Acropolis / Acropole vue entre des pins et aloès signed in Greek (lower right) oil on cardboard 49 x 69 cm.
Painted in 1918-1919.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Exhibited: Athens, National Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, Retrospective, 1980, no 62. Paris, Group Techni (ouevres d'un groupe d'artistes héllènes), Galerie de la Boetiè, September 2-31, 1919.
Literature: Antonis Kotidis, Maleas, Adam Editions, Athens 2000, p. 338, no 170 (referred). A.Kotidis, 'The Painter C. Maleas (1879-1928)', doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1982 (illustrated fig. 5.46, referred pp. 133, 263). K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Le 'Groupe Tekhni', doctoral dissertation, Athens 2002 (illustrated Reproductions 1, pl. LXIXb., referred vol. 1, p. 177, vol. 3, p. 673). A.Kotidis, The Painter C. Maleas (1879-1928), doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1982 (illustrated fig. 5.46, referred pp. 133, 263). K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Le "Groupe Tekhni", doctoral dissertation, Athens 2002 (illustrated Reproductions 1, pl. LXIXb., referred vol. 1, p. 177, vol. 3, p. 673).
"We love beauty and simplicity." Pericles
A truly magnificent work uniting reason's rule and ordered thought with the exuberance and zest of Attica's nature, Maleas' Acropolis is an initiation to a world of ideal rhythms where form and spirit reclaim their long-fragmented wholeness. Demonstrating an ingenious fusion of inner discipline and outer freedom, this verse of lyric poetry submits to the force of a timeless canon, capturing the grandeur and aura of the classical monument not as a lifeless relic of ancient glory but as a form of eternity constantly reborn in the present.
Acropolis (Acropole vue entre des pins et aloès) was exhibited in Paris in 1919 as part of a major show of Modern Greek art mounted under the auspices of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was in the French capital at the time for a peace conference and attended the opening. The exhibition featured two hundred works by leading Greek modernists and members of the 'Omas Techni' art group, which was founded two years earlier at the initiative of Nikolaos Lytras and had already infused the forces of renewal in Greek painting with a fresh and vital impetus. The group's aim was the renunciation of sterile academicism and the alignment with progressive movements and avant-garde trends.1 The writer D. Kokkinos described this revolutionary proposal as "the quest for new expressive forms, the breaking of the old moulds, the abolition of the academic pictorial formula, the longing for new emotions and the search for a deeper pictorial truth."2
For Maleas, this challenging quest was launched while setting his easel and standing defiantly before the mighty Acropolis. His interest in the sacred rock was renewed following his return to Athens in 1917, which gave him the opportunity to concentrate on the subject, something he couldn't do during his brief visits in the past when he lived in Thessaloniki. As noted by Dr. S. Lydakis, "his permanent residence in Athens signalled a new period in his work. Experimentation subsided and the admirable maturity of his work showed that the artist was at the height of his creative powers."3
For this splendid view of the Acropolis he chose a western vantage point because it offered him one of the best views of the citadel as a harmonious ensemble of illustrious monuments -particularly the majestic Propylaea which had been extensively restored throughout the second half of the 19th century and, of course, the Parthenon, this classical masterpiece and symbol of everlasting value. Painting outdoors among pine trees and aloes, Maleas was able to retain the freshness of execution and fidelity to nature's effects, aiming not to produce a romanticised view of ancient splendour or a picturesque scene of evocative detail, but to investigate and solve pictorial issues beyond the mere recording of a specific location. He focused on closely harmonised colour and concentrated on chromatic and painterly matters. "Since his early output, the one element that defined Maleas' art above anything else was his effort to organise the pictorial space as a system of forms, where nothing was random and everything followed a compositional plan that constituted a new reality."4
Although Maleas painted what was in front of him with complete directness, he did so with a deep understanding of the landscape as a complex entity. Impressionism taught him that nature was first and foremost the touchstone against which one measured art. But recording momentary sense impressions was not enough for Maleas. While entrusting his subject to the truth of vision, he also ventured beyond atmospheric effects to penetrate the inner world of the landscape and become part of its reality.5 He sought an underlying structure for his studies on colour, paint and light, a kind of sturdy pictorial scaffolding that would allow him to convey a sense of endurance and permanence akin to the atmosphere emanating from the awesome site.
