Periclès Pantazis (Greek, 1849/50-1884) Mauvaise recette 113.5 x 71.5 cm.
Lot 37
Periclès Pantazis
(Greek, 1849/50-1884)
Mauvaise recette 113.5 x 71.5 cm.
Sold for £ 356,000 (US$ 473,026) inc. premium

The Greek Sale

20 May 2008, 14:00 BST

London, New Bond Street

Lot Details
Periclès Pantazis (Greek, 1849/50-1884)
Mauvaise recette
signed 'Pantazis' (lower left)
oil on canvas
113.5 x 71.5 cm.


  • Provenance:
    Auction of the Pantazis ateliér, May 1885, Brussels.
    Auction of Galerie Royale, 13 November 1905, no 59.
    Palais des Beaux-Arts, Auction of the 7 November 1932, no 88.
    Barella collection.
    Grenez collection.
    Cécile Dulire collection.
    Galerie Michel de Frenne Brussels.
    Private collection, Athens.

    Metsovo, Ev. Averoff-Tositsa Foundation, Periclès Pantazis, 8 September-10 November 1996, no 68.
    Athens, National Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, Periclès Pantazis, 25 November 1996- 31 January 1997, no 68.

    Periclès Pantazis 1849-1884, texts by S. Goyens de Heusch, O. Mentzafou-Polyzou, S. Samaras, Ev. Averoff-Tositsa Foundation, Athens 1994, no 265, p. 101 (illustrated).
    Gustave Mahaux, Periclès Pantazis, Imprimerie du Châtelain, Brussels 1962, p. 30 (referred).
    A. Martini, Periclès Pantazis an Avant-Garde Artist in Belgium, Diachronia journal, February 1997 (referred).

    One of the greatest pictures ever painted by a Modern Greek artist and a remarkable achievement of 19th century European realism, this tour de force of Pantazis’ inspired style lies at the heart of the aesthetic discourse of its time, while, with its audacious modernity and incredible sense of newness, looks ahead to the visions and breakthroughs of the early 20th century avant-garde.

    Although academically trained (at the Athens School of Arts under Nikiforos Lytras from 1866 to 1871 and subsequently at the Munich Academy), Pantazis felt stifled by strict tenets and was strongly drawn to the liberal ideas that prevailed in French art and reverberated as far as Bavaria. The profound conservatism of the School of Munich proved at odds with his artistic vision and he therefore stayed in Germany for less than a year. In 1872 he went to Paris, a stopover which “had a profound effect on his artistic development. The innovative, avant-garde trends he was exposed to during his stay were a true revelation to the young artist, providing an outlet for his aesthetic quests. He admired the art of Courbet, was impressed by the style of Manet and fullheartedly embraced the principles of the newly emerged Impressionism, which he later carried with him to Belgium where he lived for the rest of his life.”1

    As noted by Athens National Gallery curator O. Mentzafou-Polyzou, “Paris was a major breakthrough for Pantazis. Courbet’s realism offered the young artist new means of expression. Seeking the essence of reality he no longer relied on the faithful representation of the world but on its inherent inner truth. The object acquired a spiritual content not through its idealization and beautification but through its realistic rendition, while the faithful portrayal of social reality turned into a critical stance.”2 Moreover, according to National Gallery Director M. Lambraki-Plaka, “during those brief months in Paris, Pantazis managed to see and assimilate more than I. Rizos and T. Ralli did in their lifetime.”3

    Against a backdrop symbolic of the urban environment of a modern metropolis, a young musician stands at a street corner that blocks deep recession into space, leaning wearily on a poster-pasted wall, while the instrument of his profession, his guitar, stands patiently besides him in a similar posture. Lit by an overhanging streetlamp whose harsh light is brilliantly picked up by the man’s white collar (compare After the ride, E. Averoff Museum, Metsovo), the two ‘partners’ cast their shadows, these ‘body others’, on a torn poster that probably announces a big-time show at one of the city’s prestigious music halls. The young man bends forward to count the scanty proceeds of the day that probably won’t suffice for a decent meal in a nearby tavern suggested by the floodlit window across the narrow street. Distinguishing facial characteristics are suppressed and it is only the stark juxtaposition of the figure’s dark, monochromatic silhouette set against a brashly coloured background that animates and informs the scene. With emphasis placed on the hands, the expressive body language, the contrast between light and shadow - indebted to Manet - and the interplay between figure and setting, much of the street musician’s individuality is lost, turning him into a generalised and distanced representative of his profession.

