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Painted in 1910-1911.
Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum / National Gallery - A. Soutzos Museum, Techni Group 100 Years, June 6 - October 29, 2017 (illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, p. 179).
C. Parthenis, 1964 Calendar, Heracles-Olympos General Cement Company, Athens 1963, p. 31 (illustrated).
Eikones magazine, no. 537, February 4, 1966, p. 44 (discussed).
The Greek Painters, 20th Century, vol. 2, Melissa editions, Athens 1975, pp. 24-25 (discussed), no. 28 (illustrated).
S. Lydakis, The History of Modern Greek Painting (16th-20th Century),The Greek Painters, vol. 3, Melissa editions, Athens 1976, pp. 363-365 (discussed), fig. 623, p. 362 (illustrated).
E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, The Religious Work of Parthenis, Thessaloniki, 1983, pp. 45-46 (discussed), fig. 4b (illustrated).
Modern Greek Culture 1832-1982, Malliaris-Paideia editions, Athens 1983, vol. 1, p. 169 (mentioned).
E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, Religious Subjects in Modern Greek Painting 1900-1940, doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1984, pp. 103 (mentioned), fig. 84 (illustrated).
A. Saragiotis, Greek Symbolism, (doctoral dissertation), Thessaloniki 1999, fig, 239, p. 391 (illustrated).
A. Xydis, Constantinos Parthenis, Ta Nea editions, Athens 2006, pp. 101, 104, 105, 107 (discussed), pp. 84 (illustrated), 124 (illustrated detail), 141 (illustrated).
E. Mathiopoulos, C. Parthenis, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis, K. Adam editions, Athens 2008, no. 85, p. 418 (catalogued), p. 179 (illustrated).
Y. Souliotis, Costis Parthenis on Poros, Sokolis-Kouledakis editions, Athens 2013, p. 62 (listed), p. 60 (illustrated detail), p. 64 (illustrated).
"Annunciation is Parthenis' silent oratorio. Only a great artist can offer such gifts to humankind."
Z. Papantoniou, former Director of the National Gallery, Athens.
A masterpiece of early 20th century European art and one of the greatest pictures ever painted by a Greek artist, Annunciation—among Parthenis' most famous compositions—is a mesmerizing work of dazzling virtuosity and timeless elegance. Ethereal, idealized and weightless figures captured in translucent colours and feathery forms, occupy a purified world of universal peace and divine harmony, conveying an uplifting feel and provoking the viewer's emotional and spiritual participation. With its masterful design, deeply poetic atmosphere, abstractive stylisation of dematerialised form and audacious sense of newness, Annunciation lies at the very core of Parthenis's achievement, reflecting the vision of a great European artist laden with age-old memories who was entranced by the optimism and boldness of the nascent twentieth century.
Parthenis was one of the first artists to infuse the forces of renewal in Modern Greek painting, distancing it from academic pictorial formulas and turning it towards the liberal artistic movements and avant-garde trends taking place in Europe in the early years of the 20th century. During his seven-year stay (1897-1904) in Vienna, one of the great centres of European modernism, he became familiar with Viennese Jugendstil and especially the work of Gustave Klimt. "The music of colours, first introduced by Klimt, was taken up only by Parthenis among Greek artists."1 This kind of musical quality, poetic atmosphere, subtle colour harmonies and delicate flow of line, so evident in Annunciation, echo the achievements of the great Viennese artist. (Compare G. Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1901, Secession Building, Vienna.)
