Art in Corfu until the Union (1800-1864)
Written by Dr. Athanasios Christou
Sculpture was the first plastic art that developed in Corfu in the beginning of the 19th century. It was pioneered by three artists, Pavlos Prosalentis Sr., Dimitrios Trivolis-Pierris and Ioannis-Vaptistis Kalosgouros, who had been introduced to Italian neoclassicism in the beginning of the 19th century, the first two as students of Antonio Canova at the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome. The political situation seemed favourable. One can understand that sculpture, for the most part an art of public spaces, was difficult to obtain commissions, due to the high construction cost of monuments, and this void would be filled by the then ruling power, Britain. With a view to making the faces of its High Commissioners familiar to the people, the British rulers turned to Corfiot artists and enlisted their services. This collaboration, especially with Prosalentis, since Trivolis-Pierris died very young, produced the majority of sculptures dated between 1820-1832. Even though the artists were obliged to follow patterns and expressions that were imposed on them, sacrificing their independence to choose a subject and their morphoplastic vocabulary to the expediencies of each ruling power, the results were spectacular.
The dominant stylistic current of this period, followed closely by the artists, was Classicism, using order and symmetry, measure and simplicity as predominant elements of its expression. Classicism discovered in the art of classic antiquity those exemplars that would enable it to affirm through the medium of plastic art a return to the antique world not in a sterile imitation but as an expression of a whole period. It turned to antiquity not just to celebrate simplicity and harmony, but to look for the principles of democracy that established the notion of measure as an aesthetic value. In sculpture, Classicism was expressed mainly through the austerity of the composition and the closed contours, the idealist representation and the cutting down of anecdotal elements, realizing maybe more successfully than any other plastic art Winckelmann’s exhortation to return to the “calm splendour and noble simplicity”.
The prominent figure of this period is undeniably Pavlos Prosalentis (1784-1837) who was involved in all sculptural and, more generally, artistic activity taking place in Corfu. It should also be emphasized that he was a pioneer in the casting of bronze sculptures, since he was the first modern Greek artist to achieve this, using the know-how of Corfiot bell foundries.
The works that display Prosalentis’ achievements to their full extent were produced after 1815. His more than twenty well-known sculptures are, spann a twenty-three year period (1815-1837), and mark his artistic maturity. Among them are included: Plato’s bust (1815), High Commissioner Maitland’s bust in four replicas (1821-1822), the three bas-reliefs of the Maitland bust pedestal (1821-1822) in Corfu, Maitland’s statue (1821-1822), General Αdam’s bust (1825), the four bas-reliefs of the Adam bust pedestal (1825), the four bas-reliefs of King George IV of England bust pedestal (1826), Lord Guilford’s bust (1827), Αdam’s statue (1832), the statue of Hero (1835) and the statue of “Agraia Artemis” (Diana of the Fields) (1835). One more bust, representing High Commissioner Nugent, is thought to belong to Prosalentis, despite the lack of relevant information. His mature works also comprise all the work required for the decoration of the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, featuring prominently the statue of Britain, the embossed insignia of the islands and the mantelpieces, as well as the decorative patterns on the cupola and, possibly, the Ionic capitals of the Maitland Monument, located on the “upper square” of Corfu town.
Prosalentis’ sculptures integrated Neoclassical European sculpture styles visible in the work of his teacher Antonio Canova. He often used works like the Stuart cenotaph in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Monument to Pope Clemens XIII in the same church, both created by Canova as a reference. Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, like Mercury in repose, Apollo of the Belvedere and the toga-wearing Roman, which he came to know during his studies in Italy, were also used as models for representing various figures.
The two other major sculptors of this period left a limited number of works. Dimitrios Trivolis-Pierris (1785-1809), born in the same year as Pavlos Prosalentis and a friend of his, died very young, at the age of 24, and did not have the time to produce a body of work that could help us trace a complete artistic course. The fact that his teacher Antonio Canova held him in high esteem might be an indication of the loss that his death represented for Ionian art. Ioannis-Vaptistis Kalosgouros (1794-1878) revealed part of his skills in the obelisk monument commemorating Howard Douglas, as well as in the marble bust of Countess Eleni Armeni-Mocenigos, created in 1843 and 1847 respectively. The two works are characterized by the prevalence of classicistic characteristics with the idealism of figures and the adoption of ancient Greek art types.
