Landscape of Northern Greece (possibly Chalkidiki) signed in Greek and dated '1914' (lower left) oil on canvas 54 x 81 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Toulon, France Acquired from the above c. 2000 by a private collector, Athens.
Exhibited: Thessaloniki, group show, 1914 (possibly). Thessaloniki, solo exhibition, April 1917 (possibly).
Lying at the very core of Maleas artistic achievement, this strikingly beautiful landscape of undulating rhythms and deftly woven harmonies is one of the finest pictures by any Greek artist to ever come on the auction market.
In 1914, when Landscape was painted and the artists son, Fotinos was born, Maleas was in Thessaloniki, having arrived with his family a year earlier. He remained there until August 1917 when most of his output perished in the citys devastating fires. During his stay in Thessaloniki, Maleas, who headed the citys Public Works Department, participated in a group show in 1914 and, three years later, in April 1917, he organised a major solo exhibition of 200 to 250 works.1 It was probably during that show or earlier when Landscape was purchased by a French officer stationed in the city at the time and eventually found its way to Toulon, a major French naval base in the Mediterranean. Following Venizelos decision to allow the Entente forces to use the port of Thessaloniki as a military base, a French expeditionary detachment landed at the city on October 5, 1915 and remained there throughout World War I, playing a significant role not only in military operations but also in cultural affairs.2 According to a 1916 article in the local press, the French regularly visited Maleas studio and showed their appreciation for his work, buying many of his paintings. It took a foreigners eye to appreciate one of our artists [Maleas] who lives isolated somewhere in town, one of the select few that every city would be proud of. I read in the papers that the French have visited and keep visiting the elegant studio of our distinguished painter C. Maleas and they have bought and keep buying various paintings of his.3
Setting his easel outdoors, Maleas was able to retain the freshness of execution and fidelity to natures effects, aiming not to produce a picturesque scene of evocative details or a romanticised view of dramatic effects, but to investigate and solve pictorial issues beyond the mere recording of a specific location. He stood defiantly on the land and looked seaward, focusing on the oscillation of closely harmonised colour and radically simplifying nature to concentrate on chromatic and painterly matters. Since his early output, the one element that defines Maleas art above anything else is his effort to organise the pictorial space as a system of forms, where nothing is random and everything follows a compositional plan that constitutes a new reality.4 He engaged in an exhaustive discourse with nature that didnt end before he captured all its chromatic brilliance and radiating poetry,5 while his countless sense impressions are orchestrated in a poetic dream, reflecting not the world of appearances but the way he wanted to see, feel and experience the natural environment.6
Although Maleas painted the landscape in front of him with complete directness, he did so with a deep understanding of the landscape as a complex entity. His first concern was to render the atmosphere and character of the Greek landscape, capturing colour fluctuations and fleeting effects of sparkling light reflected on the water in an evocative manner that would convey the momentary elusiveness of an impression. He worked quickly and in full control of his medium, his brushstrokes verging on automatic physical responses to optical stimuli. 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. Impressionism taught Maleas that nature was first and foremost the touchstone against which one measured art. But impressionism was not enough for Maleas.
The paintings overall layout based on curvilinear motifs, the application of heavy impasto, the pronounced textural quality and the multitude of rhythms set an overall tone that transcends the momentary sense impression. Maleas entrusted his subject to the truth of vision, but also ventured beyond the changing atmospheric effects to penetrate into the inner world of the landscape, becoming part of its reality and then recomposing it with freedom and creativity.7 He sought an underlying structure for his experimentations with colour, paint and light, a kind of sturdy pictorial scaffolding that would allow him to convey a sense of endurance and permanence.
It is the landscapes everlasting structure and innate force rather than its superficial appeal that intrigued Maleas. His architectural studies helped him better understand the teachings of Cezanne, who had exhorted painters to treat their subjects in terms of primary geometric shapes and volumes. There is solidity beneath the light surface pattern of separate brushstrokes, recalling the words of Matisse, who maintained that a rapid rendering of a landscape represented only one moment of its appearance and that was why he preferred, by insisting on its essentials, to discover its more enduring character and content. In contrast to the ploughed and cultivated fields in the foreground, which allude to the transience of human life, the distant mountains, infinitely more ancient than man, stand forever, weathering the next storm as they have weathered millions before. What seems to interest him most is to capture and convey both the reality of light and the reality of the object, the inner truth of a lasting structure. Relying on purely painterly means, Maleas transformed a landscape view into a visual language of undulating volumes. Compared to Monet, the architect Maleas places greater emphasis on volume and plasticity of form.8
Land, water and sky come together in the form of successive horizontal bands, while the visual field is presented as a comprehensive system of curvilinear elements through which all representational motifs are consistently rendered -from the largest (mountains, ground, clumps of trees) to the smallest (slope vegetation, ground rocks, etc.) This kind of formal organization, enlivened by sharp outlines and bold colouring, produces a robust, rhythmic outcome, leading the eye from the foreground slopes, which roll seaward amidst a riot of warm tones, to the cool cyans, grey-blues and dark greys of the background.
Maleas exploited colour to express emotion as he was confronted by nature, while his thickly applied paint and animated brushwork created a tactile counterpart to his lively colour scheme, recalling van Goghs exquisite landscapes painted at S. Rémy and Auvers. As in Vincents Wheat fields at Auvers under clouded sky, 1890, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Maleas Landscape employs broad, rounded brushstrokes for the white clouds while the grey-blue remnants of a passing storm stand in contrast to the linear pattern of the fields. By virtue of the shape and orientation of these fields, whose parallel strips form vanishing lines, a strong pull into the depth of the picture is generated, allowing the viewers gaze to glide quickly into the distance and come to rest on the spectacle in the sky.9
Such an advanced and interpretative approach to nature is clear indication that Maleas, unanimously acknowledged as the greatest visual poet of the Greek landscape, was perfectly at home with the work of Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and van Gogh,10 drawing from their underlying artistic premises rather than uncritically adopting their formal vocabulary. His familiarity with European avant-garde trends and his refreshing and innovative ideas made him a prominent member of the Omas Technis, 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 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 arts global perspective.11
1. See A. Kotidis, Constantinos Maleas [in Greek], Adam publ., Athens 2000, pp. 363-364. 2. In spring 1916 the French artists stationed in Thessaloniki organised a group show and Maleas was of great assistance in setting it up and promoting it. See Kotidis, p.82. 3. Macedonia newspaper, 1.5.1916. See also Kotidis, p. 82. 4. Kotidis, p. 188. 5. S. Lydakis, Constantinos Maleas [in Greek] in The Greek Painters - 20th Century (vol. 2), Melissa publ., Athens 1975, pp. 61-62. 6. D. Papastamos, The Representation of Nature by Constantinos Maleas [in Greek] in Constantinos Maleas, exhibition catalogue., National Gallery - Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens, 1980, p.13. 7. See H. Kambouridis, G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art - the 20th Century, Athens 1999, p.30. 8. 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.) 9. See Van Gogh: Fields - the Field with Poppies and the Artists Dispute, (exhibition catalogue.), W. Herzogenrath, D. Hansen ed., Bremen Kunsthalle, Hatze Cantz publ., Bremen 2003. 10. During Maleas six-year stay in Paris (1901-1907), van Gogh and Cezanne had major retrospectives, while Matisse participated in ground-breaking group shows. While we lack conclusive evidence that Maleas was acquainted with these legendary figures, a multitude of elements from his expressive language suggests close familiarity with their work. Kotidis, pp. 23-25. See also pp. 267-307. 11. Noumas journal [in Greek], vo.13, no.567, 1915, p. 259.