Later, during his stay in Paris (1909-1911), where he painted his Annunciation, Parthenis came in close contact with symbolist circles and was exposed to the work of the great symbolists Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and, especially, Maurice Denis, who not only sought to discover the sacred in daily life, reinvesting art with a deeper, more spiritual meaning, but also practiced religious painting as a district genre. The idealistic and mystical atmosphere of the French painter's religious works, together with certain stylistic features, such as the handling of light, the soft, smooth harmony of colours, and the highly stylised rendering of the human figure, had a strong impact on Parthenis2 and nowhere is this more evident than in Annunciation, a work of heightened poetic and spiritual content. Its ethereal style and the suggestion of a deeply transcendental atmosphere reflects the ongoing efforts by Denis and Georges Desvallières to renew Christian art, which culminated in the first Exposition Internationale de l'Art Chrètien Moderne at the Louvre's Pavillion de Marsan in November 1911.3
This emblematic Parthenis is a fine example of painterly Symbolism, of which Denis was a lucid spokesman and the great Matisse a leading exponent. Handled with simplified forms and painted entirely in a restricted range of cool colours that endow the pictorial surface with an extraordinary luminosity, Annunciation creates an emotional effect which accentuates the encounter of the two figures—the Virgin Mary and the Angel—recalling Matisse's The Conversation, 1911 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), an emblematic picture painted the same time as Parthenis'. In both paintings, the action concentrates on the two main protagonists and is not debilitated by the inclusion of other figures or secondary scenes. As a result, the dramatic intensity reaches its highest point and is sustained by purely pictorial means. The focused attention on the interaction of the two figures and the frugality of the compositional scheme, dominated by austere harmonies of shapes and colours, endow the pictorial surface with additional vitality and enhanced content. Furthermore, both paintings allude to a type found frequently in early Renaissance Annunciation pictures. The verdant landscape seen through Matisse's window and the immaterial architecture in Parthenis' painting both echo the ,hortus conclusus, the walled garden, which stands for Mary's undisturbed chastity. Although Matisse's is not a religious picture, there is something equally spiritual in the encounter of the two figures.4
An audacious modern work of spiritual uplift and poetic feel that both draws from and shares in the visions and breakthroughs of the early 20th century avant-garde, Annunciation demonstrates an ingenious fusion of liberal artistic trends and modernist formal principles with traditional subject matter and the idealism inherent in symbolist themes. Drawing from indigenous cultural experiences, including archaic and classical Greek vase painting models (note the gentle inclination of the Angel's head captured in sharp profile) and Byzantine art conventions (note the austere postures and the peculiar, two-dimensional perspective),5 it formulates an entirely new "Greek canon" based on the boldness of the artist's personal style and subjective interpretation. As noted by Athens National Gallery Director D. Papastamos, "Parthenis fully utilised the Greek aesthetic tradition starting out from where El Greco left off."6
Deviating from the standard medieval and Renaissance depictions of the subject that place the meeting of the two sacred figures in Mary's chambers, Parthenis set the scene outdoors, in a vaguely defined space, which is identified with the courtyard of the holy monastery of Zoodochos Pege on the island of Poros. Parthenis probably painted the setting during his eight-month stay on the island in 1907, commissioned with the wall paintings in the church of Saint George, adding the figures of Archangel Gabriel and Virgin Mary at a later stage.7
The action takes place before the monastery's walled-in fountain (an allusion to Virgin Mary as a fountain of life) according to the description of the apocryphal Gospel of James: "...and went down to fill it with water; and behold a voice saying, "Rejoice, O' favored one..."8. The Annunciation at the fountain is known as the first Annunciation (the second, according to apocryphal texts, takes place in Mary's chambers) and is found mostly in Eastern art from the early Christian era and, later, in the 11th c. wall paintings in Kiev and the St. Mark mosaics in Venice, in the 14th c. mosaics in the Chora Monastery (Kariye djami) and the 15th c. wall paintings of the Pantanassa Monastery in Mystras among others.9 Moreover, Parthenis' composition shares a common if secondary iconographical element with the Pantanassa Annunciation, namely the potted basil plant on the lower right corner, which, as noted by Millet10, is of western origin. According to holy Christian tradition, the potted basil is considered blessed because St. Helen discovered the Holy Cross led by its fragrance.11 The vase with the white lily next to it is of the same origin, denoting Mary's perpetual virginity, while the trailing vine in the background indicates the Garden of Eden.
