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Art in Corfu after the Union ( (1864-1900)

Written by Dr. Athanasios Christou


The Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece in 1864 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Corfiot art. Artistic studies, having reached a peak at the beginning of the 19th century with the founding of the School of Fine Arts by Pavlos Prosalentis Sr., lost much of their vigour. The shutting down of the School after the Union created a gap, which, as it turned out, could not be filled by the various private schools founded in Corfu during the last quarter of the century. Furthermore, the shift in the orientation of art students, who could now choose between the big Italian cities and the Athens School of Fine Arts (Scholeion Technon), at the time dominated by the pursuits of the Munich School, seems to have also played a part and been conducive to this change. At the same time it seems that the reduced number of commissions and, consequently, of financial resources available to artists also contributed significantly to the decline. According to a noteworthy observation trying to explain the situation, at least in the field of religious painting, the decline was a result of the “decreased demand in icons for churches which, due to their small dimensions, were already fully decorated”1 . As a consequence, painters looked for new subjects and many talented artists left the island and relocated either to Athens, where they distinguished themselves, or abroad. One of the major destinations of this latter category was the Greek community in Egypt, where artists found a supportive public and the financial resources they needed. Pavlos Prosalentis Jr., Periklis Tsirigotis, Spyridon Skarvelis, Andreas Vranas, to mention but a few, went to Egypt and lived there for many years producing important work. On the other hand, artists like Spyridon Prosalentis, Emilios Prosalentis, Vikentios Bokatsiabis, most of them working in Athens, gradually abandoned the Heptanesian School pursuits of the previous century. Local artistic production is thus weakened and the quality of the Corfiot artists’ endeavours deteriorates, due to the numerous difficulties, the dwindling public and the insufficient means. Spyridon Prosalentis (1830-1895), son of sculptor Pavlos Prosalentis, having studied with his father and later in Venice, stays close to the patterns of Italian painting with an emphasis on external descriptive features, accentuated gestures and heavy colours. One of the major 19th-century painters is Charalambos Pachis (1844-1891), among the first to combine Western European painting styles with popular-inspiration elements creating compositions characterized by the power of their expression and the broadness of their pursuits. These features are visible in paintings like the “Assassination of Capodistria” and “First May in Corfu” which combine harmoniously descriptive elements and architectural complexes, a realistic description with exaggerated gestures and rather rigid lines with an opulent colour scheme. Pavlos Prosalentis Jr. (1857-1894), Spyridon Skarvelis (1868-1942) and Periklis Tsirigotis (1865-1924) form the triumvirate of artists who lived and worked in Egypt for many years. As a result, they were to some extent influenced in their choice of subjects. Pavlos Prosalentis Jn., trained in Corfu, Venice and Paris was mainly a genre painter. His work reveals a skill in drawing and sensitivity in the use of colour, and is characterized by free drawing and open outlines. Skarvelis’ work borders on impressionism with the characteristic small brush stroke, the predominant role of light and the colour gradations. Tsirigotis, trained in Italy, stays within the confines of academic painting, with an emphasis in detail, attention to drawing and colour coordination. During this period, for the first time in Greek painting, a particular predilection for watercolour emerges and many artists adopt it as their only technique. Watercolour painting produced important artists, Vikentios Bokatsiabis (1856-1932) and Angelos Giallinas (1857-1939) being the most prominent. The former, trained in Marseille and Rome and being a teacher of jewellery-painting in the Athens School of Fine Arts, combines realist description with an idealist disposition, while the latter depicts the singularities of Greek nature and is to some extent influenced by the impressionist pursuits of French painters with a particular emphasis on the variations of light and on the transparency of his material. Georgios Samartzis (1868-1925), trained in Naples and Rome, is practically the last in the succession of Corfiot artists reaching their peak during the 19th century. With pursuits extending to all painting genres, he succeeded in integrating and assimilating elements and influences from his teachers in his impressive body of work. His portraits stay close to academic patterns with their dark colours and precise drawing. His genre paintings are characterized by the opulent colour gradations and a predilection for the anecdotal, while the dominant features in his landscapes are brightness and an emphasis on the depiction of the fleeting and the ever-changing, elements that border on impressionism. In addition to the above, there are many other artists who contributed to the development of painting in the 19th and who also continued to produce important work into the 20th century as well. Nikolaos Aspiotis (1815-1891), who painted the replica of the original “ourania” by Panagiotis Doxaras in Agios Spyridon in 1851-52, Spyridon Platsaios (1855-1920), Periklis Kollas (1860-1883) and Andreas Vranas (1860-1933) are just a few of the artists who continued the creative course of Corfiot painting.


