Achilles' revenge signed in Greek and dated 1922 (lower left); inscribed with title on the upper part natural pigments on textile 81 x 154 cm.
Mighty and handsome as an Olympian god, his golden armour flashing lightning and fiery red cape flapping in the morning wind, regal Achilles stands triumphantly over the dead body of Hector having avenged the death of his beloved friend Patroclus. In this magnificent painting, Theofilos explores a mythical, ideal world that stirred his imagination since his early childhood. As noted by Nobel laureate and art critic O. Elytis, his grandfather used to sit him on his knees in front of the fireplace and recount old stories about Achilles and Hector, Alexander the Great, and Erotokritos, until the little boy closed his eyes and dreamt about the great deeds of these heroes of Hellenism.1
Achilles and Hector feature prominently in three other known works by Theofilos, comprising a significant subset of the painter's subjects drawn from the Homeric epics. However, all three - a wall painting in the village of Yera on the island of Lesvos, a wooden panel in Hagia Paraskevi, Lesvos and an oil on fabric2 - portray the scene prior to the one depicted here, namely the engagement of the two heroes in single combat. The Bonhams picture is perhaps the only work by Theofilos inspired by the aftermath of this great battle.
As the myth goes, Achilles speared Hector through the breast and refused his dying plea that his body be ransomed for burial. He then stripped the dead body of its armour and fastened the feet with thongs to the back of his chariot. With the body trailing along the ground, its long golden locks streaming on either side of the head, the once glorious and noble prince was dragged around the walls of Troy.
The prominent historian Robert Graves cites a version of the story according to which Achilles, instead of using thongs, fastened Hector's feet with an ornamented leather belt Ajax had given him.3 It seems that Theofilos illustrated this account, since the triangular shape that protrudes under Achilles's left foot looks very much like the tapered tip of a stiff leather belt. Moreover, the bearded Achaean warrior in the blue cape standing above the dead body could very well be Ajax himself, the legendary king of Salamis who was renowned for his heavy shield and a spear. Up on the walls of Troy, Theofilos depicted the tragic father, King Priam, waving farewell to his dead son and the devastated mother, Queen Ekavi, tearing her hair in violent distress, while the hero's wife Andromache is barely restrained by her maiden from throwing herself headlong from the city walls. Women weep, while citizens and soldiers participate in the general mourning.
Besides its exceptional design, confident brushwork and vibrant palette, and apart from its close affinity with some of the fundamental stylistic premises of the early 20th c. avant-garde, The Revenge of Achilles eloquently shows that Theofilos was perfectly at home with some of the key conventions of Post-Byzantine and folk art. Note how the great Greek hero is identified as such not by an inscription but by purely pictorial means: he is not only extremely handsome and noble but also much bigger than his comrades and almost as tall as one of the palm trees that frame the composition, taking full advantage of folk art's liberating freedom that recognises no limitations when it comes to scale or perspective. Moreover, the picture's title, inscribed on the top left, as well as a short text at the foot of Troy's city walls reflect the painter's desire to provide a full description of his subject by leaving nothing obscure. On the contrary, the visual act is clearly expressed, while all phenomena are thrust forward to the narrative surface where they receive even illumination in a flat, continuous present an approach to representation that is a fundamental structural principle of the Homeric epics.
1. O. Elytis, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Asterias editions, Athens 1973, p. 24. 2. See M. Moschou, Theofilos Hadjimihail, doctoral dissertation, Appendix, Images, vol. 1-4 [in Greek], Athens 2005, pp. 4,5; 3. G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Athens 1978, p. 42. 3. R. Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. 1, Penguin Books, London 1960, p. 309. See also E. Hamilton, Mythology, Mentor Books, Boston 1942, p. 191; and T. Bulfinch, The Golden Age of Myth and Legend, Wordsworth Reference editions, Ware, 1993, pp. 56-59.
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 from the 12-14 of November 2013. This painting will be located in Athens during the auction.