Occupying the right hand side of the painting, the Mother of God is depicted standing upright like a slender ancient Greek kore in a pale-rose virginal dress, with her right hand before her chest while submissively lowering her head in a pictorial translation of the words "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word" (Luke 1, 38). In her left hand she holds the distaff12 she was occupied with just moments ago. From the top, the Angel descends like a celestial flame in a long milky-blue tunic and stands suspended in midair,13his large vertical wings symbolizing unwavering faith and suggesting the great course of descent from the heavens. Drawing from the poetic and inspiring atmosphere of the symbolist era, angels represent a recurrent theme in Parthenis' work throughout his career. Interestingly, when the artist produced works intended for worship, the angel wings were given a small, conventional shape. However, in his paintings not intended for worship, they were stylised in a geometric Art Deco fashion. Moreover, these stylised wings equalled or exceeded the angel's height.14 (Compare Prayer in the Mount of Olives, c. 1930, sold by Bonhams, Greek Sale 9.4.2014, lot 24.)
Discussing the painting in Melissa editions' Greek Artists of the 20th Century, art critic A. Xydis noted that "the entire area of the courtyard is bathed in a diffuse blue light that creates a purified atmosphere of devotion and prayer, as if the holy encounter takes place in the silent depths of the sea. The work's compositional scheme is far more advanced than in his Slope,15 which was awarded the first prize at the 1910 Salon d'Automne in Paris. Abbreviated shapes translated into evocative symbols, fine lines and curvilinear motifs, translucent forms and sensitive, diluted colours applied on the reverse (brown) side of the canvas to better capture the spiritual immaterialisation of the so called acheiropoiitos Byzantine icons,16 create a magical dreamscape of pure poetry, a vision that can dissolve at any moment, a transient melody that can fade away before registering on our consciousness.17 The whole earth is lit by grace, giving the painting an allegorical evocation, elegiac feel and universal character.
Annunciation introduces a significant iconographic innovation: rather than a lily, Archangel Gabriel is holding a lyre18—a direct reference to classical antiquity demonstrating Parthenis' view of the unbroken continuity of Greek civilization.19 This highly original deviation also alludes to the orphic roots of Christianity as part of fin-de-siècle theosophical beliefs popularised by Edouard Schuré in his book Les Grands Initiés, in which Orpheus is considered one of humankind's great initiators.20 A recurrent subject in Parthenis' art (compare Orpheus and Eurydice, Bonhams Greek Sale, December 12, 2007, lot 89), Orpheus, the son of Apollo, the god of music, and Calliope, the muse of epic and elegiac poetry, is one of the most familiar figures in Greek mythology. His lyre was a gift from his father, and he was taught the art of playing by the muses themselves. The tradition relates that when Orpheus played his lyre, the wild beasts grew tame, the fish came out of the water and even the trees turned towards him.21
The lyre-holding angel also alludes to a direct association of the divine word with music. The salutation of the Virgin Mary, the announcement of this great miracle of the immaculate conception of the Son of God, is made in the language of music.22 The two figures seem enraptured by the divine melody, while the surrounding architectural structures, with their immaterial volumes, graceful lines and melodious forms, look as if they follow the sound of music, irresistibly submitting to the word of God and accentuating the overall feel of spiritual uplift.
In such an evocative setting charged by timeless references, the winged figure, tenderly touching the lyre strings with his right hand and filling the space with the sounds of colour, is identified with the idea of music as a lofty symbol of universal order, harmony and peace. "By dematerialising form and giving shape to ideas, Parthenis creates a musical quality; in other words he lifts painting to the realm of music, the most immaterial of all arts."23 Parthenis himself was an ardent lover of classical music and, accompanied by his wife, he often attended Sunday concerts and recitals at the Municipal Theatre, the Olympia and the Kentrikon music halls.24
Laden with spiritual values, lofty ideals and timeless visions, Parthenis' Annunciation is a highly original work that recapitulates the philosophical and religious quests of a great European master. All compositional elements are rendered by means of the painter's distinct formal vocabulary: limited palette, dematerialised shapes, masterful design and dilute, translucent application of paint. Austere, delicate lines, which echo the simplicity of ancient Greek vase painting, support the compositional structure with curvilinear forms, creating a suggestive atmosphere of linear elegance and diffuse idealism. Every inch of the pictorial surface shows how the painter exploited the essentially expressive nature of his formal repertoire to offer a poetic, idealised experience. "It can be argued that in Parthenis' work the artist's pronounced religiosity identifies with his formal means; in other words he considered the various formal and visual elements that made up his compositions to be loaded with symbolic import, the same way the Pythagoreans thought of numbers as symbols. Parthenis' religiosity is manifest in his listening to his inner voice, which makes him extol the world."25 An older version of the painting offered at auction was allegedly awarded at a religious art exhibition in Paris, and received the National Excellence Award in 1920, while a much smaller version dedicated to A. Papanastasiou is held by the National Gallery in Athens.
