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Introduction art in the Ionian Islands

Written by Dr. Athanasios Christou
At a crossroads of peoples and civilizations, a cradle of visual and plastic arts since the 18th century, a place full of life and rich in artistic potential, the Ionian Islands (Heptanese) became not just the home of the avant-guarde of modern Greek art, but, first and foremost, the birthplace of numerous artistic quests that led to important achievements and revealed unlimited expressive resources. Every single form of expression in visual and plastic blossomed here: the important steps towards the integration of Western art forms in painting, the emergence of the first modern Greek sculptors, the early works of modern Greek engraving are a measure of the achievements of Heptanesian art. Both stylistically and thematically, Heptanesian art does not confine itself to the past. Although it marks a distinct break from the post-Byzantine forms, it never completely rejects them. Rather it opens up to new directions, refusing to be restricted solely to religious themes. Portraiture, genre painting, historical painting, still life, landscape- and nude painting acquire an important place in the artists’ repertoire. New techniques are used. Oil-painting, offering certain advantages, reveals new expressive possibilities. Water-colour contributes substantially to the rendering of nature’s particular features. All of these elements suggest a desire to break away from the past, a spirit of exploration and the desire to attain new levels of expression. The Ionian Islands, at that time a territory with particular political, economic and social conditions that distinguished them from the rest of Greece, display these particularities in their arts practices. Politically the Ionian Islands experienced four centuries of Venetian rule (1386-1797), followed by a brief interval of the French Republican rule (1797-1799), succeded by the establishment of the Republic of the Seven Islands (or Septinsular Republic) agreed by the three powers Britain, Russia and Turkey (1799-1807), which ended with the occupation of the Imperial French following the Treaty of Tilsit (1807-1814). Finally the Ionian Islands, in accordance with the Treaty of Paris, became a British protectorate governed by a High Commissioner (1815-1864). At the economic and social levels, the flourishing economy triggered the emergence of new forces and of a bourgeoisie which was the force responsible for shaping the directions of artistic creation. New social classes began to claim more rights. The gradually emerging bourgeoisie, firmly based on the economic growth of the Islands, was the very opposite of the landowners who enjoyed all the privileges and powers granted by Venice. This gradual empowerment of the bourgeois offered new perspectives and new visions that would eventually mark the beginnings for the new developments of Heptanesian art. It was here then, in the Ionian Islands, that fine arts found the most fertile ground, at a time when the rest of Greece had not yet acquired the status of an independent state. Literature, music, theatre and visual and plastic arts thrived here in this small in size and population stretch of land. By the end of the 17th century, a remarkable group of visual and plastic artists were already shaping the artistic movement that would later be named the Heptanese School. Panagiotis Doxaras (1662-1729) lead the way and was succeeded by his son Nikolaos Doxaras (1700-1775), Nikolaos Koutouzis (1741-1813), Nikolaos Kantounis (1768-1834), and other fellow painters, including Hieronymos Plakotos (1670-1728) and Ioannis Korais (;-1799). The island of Zakynthos turned out to be the centre for all these Heptanesian artists who produced some of their most important and representative works of this period. As a place of refuge for many Cretan artists after the occupation of Crete by the Ottomans in 1669, the Ionian Islands profited from the presence of, among others, Mihail Damaskinos, Georgios Klontzas, Emmanuel Tzanes and Theodoros Poulakis, whose work paved the way for breaking away from the austerity of the Byzantine tradition and adopting Western European forms of expression. Ionian artists managed to assimilate these forms and put them into fruitful use. At the same time, they either assimilated or, in some cases, just imitated, and, more importantly, learned and imbued themselves with European breakthroughs in the field of the arts as a result of their introduction to the elements of Western European art through the Italian and Flemish engravings that had long been circulating in the Ionian Islands or, for many of them, following their studies in Italy. Besides visual and plastic arts, it is obvious that culture in general was also thriving. Figures like Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869) and Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) in poetry, Petros Vrailas-Armenis (1812-1884) in philosophy, Nikolaos Halikiopoulos-Mantzaros (1795-1872) and Spyridon Xyndas (1814-1896) in music, to mention but a few, transformed the Ionian Islands into a nucleus of creativity and cultural rebirth. A landmark in the directions to be taken by Heptanesian art was certainly the so-called “ourania”1 at the church of Agios Spyridon (1726), painted by Panagiotis Doxaras. Although the existing painting is a 19thcentury replica2 , nonetheless this work is the most concrete example of the new paths opened up by the founder of the Heptanese School in religious iconography and shows his orientation towards the Western European painting tradition. Panagiotis Doxaras, who in his theoretical work named “On painting” encourages