His architectural studies helped him fully comprehend the teachings of Cezanne, who had exhorted painters to look for solidity beneath the surface patterns and treat their subjects in terms of primary geometric forms to discover their enduring character and essential content. Following in the steps of the modern French master, Maleas wished to show the trees and the monuments not only as coloured patterns of light that would have satisfied an impressionist eye, but also to communicate his perception of their volume, mass and solidity. Similarly, he endeavoured to transcend impressionism in the rendering of space, suggesting recession into depth not by diminution of tonal contrast but through a wise arrangement of form in a sequence of planes.6
The monumental and architectonic qualities of Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-7) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bring to mind the painter's recorded ambition to 'revivify the great classicist Nicolas Poussin in front of nature,' suggesting a fusion of modern observation with a classical sense of structure. The stern, Cartesian Poussin had tried to give to landscape an air of order and permanence, recognising that the rhythmic relations of verticals and horizontals could have an effect similar to that of the harmonic devices in architecture.7 A comparison of both Maleas' Acropolis and Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire with Poussin's Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640s) at the Art Institute of Chicago shows that all three painters used the geometry of buildings to anchor the centre of their compositions and enhance surface coherence. They also shared a similar planar organisation of space, stressing the measured rhythm of horizontal bands in the landscape. Everything is clear cut, in almost geometric form and every object is seen and understood. However, while Poussin produced a generalised and idealised vision of an imaginary arcadia dotted with deserted Greek ruins and architectural fragments, Cezanne and Maleas conveyed a direct experience of their sites, capturing the venerable images of awesome Acropolis and mighty Mont Sainte-Victoire8 in powerful compositions.
Much like Cezanne, Maleas was interested not only in delivering a carefully studied fabric of brushstrokes and colour but also in weaving together the reality of light and the inner truth of structure in a unified pictorial experience.
In his Acropolis, land, monument and sky come together in the form of successive horizontal bands of sharp outlines, bold colour, cooler and warmer tones and great architectural order, producing a robust, rhythmic outcome, which alternates upwards leading the eye from nature (foreground vegetation) to culture (monuments on the Acropolis) to nature (upper foliage). Maleas structures his picture sturdily, unifying it with a series of undulating lines and forms that run through it, much the same way as Cezanne composed his Mont Sainte-Victoire landscape with horizontal areas cut through by verticals and diagonals in the form of towering pine trees, paths and a viaduct, which strides across the middle distance. In both pictures the effects of perspective are neutralised in favour of a unified picture plane, and colour is used for its ability to build form, while the tight weave of verticals, horizontals and diagonals reflects a deep understanding of compositional principles.
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 post-impressionist breakthroughs,9 drawing from their underlying artistic premises rather than uncritically adopting their formal vocabulary. Furthermore, he shared in the avant-garde's passion 'to redo Poussin after nature' and move towards a more conceptual direction, which reconciled modernist innovation with the grande tradition and contributed to the re-emergence of the arcadian vision in the first decades of the 20th century.10
As stated earlier, Acropolis was painted in 1918-19, the period in which the 'Omas Techni' group was founded and launched its first initiatives. Its members, including Maleas, who exhibited in the Galerie La Boétie in Paris in 1919, represented the first ideological manifestation of Greek-centred modernism that had a purely plein-air orientation. The theoretical forerunner of Greekness as an aesthetic ideology was Pericles Yannopoulos who perceptively identified the distinct qualities of the Greek light and its dialogue with the unique nature of the Greek landscape in his influential treatise The Greek Line (1904). "No darkness, only light, beautiful lines, grace, eros, bliss."11
Yannopoulos' text even foreshadowed the importance that line would acquire in the work of Maleas, as manifested in the gracious lines of the climbing tree trunks and the curving patterns of the foliage forms that recall the art of Gauguin and hark back to the Japanese print: "It is obvious that this one single line, ascending most gently, descending most sweetly, undulating in great, calm waves, rising harmoniously and sliding symmetrically, creates beautiful, rounded shapes, occasionally soaring upwards with vigorous, adolescent agility only to return with a seagull's lightness to a gentle rhythm."12 Whereas Cezanne taught him compositional discipline, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School encouraged him to maintain the expressive use of line and elevate the horizon extending the pictorial surface to the limits of the canvas without the illusion of receding space.
