The milk signed in Greek (upper right) oil on canvas 48.5 x 39 cm.
Painted before 1917.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
EXHIBITED: Athens, Zappeion, Panhellenic Artistic Exhibition of Greek Artists Association, 1917 (no 427). Athens, National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, The Child in Greek Art, 19th-20th Century, 1993 (illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, no. 56, p. 137).
LITERATURE: Afroditi Kouria-Dimitris Portolos, Nikos Lytras, National Gallery and ELIA Edition, Athens 2008, no 60, p. 179 (illustrated). Chariklia-Glafki Gotsi, The artist N. Lytras, dissertation thesis, Thessaloniki 1992, pp. 44-45, 100, illustration 62. Afroditi Kouria-Irene Orati, The child in Neohellenic Art, National Gallery Edition, Athens 1993, no 56. A. Kouria, I. Orati, 'The Child in Art', Kathimerini daily (Epta Imeres), 1-2.1.1994, p. 15 (referred).
"Milk is one of Nikolaos Lytras' most remarkable works. The key expressive means here are the handling of space and the cropped visual field, which invite the viewer to actively engage in the picture. The reverse perspective which lends prominence to the foreground, the zoom-like focus on secondary pictorial elements, the enlargement of detail, the clustering of objects at the edges, the arbitrary, snapshot-like cropping and framing, and the symmetry and centrifugal motion, all work together to support the representation's dynamic, conveying the immediacy and subjectivity of an impression, of a visual perception that is dynamic rather than static or dictated by the hierarchical arrangement of the iconographical elements manifested in academic, naturalistic genre painting. The closeness and sense of familiarity felt by the viewer eliminate the visual and psychological distance from the pictorial event. The lively tonal and colour juxtapositions of large, simplified surfaces with their syncopated rhythm, as well as the gestural, textured brushwork that amplifies the impression of a first-hand experience, act jointly to achieve the final expressive outcome. This work, like The peeling of quinces betrays influences of similar subjects by Bonnard (compare Le cafè, 1914, The Tate Modern, London).1 In Lytras' work, however, the human figure always maintains its integrity, its head not arbitrarily cropped to become just another motif as the other formal elements of the picture."2
The figure's compositional importance is ensured by a rhythmical sequence of an arresting cluster of still life elements, which directs the eye from the cropped ark shape in the extreme foreground to the china milk cup, to the gleaming tray of highly polished silver holding a silver teapot, to the matching sugar bowl and finally to the cup held by the little girl at the end of the table. Floating on a sea of cream white hues, this wonderful still life offers solidity and weight as well as convex shapes for the artist's exploration of volume and complex treatment of pictorial space. This skilful spatial organization is complemented by certain master touches, such as the wonderful sickle-like reflection on the tray rim matching the two earth colours of the background.
Both the figure and the still-life objects are modelled not through tonal gradations but through close juxtapositions of varied hues evoking tactile roundness. The artist achieves the sense of substance with which he endows his forms by the density and texture of the paint itself, while developing a rhythmically articulate series of formal elements that weld the image and its attendant attributes into a compelling entity. As noted by H.G. Gotsi, who did her graduate thesis on Lytras, "the artist is mainly interested in handling the interaction of the objects on the table, revealing his great aptitude in using brushwork to generate shapes and forms. This work is distinguished by its intense luminosity and use of pure colour, applied on canvas with narrow brushstrokes. Outlines dissolve while the painter sets out to endow his forms with a sculptural quality and organize his composition in terms of geometric patterns, an approach akin to the formulations of Cezanne."3
In 1993, Milk -together with Straw Hat and Little Donkey, Athens National Gallery's famous jewels - was selected to represent Lytras' work in the "Child in Greek Art / 19th-20th Century" exhibition organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture at the National Gallery in Athens. The painting is discussed in the exhibition catalogue as follows: "The interaction of light and colour are of great concern to Nikolaos Lytras, even when he is dealing with an interior scene, as shown in this piece of urban genre that might be portraying one of the artist's daughters based on anecdotal information provided by a previous owner. Here again Lytras comes through as a true master in the handling of colour, which has always been his signature trait. Broad, intense brushstrokes build up the figure of the girl with the piercing gaze. The bow in her hair seems like a pretext for some lively white brushstrokes that highlight the child's face. The sparse geometry of form provides the underlying framework of the composition, which is organised into large areas of undifferentiated colour by means of intense tonal juxtapositions. Relying on the dynamically pronounced tabletop foreground that dominates the picture, the overall compositional layout evokes a sense of a more immediate and subjective impression, echoing certain works by Bonnard with similar subjects."4
Painterly technique, energetic brushwork, vibrant form and textured surface support the liberation of properties intrinsic to the artist's medium, asserting the freedom of his pictorial gesture, while the fluid rhythm of the execution becomes the means by which the artist not only records but shares in this field of energy in search of a deeper pictorial truth. Around the time he painted Milk, Lytras co-founded the legendary 'Omas Techni,' an anti-academic art group, which infused the forces of renewal in Greek painting with a fresh and vital impetus and had a major impact on the 1930s generation. As noted by Athens National Gallery Director M. Lambraki-Plaka, "Nikolaos Lytras was a painter committed to the truth of vision, a true revolutionary who reinvigorated Greek painting and left a rich legacy of works full of vitality and inner truth that can deservedly stand next to the great masterpieces of early European modernism."5
1. In Le cafè, Bonnard's wife Marthe sips coffee, with her pet dog at her side. The table stretches invitingly before us, so that the painting appears to record the casual glance of someone about to sit down opposite Marthe. (From the display caption, Sept. 2004). 2. A. Kouria, D. Portolos, Nikos Lytras, Building Form with Colour and Light [in Greek], National Gallery-A. Soutzos Museum & Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive, Athens 2008, p. 159. 3. H.G. Gotsi, The Painter Nikos Lytras 1883-1927 (graduate thesis) [in Greek], Thessaloniki, 1992, pp. 44-45. 4. A.B.K. in The Child in Greek Art, 19th-20th Century, exhibition catalogue., National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 1993, p. 136. 5. M. Lambraki-Plaka, introduction to Nikos Lytras, Building Form with Colour and Light, p. 14.