In addition to the sculptural works destined for public spaces, which Corfiot sculptors applied themselves to, it is worth mentioning certain cemetery sculptures, created by unknown artists and most of them located in the English cemetery of Corfu. Contrary to the sculpture of public spaces in general, the cemetery kind brings us closer to the human scale and to the desire of humans to honour their dead, and also to gain recognition and distinguish themselves socially and economically through the splendour and the imposing presence of their burial monuments.
The English cemetery of Corfu is home to three important sculptures created in the first half of the 19th century. The theme of the mourning female figure can be seen on the graves of Robert Kerrson (+1825) and William Roycroft (+1846). The small-sized figure on the Kerrson grave strikes the observer by the expressiveness of her posture and the tragic expression on her face. The life-size mourning woman on the Roycroft grave is kneeling on her left leg with her body in an unnatural position, almost doubled up. Her head covered by a kerchief hiding part of the face, the woman’s posture accentuates, by its truthfulness, the intensity of her mourning and her expression reveals her deep sorrow.
But the sculpture epitomizing a series of achievements for cemetery sculpture and showing its close relation to ancient Greek art is the relief sculpture on the grave of Elise Fels (+1851), located in the same cemetery. A work of exceptional artistry, revealing a sculptor of extraordinary talent and skill, it represents a three-member family, the two parents and a young child, at the moment of farewell. Based on a series of elements, it references directly ancient tomb relief sculptures, which the artist was certainly familiar with. Both the sitting position, typically representing the dead persons in ancient art, and the farewell handshake, dominating the foreground, are elements indicating the artist’s familiarity with similar themes in ancient funerary steles. But what is captivating in the Fels grave relief sculpture is the artist’s ease, his ability in rendering the plastic volumes and space in general, his sensitivity in chiseling the figures, the inner truth of the composition and the sorrow it emanates.
The political upheaval and the succession of ruling powers in the Ionian Islands from 1797 until 1864, date of the Union with Greece, offered a new boost and created a new context for the flourishing of the arts. Venice remains an important centre attracting many young people for their studies; however, the new situation led to the development and consolidation of new characteristics that boosted artistic creation. Corfu emerged as the new centre, replacing Zakynthos, which was the main nucleus of artistic expression during the 18th century. The studies and the familiarization of artists with their contemporary movements created the context in which painting evolved.
In the beginning of the 19th century painting in Corfu seems to follow in the steps of the masters that had preceded. Stamatis Voulgaris (1774-1842), Pavlos Prosalentis Sr. (1784-1837) and Ioannis-Vaptistis Kalosgouros (1794-1878) were essentially the first Corfiot painters of the 19th century. Their work bears the influence of Neoclassicism that swept European art at that time. However, due to the fact that painting was not the principal occupation for any of them, the first being an architect and town-planner and the other two sculptors, they were essentially limited both in shaping and consolidating a personal morphoplastic idiom and in the breadth of their pursuits. As a result, the attempts of the first 19th century artists at painting are rather formal and fail to renew the achievements of the past in a substantial manner.
During this period there are other Ionian artists working in Corfu. Among them the Cefalonians Gerasimos Pitzamanos (1787-1825) and Dionysios Vegias (1810-1884) and the Zakynthians Petros Pavlidis-Minotos (c. 1800-1861), Dionysios Kallivokas (1806-1877) and Konstantinos Iatras (1811-1888) continue rather than renew the forms of the past. Their work in portraiture produced some exquisite examples within the context defined by the Heptanesian School masters of the 18th century. The basic characteristics remain the same: adherence to a loyal description, limited use of decorative themes, an effort to focus on the essential rather than the anecdotal. The expansion in new painting genres and the substantial decline of religious themes gave artists the opportunity to pursue new directions but they did not always succeed in moving beyond the forms inherited from their predecessors. However, it is obvious that their work is the closing chapter of an extended period centred on religious themes and the beginning of a new era orientated towards secular subjects. In this context genre and allegorical themes make a timid appearance, with the allegorical composition “The Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece» by Dionysios Vegias being arguably the most representative example.