a naturalistic representation of figures, firmly based on his knowledge of Italian, and particularly Venetian Renaissance and Mannerism and introduces bold innovations marking the departure from the forms and values of Byzantine art. As a result, the depictions in the “ourania” of Agios Spyridon constitute the most typical example of the integration of elements from the Mannerist period, especially those of the Venetian workshops. It is universally accepted that 18thcentury painting is dominated by religious themes, as shown by the number of surviving artworks destined for the decoration of churches and by the production of important works like those by Nikolaos Doxaras for the “ourania” of Panaghia Faneromeni in Zakynthos or similar paintings by Nikolaos Koutouzis and Nikolaos Kantounis, which mark the completion of the course traced by the Heptanese School. Gradually, baroque elements will completely prevail in the depiction of the themes and, at the same time, painting will definitively move away from tradition by humanizing the divine. Exaggerated movements and gestures, theatrical postures and realistic depictions are all elements contributing in this direction. The same path was taken by Nikolaos Kantounis who, in a more eclectic manner, integrated elements used by Mannerist artists and the colour sensibility from the Venetian workshops while invested them with his drawing accuracy and figure plasticity. On the borderline between religious and secular painting we find the so-called “Litanies”. Destined for churches and yet incorporating opulent elements and secular imagery features, Litanies combine landscape-painting references with portraiture elements and lavish anecdotal themes. The “Litany of the relics of Agios Charalambis”, dated as early as 1756, is one of the most convincing examples of this theme and an introduction to a number of similar works. Despite the somewhat harsh lines and the rigid movement of its figures, it was the precursor of this thematic category. The progress is fully visible in the “Litany of Agios Dionysios” by Nikolaos Koutouzis (1766), which combines a sense of religious devotion, realism in the portraying of people, landscape-painting references from the town of Zakynthos and an impression of class stratification evident in the arrangement of the funeral procession. The painting is, thus, not just an image of piety but the representation of a whole era. In addition to religious themes, another predominant genre of Heptanesian painting is portraiture. It was the genre that marked the beginnings of secular painting, as it moved beyond the decoration of churches, to some extent, enabling artists to free themselves from Church commissions while pursuing new ways of expression and reaching out to a wider and more diverse public. It was essentially during the 18th century that portraiture imposed itself. Panagiotis Doxaras, a pioneer in this field as well, in 1719 painted the portrait of Mathias von Schulenburg, German commander-in-chief and leader of the Venetian army during the Great Siege of Corfu by the Ottomans. In the context of this unprecedented breakthrough of portraiture, certain characteristics start to take shape, including adherence to a realistic representation of the depicted, psychological depth, the role of light and minimalization of the collateral subjects. In addition to religious and portrait painting, other genres were gradually introduced to Heptanesian painting, timidly at first, more aggressively later, with their eventual prevail completely during the 19th century. Accounts from several sources suggest that paintings with allegorical subjects and still lives were created as early as the beginning of the 18th century, including the artistic work of Hieronymos Plakotos. The shift to new thematic directions evident in the “Naked woman uncovering in front of a satyr” by Nikolaos Kantounis (today in the National Gallery of Greece), probably the first nude in modern Greek painting. It is a work bearing the undoubtable influence of Venetian painting and particularly of Titian, in its choice of subject, composition and use of colour. It also reveals a tendency to move towards thematic categories not readily acceptable because of the audacity of their subject. In short, the Heptanese School is the bridge between the Byzantine tradition and modern Greek art. By the boldness of its pursuits and the decisive breakthroughs in expressive means it enabled artists to explore new fields and attain new levels of performance. Or, as noted by A. Charalambidis, “… this bold breaking away (of the Heptanese School from Byzantine tradition) raises the problem of the more general relation of Heptanesian painting to both its post-Byzantine and subsequent modern Greek counterparts. Is it the end of post-Byzantine or the beginning of modern Greek painting? Its character is singular. To a certain extent it continues Byzantine tradition, by maintaining its religious character… On the other hand it absorbs foreign influences, revives and enriches religious painting, adds new thematic fields including portraiture, genre painting, still life, mythological and allegorical compositions etc., which will become the main directions of modern Greek painting after the establishment of the independent state”.
1.Large-scale religious decoration of the ceiling panels in Heptanesian churches. 2.Due to extensive damage, the original depictions were replaced, presumably by exact replicas created by Corfiot artist Nikolaos Aspiotis, in 1851
3.Charalambidis A., G., Contribution to the study of 18th- and 19th-century Heptanesian painting, Ioannina 1978, p. 100.


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