Ulysses and Iphigenia in Avlida signed in Greek (lower right); inscribed (upper and lower part) natural pigements on canvas 78 x 88 cm.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
Iphigenia in Aulis, a subject so dear to Theofilos that he painted it on his famous little chest -the most valuable of his possessions- in which he kept the tools of his trade, becomes an ideal vehicle for the painter to fuse iconographic and linguistic symbols in a uniform and living Greek myth. The painter Alecos Fassianos recalls that in 1959, when he visited the island of Lesvos with Professor P. Mylonas to record the artist's works, an old woman told him that she had met Theofilos once and asked him: "What is that you are painting my son? He replied: 'A woman who sacrificed her life to save Greece.' That's exactly how Theofilos felt about it; that Iphigenia had literally sacrificed herself for the good of the Greeks. Theofilos was a true artist, who gave us a national pictorial consciousness, so that we can be proud to have paintings that spring like trees from this land's very soil."1
Ingeniously combining instinctive knowledge, compositional discipline and freedom of colour choices with a deep sense of a heroic past, Theofilos rediscovered the hidden clue of Greek painting, becoming a point of reference for the most prominent Greek intellectuals of the 20th century. Nobel laureates G. Seferis and O. Elytis considered him an uncorrupted student of the senses who gave expression to the true face of Greece and a great artist who made us see the world with a different eye.2 "His roots go way back to the ancient Aegean and it is this heritage that makes him paint in a distinctly Greek manner."3
Ancient Greek subjects comprise a significant subset of Theofilos's iconography, allowing him to explore a mythical, ideal world that was out of his reach, before turning with nostalgia to more familiar and accessible subjects, such as landscapes and genre scenes.4 Here, the seer Calchas is shown in front of the temple of Apollo -as indicated by the inscription on the lower left, the image of the sun on the pediment and the god's statue in the interior- welcoming with a theatrical gesture Iphigenia and Odysseus to the port of Aulis, in Boeotia "when the ships of the Achaeans were gathered bringing disaster to he Trojans and Priam, and we beside a spring and upon the sacred altars were accomplishing complete hecatombs to the immortals." (Iliad, Book Two, 303-306.) The fleet of the Achaeans lend rhythm to the picture, while the boldly coloured floral motifs wonderfully framing the oval composition reflect a particularly happy period in Theofilos's art. As noted by G. Petris, his works involving the sacrifice of Iphigenia are among Theofilos's finest moments.5
As the myth goes, after two years of preparing for the Trojan War, the Greek fleet and army had assembled in Aulis, but Agamemnon while hunting killed a stag (shown at the foot of the temple) which was sacred to Artemis and the goddess in retribution visited the army with pestilence and produced a calm which prevented the ships from sailing. Thereupon, Calchas, the wise soothsayer, announced that the wrath of the goddess could only be appeased by the sacrifice of a virgin, and that none other but the daughter of the offender, the maiden Iphigenia, would be acceptable. Agamemnon, however reluctant, gave his consent and sent for his daughter, under the pretence that she was to be married to Achilles. But, at the moment of sacrifice, Diana, relenting, snatched the maiden away and left a deer in her place. Enveloped in a cloud, Iphigenia was conveyed to Tauris, where Artemis made her a priestess at her temple.6
The Homeric epics, the remotest time period Theofilos dealt with, is close in spirit to his art. Fundamental to the Homeric representations of reality is parataxis, a style in which sentences, ideas and episodes are placed one after another like beads on a string. Each hexameter is followed by another of equal grammatical and semantic value. In paratactic narrative -much like in Theofilos's linear arrangement of figures- every idea and every scene are equally important, equally emphasized and thus all seem to exist on one uniform level or plane. In both cases, this device is characteristic of an impulse to provide a full description of the subject by leaving nothing obscure, hidden or implicit. Everything is explained and clearly expressed and, therefore, all phenomena are thrust forward to the narrative surface where they receive even illumination in a continuous present.
1. A. Fassianos, Theofilos, the Friend of God [in Greek], I Lexi magazine, no. 172, November - December 2002, p. 920. 2. O. Elytis, The New Greek Myth, Asterias, Athens 1973 and G. Seferis, Angloelliniki Epitheorisi magazine, vol. 3, no. 1, May 1947, p. 2 3. A. Xydis, Proposals for the History of Modern Greek Art [in Greek], vol. 1, Athens 1976, p. 36-38. 4. See K. Makris, The 'Relevance' of Theofilos, Zygos Annual Edition on the Hellenic Fine Arts, vol. 3, Athens 1984, p. 98 5. G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Athens 1978, pp. 42. 6. See T. Bulfinch, The Golden Age of Myth and Legend, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 1993, pp. 263-264.
Please note that due to Greek regulation, this lot cannot be exported from Greece and will be available for viewing and inspection in Athens either by appointment or during the Athens Preview May 8-10 2012. This painting will be located in Athens during the auction.