As noted by Zacharias Papantoniou, the great scholar and Director of the Athens National Gallery from 1918 to 1940, "Parthenis' Annunciation is a creation of inner harmony that subordinates and leads the picture's compositional elements. The wonderful and daring experimentations of impressionism found in it were subjugated by the painter's emotional disposition, which determined both light and line. The angel descends and hovers on a strict vertical, which immediately conveys a shiver of heavenly grace. This vertical is much like a blaze, a revelation, a sudden union of the human and the divine. On this vertical, this blaze of the absolute, bows a curvilinear form—the Virgin Mary of the Annunciation—to receive the holy grace. The lily is not held by the angel. It is in the poor maiden's vase... It was already part of her life, it had blossomed in her soul. What artistic brilliance, what a creation of a translucent, delicate and eternal symbol! Every human soul that has known pain and humility can identify with this symbol. To the humility and purity of many human souls the painter offers this eternal Christian image. Only a great artist can offer such gifts to humankind.Annunciation is Parthenis' silent oratorio."26
Annunciation was a crown jewel in the famous collection of Dionysios Loverdos (1877-1934), cofounder of Laiki Bank together with his brother Spyros. Parthenis's relationship with the Loverdos brothers was particularly close. Emmanuel Zepos, one of the artist's leading students, insisted that "Parthenis only sold to Loverdos and Papastratos."27 As patrons of the arts, they consistently supported him, acquiring important and emblematic works, including the historic Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos and the contemplative Prayer in the Mount of Olives (sold by Bonhams, Greek Sale, April 9, 2014, lot 24), at exceptionally high prices and entrusting him with the artistic supervision of the Dionysios Loverdos Museum of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. "Considering the deep religiosity of Parthenis and the Loverdos brothers, we could posit that these two cultured intellectuals and art-loving bankers exercised a highly productive influence on the painter, whole-heartedly and open-handedly supporting the establishment of a modernist neo-Byzantine artistic style."28
1. "Painting" [in Greek], Pinakothiki journal, January 1904, p. 224. See also E. Mathiopoulos, "The reception of Parthenis's Work" in Art Grows Feathers in Pain [in Greek], Potamos editions, Athens 2005, pp. 574-594, and D. Papastamos, "The Influence of Jugendstil in the Art of K. Parthenis", Zygos Annual Edition of the Hellenic Fine Arts, vol. III/1984, pp. 82-88.
2. A. Kouria, "Greek Painters and the Nabis Movement" [in Greek] in Metamorphoses of the Modern, The Greek Experience, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 1992, p. 379. See also S. Lydakis, "The Stylistic Evolution of Constantinos Parthenis" [in Greek], Zygos magazine, no. 50, November-December 1981, p. 20.
3. E. Mathiopoulos, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis [in Greek], K. Adam editions, Athens 2008, p. 44. See also M. Lambraki-Plaka, "Religious Themes and Sanctity of Touch in Constantinos Parthenis's Painting" in Religious Subjects in Modern Greek Painting, Parthenis and the Sanctity of Touch, exhibition catalogue, Maria Tsakos Foundation - International Center of Maritime Research and Tradition, Chios / National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 2015, p. 9-11.
4. For a comparative discussion on Denis' and Matisse's art see J. Lee, "Denis and the Ecole de Matisse" in Maurice Denis, 1870-1943, exhibition catalogue, Paris 1994-95, pp. 61-71. See also C. Christou, Constantinos Parthenis, Vienna, Paris, Athens, Foundation for Hellenic Culture, Athens 1995, p. 108.
5. A. Kotidis, "The Influence of Hellenic Art on the Work of C. Parthenis", Actes du XVIII Congres de l' AICA, Greece, 1984, p. 150.
6. D. Papastamos, Painting 1930-1940, Astir Insurance editions, Athens 1981, pp. 14-15.
7. Mathiopoulos, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis, p. 44; Y. Souliotis, Costis Parthenis on Poros [in Greek], Sokolis-Kouledakis editions, Athens 2013, pp. 57.
