiece of landscape painting, this extraordinary canvas of faultless technique and thorough understanding of colourist principles and nature's geometry, shows Maleas coming as close as any leading European artist to the breakthroughs of the 19th century French avant-garde. Rich in form and strong in colour it is one of the most advanced 20th century Greek paintings in private hands and the largest of Maleas' works ever to appear in the auction market. The creative force and freedom in the handling of paint finds its match in the boldness of execution, creating a complex pictorial formulation that embodies the most important characteristics of Maleas' art and lies at the very core of his achievement as a painter. The large-scale format clearly indicates the importance Maleas attached to Landscape.
This is a powerful landscape unleashed in paint. Water, air and rock come together in the form of successive horizontal bands, leading the eye from the mesmerizing vegetation in the foreground to the sailing boats on the horizon.
The picture surface pulsates with energy derived not from a dramatic natural spectacle or turbulent weather conditions - the scene portrayed is peaceful - but rather from Maleas' powerful compositional structure thrusting upwards from the lower right-hand corner, and his vigorous, curving brushstrokes which create a multitude of complex rhythms to reveal the latent yet potent geological forces of nature. To convey the density and varied texture of the topsoil worn away by wind and water, Maleas added layer upon layer of innumerable individual brushstrokes thick with pigment. In marked contrast to this riot of texture, the gentle sailboats swing softly on the calm sea, which recedes into the distance finally melding with the sky.
Setting his easel outdoors, Maleas was able to retain the freshness of execution and fidelity to nature's effects, aiming not only to record a specific location but to investigate and solve pictorial issues beyond the mere treatment of his subject. He stands defiantly on the land and looks seaward, radically simplifying nature to concentrate on chromatic and painterly matters.
Although he paints the landscape in front of him with complete directness, he does so with a deeply layered understanding of the landscape as a complex entity represented in some of the most emblematic images of modern art. Rather than strive for topographical accuracy, his primary concern is to render the atmosphere and character of the Greek landscape, capturing minute colour fluctuations and fleeting effects of sparkling light reflected on the still waters in such a loose, evocative manner that would convey the momentary elusiveness of an impression. Impressionism taught Maleas that nature was first and foremost the touchstone against which one measured art.
In Paris, where he studied under Henri Martin, Maleas became familiar with the groundbreaking work of the leading impressionists, whose exploding canvases were a stark contrast to the more conservative style of his teacher. He was particularly overwhelmed by the work of Monet, who exerted a profound and life-long influence on his work. "For Maleas, Monet stands for what Martin was unable to offer him: the conviction that a work of art shouldn't rely exclusively on art school formulas and artistic endeavour shouldn't be indispensably preconditioned by public acceptance." 2
However, the transience of impressionism is not enough for Maleas. The painting's overall layout based on curvilinear motifs, the application of thick, heavy impasto and vigorous brushstroke and the upward development of the composition set an overall tone that transcends the momentary sense impression. He entrusts his subject to the truth of vision, but also ventures beyond the changing atmospheric effects to penetrate into the inner world of the landscape, become part of its reality and then recompose it with freedom and creativity. 3 He seeks an underlying structure for his experimentations with colour, paint and light, a kind of sturdy pictorial scaffolding that would allow him to create a sense of mythic, a historical time. In contrast to the elegant boats in the background, which allude to the fragility and transience of human life, the coastal rocks, infinitely more ancient than man, stand forever, weathering the next wave as they have weathered millions before. Such an interpretative approach to nature, bearing an essential affinity with the work of Cezanne, doesn't let the viewer forget that the artist, when producing a precise invocation of a particular place, does so through the physical activity of painting. Without resorting to the picturesque and relying exclusively on purely painterly means, Maleas transforms an austere formation of weather-beaten rocks into a powerful visual language of undulating volumes. "Compared to Monet, the architect Maleas places greater emphasis on volume and plasticity of form." 4
Landscape is commented upon by Professor A. Kotidis in his seminal monograph on the artist: "In Landscape, the partition of the painted surface into large chromatic unities becomes much more pronounced than in Beach in Lebanon [Athens, private collection], indicating that in his pure landscape paintings, such as these, Maleas has adopted the same compositional scheme he used for his paintings with buildings. This kind of compositional organisation is perhaps dictated by pictorial solutions provided by the Nabis, even the fauves; in his earlier output Nabis influences are easily detectable, while his portraits of this period betray a marked interest in fauvism. It should be noted, however, that Landscape could be related to fauvism only in terms of compositional structure, since it shows no predilection for the violent and pure chromaticity of the fauvist landscape. The work is a synthesis of cool colours; grey-blue, green zones painted in light and dark greys and cyans and peppered with patches of black, come together to render a rock formation rolling seaward on a strong diagonal. As a result, the composition develops in two triangles: a) land b) sea/sky. The sea is suggested in an almost abstract manner, captured in whites enlivened with many light-green almond shades. In this part of the painting, three sailing vessels - also of a triangular shape - echo the greys and blacks in the foreground. Furthermore, the hues that dominate the triangular expanse of the sea are repeated and highlighted in the triangular shape of the land. The final outcome bears little resemblance to visual reality; it is poetic, lyrical and robust. The cool tonalities of the zones are counterbalanced by the plasticity and tactility of the volumes that build up the warm forms of the rocky shore. Also remarkable is the application of paint, not found, at least to my knowledge, in any other work by Maleas: in his other works, the painter either applies paint on card (or canvas) in a way that brushwork is almost invisible, or (in most cases) he moves on with a fast, almost frantic pace, continuously applying strokes of colour topped by strokes of light. In Landscape, however, this rhythmic pace is broken: especially in the foreground, he first lays two successive brushstrokes and then he merges their colours by using a palette knife."5
Unanimously acknowledged as the greatest visual poet of the Greek landscape and one of the most important figures in Modern Greek art, Maleas was perfectly at home with the work of Cezanne, fauvism and expressionism, drawing from their underlying artistic premises rather than uncritically adopting their formal vocabulary. His familiarity with early 20th century European avant-garde trends and his refreshing and innovative ideas made him a prominent member of the 'Omas Techni', a progressive and influential art group which challenged the academic doctrines of the Munich School and infused the forces of renewal in Modern Greek painting with a fresh and vital impetus. Between 1914 and 1917, a period which saw the first favourable critical response to his anti-academic work and during which Landscape was probably painted, Maleas submitted articles on modern art to the press, condemning the close adherence of Greek painting to academic formulas and asserting his position that true art has a universal value that transcends national or regional borders. "No matter how deeply an artist is inspired by the natural environment of his homeland, he should always align his work with art's global perspective."6 In these articles, published in the Noumas journal, he expressed his admiration for the pioneering work of such artists as Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissaro, Renoir and Cezanne.7
1. H. Lemonedes - L.F. Orr - D. Steel, Monet in Normandy, exhibition catalogue, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, North Carolina Museum of Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Rizzoli publ., New York 2006, pp. 104, 108, 110. 2. A. Kotidis, Constantinos Maleas [in Greek], Athens 2000, p. 280. 3. See H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art-The 20th Century, Athens 1999, p. 30. 4. Kotidis p. 37 (Before 1908, when he went to Paris to study painting under H. Martin, Maleas had studied architecture in his native Istanbul). 5. Kotidis, pp. 92-94. 6. Noumas journal [in Greek], vo.13, no.567, 1915, p. 259. 7. Noumas, p. 260.