This predilection for arabesque lines that allude to human silhouettes, curvilinear motifs that tend to escape from the boundaries of the canvas, rhythmic flame-like patterns and wonderful colours, including a set of eye-smacking mauves and lavenders,13 invest Maleas' picture with art-nouveau touches, moving it towards the poetic and inspiring atmosphere of symbolism. It can be argued that, judging from the predominance of elaborate natural motifs, the painter intended to submit the man-made environment to a natural order; not only does the foliage outsize the Parthenon, it also crowns the monument! As noted by Professor A. Kotidis in his monograph on the artist, "this is an eloquent allusion, typical of Maleas' symbolism: human creations are finite and transient, while nature is infinite and eternal."14 Another reading, equally symbolist, may suggest that the painter aspired to a creative fusion of nature and culture on equal terms: as much awesome as nature may be, the Parthenon's timeless simplicity and beauty is nothing short of miraculous.
Bathed in the eternal Greek light, the Acropolis of Athens remains a cultural ideal and an everlasting icon of artistic excellence. It is not only an outstanding creation but also a model of perfection, a kind of absolute canon for the evaluation of all achievement.15 The monuments on the sacred rock have always had the power to inspire wonder and stir the heart, showing the world how true and alive balanced thought can be. "Nowhere and at no time has art achieved such perfect harmony with nature as in this imposing and sublime monument. The Acropolis of Athens is the noblest altar that human genius ever erected to Beauty."16
1. See K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Le 'Groupe Tekhni', doctoral dissertation, Athens 2002. 2. D. Kokkinos, Nea Estia journal, 1930, translated in H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art - the 20th Century, Ministry of the Aegean ed., Athens 1999, p.41. 3. S. Lydakis, 'Constantinos Maleas' [in Greek] in The Greek Painters - 20th Century (vol. 2), Melissa publ., Athens 1975, p. 61. 4. A. Kotidis, Constantinos Maleas [in Greek], Adam publ., Athens 2000, p. 188. 5. See H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, p.30. 6. See J. Walker, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Abrams publ., New York, p. 268-269). 7. See K. Clark, Landscape into Art, Penguin Books, Edinburgh, 1961, p. 48. 8. Dominating the countryside around Aix-en-Provence, Mont Sainte-Victoire belongs to the family of sacred mountains: Olympus, Sinai, Tabor. 9. 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. 10. See M. Dabrowski, 'French Landscape, the Modern Vision 1880-1920', exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000, p. 15. 11. P. Yannopoulos, 'The Greek Line' [in Greek], Anatoli magazine, March 1903 reprinted in P. Yannopoulos, The Greek Line, Ermias publ., Athens 1991, pp. 80-81. See also M. Lambraki-Plaka, 'Papaloukas' Painting, a Spiritual Adventure' [in Greek] in 'Spyros Papaloukas', exhibition catalogue, B&M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music, Athens 2009, pp. 12-13. 12. Yannopoulos, 'The Greek Line'. 13. D. Papastamos, 'The Representation of Nature in the Work of Constantinos Maleas' [in Greek] in 'Constantinos Maleas', exhibition catalogue, National Gallery - A. Soutzos Museum, Athens 1980, pp. 13-14. 14. A. Kotidis, Constantinos Maleas, p. 155. 15. S. Kondaratos, 'The Parthenon as Cultural Ideal', Ithaca journal, no. 20, November 2002, p. 10. 16. A. Philadelpheus, Monuments of Athens, History and Art Editions, Athens 1995, p. 45.