8. See Evangelia Apocrypta, C. Tischendorf editions, Leipzig 1853, p. 21.
9. See E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, The Religious Work of Parthenis [in Greek], Thessaloniki, 1983, pp. 45-46. See also G. Millet, Recherches sur l'iconographie d'Evangile, Paris 1917, pp. 67-92.
10. Ibid, p. 91.
11. Y. Souliotis, Costis Parthenis on Poros, pp. 57-58.
12. The distaff is an age-old means by which women traditionally express their creativity and emotions. Ibid, pp. 57-58.
13. The hovering angel motif is reminiscent of the lyre-playing figure in the Sacred grove beloved by the arts and the muses (1884/89) by Puvis de Chavannes, of the Virgin at the foot of the Cross by Eugène Carrière (1894/97), and the Muse (c. 1898) and Orpheus (c. 1894) by Henri Martin, as well as the art of the Nabis, especially Maurice Denis (Catholic Mystery, 1890). See E. Georgiadou-Kountoura, Religious Subjects in Modern Greek Painting 1900-1940 [in Greek] doctoral dissertation, Thessaloniki 1984, note 50, p. 122.
14. See A. Kotidis, Modernism and Tradition in the Greek Art of the Interwar Period [in Greek], Thessaloniki 1993, pp. 128-129.
15. A.Xydis, "Constantinos Parthenis (1878-1967)" [in Greek] in The Greek Painters, 20th Century, vol. 2, Melissa editions, Athens 1975, pp. 24-25
16. Holy paintings thought to have been created without the intervention of human hand.
17. See S. Lydakis, "The Stylistic Evolution of Constantinos Parthenis, p. 21
18. The lyre is featured in a number of Parthenis's compositions, including Calypso (Y. Perdios collection, Athens) and Night Reflects my Sorrow (Bonhams Greek Sale, December 13, 2007, lot 72).
19. M. Lambraki-Plaka, Mothers and Children in Modern Greek Art, 2016 Calendar, National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 2016, p. 12.
20. See E. Schuré, Les Grands Initiés, Esquisse de l'Histoire Secrete des Religions, Paris 1889, See also E. Mathiopoulos, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis, p. 44, and Greek Participation in the Venice Biennales 1934-1940 [in Greek], doctoral dissertation, vol. 1, Rethymno 1996, pp. 441-444.
21. As noted by the great German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, "Orpheus is the archetype of the poet as liberator and creator; he establishes higher order in the world—an order without repression. In his person, art, freedom and culture are eternally combined. He is the poet of redemption, the god who brings peace and salvation by pacifying man and nature, not through force but through song." H. Marcuse, Eros and Civilization.
22. See N. Zias, "Annunciation - Poetry" in Constantinos Parthenis, Force - Poetry, Annunciation, exhibition catalogue, Museum of the City of Athens - Vouros-Eutaxias Foundation, Athens 2009, p. 9.
23. Z. Papantoniou, "Parthenis's Art" [in Greek], Patris daily, January 19, 1920.
24. K. Iliadis, The World of Art in the Period Between the Wars [in Greek], Athens 1978, p. 101.
25. E. Mathiopoulos, "The Voice and Silence of C. Parthenis" [in Greek], Utopia magazine, no. 1, May-June 1992, p. 152.
26. Z. Papantoniou, "Parthenis's Art", Patris daily, January 26, 1920.
27. As quoted in A. Kotidis, On Parthenis, University Studio Press, Thessaloniki 1984, p. 52. "Parthenis didn't sell to anyone he didn't know nor to people he wasn't sure where and how they would hang his paintings." D. Pavlopoulos in A. Domenikou, Euthyfron Iliadis, Artist and Antiquities Dealer from Asia Minor, Vivliopoleio ton Bibliophilon, Athens 2008, p.8.
28. E. Mathiopoulos, The Life and Work of Costis Parthenis, pp. 66-68. See also A. Kouria, "Collectors and Modern Greek Art in the First Half of the 20th Century" [in Greek], Istoria tis Technis magazine, no. 3, Winter 2014-15, p.77.