    The pensive mood is heightened by his silent introspection contrasted with the loud messages of the printed material, his gloomy future matching the uncertainty of the muddy, sinister backstreet looming around the corner. In mid 19th century Paris, where many streets were lighted by oil lamps suspended by wires from houses on opposite sides, one moved from the brilliantly lighted boulevards “into inner darkness.”4 “The back streets were narrow, crooked, crowded, ill built, and very unsavoury,” recalled a correspondent of the Morning Post, writing in 1862: there were “huge, tall houses overshadowing the way, from whose gouttieres the foot-passenger shrank in awe, and down whose streets the water flowed unheeded, or stagnated undisturbed.”5

    The young musician finds himself confronted, and probably alienated, by the tokens of modern city life, its ephemerality and tackiness symbolized by the bombardment of advertising, while the lure of unobtainable warmth and comfort is suggested by the flooded interior behind the plate glass window. The figure’s simple, monochromatic posture allows none of the compositional or gestural clichés, usually associated with street life. Unlike many 19th century academic characters, he seems unruffled by any vestiges of pseudo-romantic melodrama. Instead, Pantazis emphasized the factuality and dignity of semi-impoverished urban life, while stressing the tangible presence of the painted surface - a major concern of evolving modernism. In a tentative association with a general 19th century current of socially conscious subjects invested with symbolist overtones - evident in the work of Millet, early Van Gogh, late Munch and Puvis de Chavannes, Pantazis’ street musician conveys a deep feeling for the dignity of labour.

    There is also a suggestion of Manet, Degas, Pissarro and Seurat who regarded their art as having both a documentary and a polemical role in contemporary society, their images of street vendors, entertainers and labourers making up a painted panorama of modern urban experience. Moreover, in its extensive use of monochrome, this work comes close to Edgar Degas’ Parisian streets, cabarets and public spaces depicted by the Frenchman in the 1870s. Ingeniously combining scale, presence and grandeur with fine touches of detail, sombre regularity of composition with minute inflections and fluent brushwork, subdued colour with an intensified emotional aura, and radically simplified structure with some of the most advanced currents of its time, Mauvaise recette seems to echo Courbet’s Realist manifesto: “to create living art - this is my goal.”6

    Although the work perfectly encapsulates the liberal-minded and socially conscious humanitarian tradition of the 19th century, echoing such distinguished 19th century forebears as Courbet and Manet, it is also akin in spirit to some 20th century avant-garde expressions. The figure is bent over in an attitude almost of prayer or supplication, foreshadowing Picasso’s enclosed and singular blue-period compositions from the early 1900s (compare Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Jaime Sabartés, 1901, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.) As is the case with Picasso, Pantazis, avoiding the sentimental or anecdotal and without resorting to dramatic climaxes, appears to retreat from the rhetoric of the public statement and engage with more private emotions and sympathies. Both artists transcend the context of many reportorial images of poverty and social injustice that accelerated in the mid 19th century (the most notable exception being Daumier), demonstrating an ability to transform specific fact into universal symbol, endowing their paintings with a timeless, almost metaphysical import.

    Moreover, elaborating on complex issues of representation, Mauvaise recette foreshadows the realism of Picasso’s cubist collages, a realism that secures, through printed labels and fragmented words, the presence of the actual objects that constitute “the new imagery of the modern world.”7 In the early 1910s Picasso and Braque introduced block capitals, along with lower-case letters and numerals in exact simulation of printing and stencilling, in absolute frontality and outside the representational context of the picture (compare Pablo Picasso, Table in a Café (Bottle of Pernod), 1912, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.) Several decades earlier, Pantazis had already anticipated the increasingly important role that labels, notices, advertisements and other printed matter would play in the aesthetics of the modern city, deeming simulated textures and typography well-suited for incorporation into works of art as integral parts of the vocabulary of ordinary experience. Moreover, the introduction of painted letters into his Mauvaise recette was also a pictorial concern, as was later the case with Picasso’s and Braque’s bold formal and spatial experimentations. Forming part of longer horizontal shapes, letters and words tend to counterbalance the picture’s strong verticality generated by the imposing standing figure of the street musician.