Although the School founded by Pavlos Prosalentis could claim from its beginning a large number of students, it did not produce any successors to his work. The lack of interest for sculpture and at the same time the increase in the number of artists turning to painting, led inevitably to the decline of sculptural production for a number of years. The new political landscape that emerged after the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece was also a factor contributing to this development. As it has been said, “Corfu will no longer be the capital of the Ionian State and it will see its University and Parliament shut down in the exhilaration of the Union (1864). From now on, it will be just another Prefecture of the Greek state”2 . The impact of this dearth of artists working in sculpture in the Ionian Islands is obvious, as there is a noticeable lack of monumental sculptures in public spaces for a few decades after 1850. The same phenomenon can be observed in the cemeteries, since from the 1860s most of the grave monuments erected were not created by Ionian sculptors, but by big Athenian workshops. The commissions for public space sculptures were also monopolized for many years by sculptors living and working mainly in Athens. This situation was only partly reversed by the presence of Evangelos Kallos in Corfu, who attracted a considerable number of commissions, mostly for grave monuments. The arrival of young artists in Athens in order to finish their studies meant that they would inevitably become familiar with the artistic movement still dominating Greek art, Classicism. Although Europe had by then moved beyond classicistic ideas and pursuits, Greece, due to its close connection with the past, continued to revive classicistic types, practically dismissing any new efforts. Thematically, the focus shifts from the busts and statues of British High Commissioners to important figures of Greek history and the local communities, as well as to war memorials keeping alive the memory of important historic events and deceased persons. At the same time, and maybe more importantly, grave sculpture registered a rapid development after the setting up of organised cemeteries and the familiarization of the locals with the idea of a decorated grave. Evangelos Kallos (1861-1931), a student of Leonidas Drosis, who was a sculptor in the Academy of Athens, in the Athens School of Fine Arts, created many grave monuments, most importantly those on the grave of Bertha Fels (+1889) in the English cemetery of Corfu and on the graves of Konstantinos Palios (1879) and Gerasimos Aspiotis (1893) in the Corfu municipal cemetery. These monuments clearly reveal his effort to include well-known classical forms, like the mourning spirit on the Fels grave and the symbolic figures of Nyx (night) and her children Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death), on the Palios grave and the Aspiotis monument. These are works in which the sculptor managed to combine internal emotion and technical accomplishment, expressive power and clarity of pursuits. Looking at the busts of Nikolaos Chalikiopoulos-Mantzaros and of the philosopher Petros Vrailas-Armenis it is easy to recognise Kallos’ influences in his art, as well as his attachment to classicism. The austerity of the figures, the idealism of the features and an emphasis on the exterior are the elements that reveal the orientations and beliefs of the artist. Some other Corfiot sculptors were also active during this period. They specialized in decorative grave sculpture and were all members of just two families; Georgios (; -;), Heraklis (1869-1936), Gerasimos (1895-1964) and Adamantios (;-;) came from the Kallos family and Filippos and Ioannis from the Bouhayar family. A special mention should also be made to Stefanos Kardamis, a self-taught sculptor and native of Kato Garouna, in Corfu, who, among other works, created a monument of major importance, the ‘Koimomenos’ (Sleeping Man) (1903) on his father’s grave in his birthplace. After the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece in 1864 Corfu was ‘invaded’ by the Greek sculpture workshops. These were mainly the Athenian marble-carving workshops, which came to the island primarily to satisfy the demand for grave monuments and, secondly, to create artworks for public spaces. Christian Siegel (1808-1883) created the twin lamp-posts on each side of the entrance of the Mon Repos, the summer palace of the English High Commissioners in Corfu, using mainly decorative themes. The brothers Iakovos (;-1903) and Fragiskos (;-1914) Malakate, produced three relief sculptures on the graves of Ioannis Dalietos (+1884) in the Corfu municipal cemetery and of Alfred Ridell in the town’s catholic cemetery, and the war memorial in the Gastouri village, with features clearly influenced by the work of Canova. Leonidas Drosis (1834-1882), the Academy of Athens sculptor, created the statue of Ioannis Capodistrias, first Governor of Greece. The statue is conspicuous, with strong plastic elements and an emphasis not in realistic representation but in the idealistic features of the figure, further accentuated by its high pedestal and its distance from the observer. This impression is also strengthened by the gaze fixed far away on the horizon and the emphasis on external characteristics. Kosmas Apergis created the statue of Lord Guilford (1883), founder of the Ionian Academy. In general, this is a work which, although to a certain extent attempts to use and represent the true characteristics of the face, cannot avoid references to classical models, such as the robustness of the figure and the emphasis on rigorous organisation and on a confined composition. Yannoulis Halepas (1851-1938), confined to the island’s mental hospital, left behind a small-sized bust of a man, a sculpture that could well be a self-portrait. The upper part of the face respects the physiognomic features, with the balded head, the wrinkles on the forehead and the somewhat big ears. In addition to the above, many other artists produce work, mainly cemetery sculptures. Nikolaos Vitalis created the gravestone on the grave of Maria Delviniotis (+1863) in the Corfu municipal cemetery, Stefanos Varoutis the anthemion-patterned stele on the grave of Aristotelis Stamatopoulos (+1869) in the Agios Spyridon cemetery in Corfu, D. Theodorou the anthemion-patterned stele with urn on the grave of Kalliopi Damaskinos (+1877), the gravestone on the grave of Ioulia Lavranos (+1881) and two funerary steles on the Dimomitzis grave in the same cemetery and, finally, Ioannis Vitalis the bust of Nitsa Saoulis in the Corfu municipal cemetery. Finally, a brief mention should be made to the most complete example of late classicism in the Ionian Islands and, more generally, the Greek territory as a whole. It is the famous Achilleion palace, dominated, among other things, by sculptures like those of “Achilles thniskon” (dying Achilles), by Ernst Herter, and οf “Victorious Achilles”, by J. G. Gotz, the statue of Elizabeth by Ed. Hallemer and, most important of all, the only work of Canova found in Greece, a statue at the peristyle of the Muses, representing one of the three Graces.
1.A. Charalambidis, ‘Painting in the Ionian Islands. 18th-19th centuries’, National Gallery of Greece – 100 years. Four centuries of Greek painting, Athens 1999, p. 59-60. 2.Karapidakis Nikos, The Post-byzantine and modern years (14th-19th century) in Ionion Fos, Corfu 1993, p. 29.


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