    Besides formal considerations, Pantazis focused on the wall-pasted posters and announcements to convey the tensioned urban atmosphere, reflecting the rush of disorienting sensations that had started to overload the modern, industrial cities. The picture surface is dominated by a surfeit of visual stimuli (bold, largely undecipherable typography and vivid colours) and an abundance of illegible information. The lonely figure is sharply contrasted to the forceful energy and excitement of the urban environment, alluding to the multiplicity of discordant perceptions, ideas, sensations and experiences that so much characterised the 19th century industrial world and would eventually become so much a part of 20th century urban existence. This antithesis is further amplified by the viewer’s impression that while the figure, immobile, rigid and with his legs stretched, seems firmly rooted in the real world, the mobility and vitality of the wall surface seems to lead the composition beyond the boundaries of the picture frame to an elusive promise land - an escape from the real world to a land of wonder and fantasy.

    Revelling in the spontaneous lyricism of the street, Pantazis’ wall is a multi-dimensional space in which, as Roland Barthes would say, a variety of readings blend and clash. In a game of multiple levels of representation, it captures the vitality and relentless pace of the modern metropolis, extending even beyond Picasso’s and Braque’s inventions in the years before the First World War. These layers of paper in vivid primary colours played off against expanses of softer pastels, call in mind Mark Rothko’s lyrical colour-field abstraction of the 1950s and early 1960s, while the use of fragmented letters that cut into each other or fade into obscurity, clustering into unidentifiable words, reflects a concern with gesture and commercial imagery, while showing an enthusiastic receptiveness to chance and accident. A kind of haphazard, spontaneous urban art the French writer Léo Malet, during his brief fling with Breton’s surrealist group in the 1930s, had described as the organization of poetry in the street itself, envisioning a new realm of surrealist practice. “The walls of the city are the unlimited fields of poetic realisations.”8

    Formulating one of the most advanced and forward-looking pictorial premises in the history of Modern Greek art, Mauvaise recette is a masterpiece that speaks of the promise and bright prospects of this amazing artist who, despite his premature death at the age of thirty-five, is considered a founding father of the 19th century Flemish school, along such figures as Guillaume Vogels and James Ensor.9 Remaining at the artist’s workshop until the very end, Mauvaise recette was sold, along with 52 oils and sketches, in a posthumous auction held by his life companion Eugénie Philipette at the Sainte-Gudule hall in Brussels on May15, 1885.10

    1. G. Drakopoulou, Pericles Pantazis in the Context of 19th Century Belgian Painting (dissertation thesis) [in Greek], Athens 1982, p. 13.
    2. O. Mentzafou-Polyzou, ‘Pantazis in Greece, Initial Remarks’ [in Greek] in Pericles Pantazis 1849-1884, Evangelos Averoff-Tositsas Foundation, Athens 1994, p. 24.
    3. M. Lambraki-Plaka, ‘Periclès Pantazis et les Limites de l’Art Neo-Hellenique’ in Pericles Pantazis 1849-1884, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery-A.Soutzos Museum, Athens 1996 and The Averoff Museum of Neohellenic Art, Metsovo 1997, pp. 12-13.
    4. F. Trollope, Paris and the Parisians in 1835, Harper and Brothers, New York 1836, p. 80 and The Builder magazine, vol. 8 (1850): 110.
    5. Reprinted in D. Olsen, The City as a Work of Art - London, Paris, Vienna,Yale University Press, New haven and London, 1986, p. 35.
    6. G. Courbet, Exhibition et Vente de 40 Tableaux et 4 Dessins de l’ Oeuvre de M. Gustave Courbet, Paris 1855.
    7. See R. Rosenblum, ‘Picasso and the Typography of Cubism’ in Picasso in Retrospect, R. Penrose, J. Golding ed., Praeger, New York 1973, pp. 49-75 and R. Krauss, ‘In the Name of Picasso’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge & London 1988, pp. 23-40.
    8. L. Malet, La Vache Entragée, Editions Hoëbke, Paris 1988, pp. 129-130. See also, C. Phillips, ‘When Poetry Devours the Walls’, Art in America, February 1990, pp. 138-145.
    9. See F. Maret, Les Peintres Luministes, Cercle d’Art publ., Brussels 1994, p. 9.
    10. G. Mahaux, Périclès Pantazis, Imprimerie du Châtelain, Brussels 1962, pp. 29-30.

Saleroom notices

  • This lot will be included in the forthcoming retrospective exhibition of Periclès Pantazis in Ostende.
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