The Work of Spyros Papaloukas at the Theocharakis Foundation
The B & M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music opens its doors with the presentation of the representative collection of works by Spyros Papaloukas. It is the largest collection of works by the great painter and includes significant paintings and sketches from all the main periods of Papaloukas’s career. Many of the works were donated to the Foundation in 2006 by the painter’s daughter Mina Papalouka, her intention being to maintain and promote her father’s oeuvre. The Theocharakis Foundation’s collection of the artist’s multi-faceted artistic activity from 1912 to 1957 includes works from his early years as a student in Athens and Paris, portraits and self-portraits, still lifes and landscapes depicting Aegina, Salamina, Paros, Antiparos, Mytilene, Hydra and Mount Athos.
What relation could there be between the otherworldly form of the mythical Sphinx, of 560 BC and the Charioteer whose “immobile motion leaves you breathless” as poet Giorgos Seferis so eloquently writes in his Essays? Papaloukas continued the long anthropocentric tradition of the Greek land by painting portraits and self-portraits. He became the hagiographer of the Amfissa Church of Annunciation and numerous portable icons. The number of paintings he did of people is smaller than his landscapes, but equally significant.
Throughout his life, the Apollonian Papaloukas bowed to the spirit and idiom of his work. His rhythmicality can be likened to the very workings of nature, which he rendered with a sense of awe. The bulk of his work focuses on interpreting through painting, employing new expressive means. His ability to view nature and the world in a different way is the poetry in his work. His four-year stay in Paris helped him distance himself from the academic teachings of the Munich School (so prevalent in the Athens School of Fine Arts at the time). From 1917 to 1921, he continued to keep company with his friend Fotis Kontoglou, who was working in Paris as an illustrator for magazines.
Papaloukas did not adopt the teachings and views of his friend Fotis Kontoglou. He followed his own path, thus creating a singular and personal means of expression, which was reconciled with the tradition he faithfully served from a contemporary artistic standpoint. After all, the creation of a new plasticity, adopting a visual idiom based on colour, defines his aesthetics.
The world possesses its own laws and rhythms, shown, for example, in the fact that he worked only with the three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – apart from white of course. “He employed the three basic chromatic scales: the impressionistic, mainly for landscapes, the light Byzantine and the heavy Byzantine. So at times he substitutes cobalt with ultramarine, yellow with ochre or sienna and red lacquer with other darker reds. But the colours on his palette were always three. Sometimes he also used emerald green, which he was not able to mix by using the other three colours,” as Basil Theocharakis points out in reference to his teacher’s work.
Papaloukas spent the whole year of 1923 to 1924 systematically studying nature and Byzantine art, with the monastery of Hosios Loukas (dedicated to Luke, the patron saint of his birthplace) on the slopes of Mt Helicon as his spiritual starting line and point of reference. After his stay on Mount Athos, he passionately studied the Hosios Loukas mosaics and made copies. This became a place of reflection and exercises in painting. Depictions including many figures, such as Birth, The Doubting of Thomas, Basin and Resurrection, along with isolated icons, became a source of knowledge concerning the complexity of life for the then 30-year-old painter. Birth, for instance, with its intensely narrative style, is the only mosaic representation in the church that is rendered in vivid colours in harmonious combinations. The addition of supplementary episodes to the pilgrimage of the Magi and to the washing of the feet lend more strength to the work, making it more evocative. Seven years later, Papaloukas painted Birth on the right side of the Amfissa Church of Annunciation.
For Papaloukas, painting landscapes demanded that he deeply felt them. He was not interested in the instantaneous imprinting of a place, but its deeper semiological dimension, that is, a more essential point of view, as if his sentiment could extend into infinity. The monasteries and landscapes of Mt Athos, which occupied Papaloukas in the following years as well, from 1929 to 1935 approximately, are animated by the need for a profound communing with God. It is this sense of “saintliness” and serenity we find in Papaloukas’s paintings. Each one reflects his sensitivity, addressing us like a dialogue in counterpoint music. At the same time, dominating the composition is the sense of unity and harmonic rhythm, always defining an open space. Space in his work is interwoven with time, assigning value to each moment so that the creative instance is not lost in the vastness of time.
Papaloukas worked reflectively and unceasingly on cardboard, unprimed linen or cotton canvas. The sketch is the core of his painting activity, defining the beginning. He usually sketched with a sharp pencil, leaving many paintings with a dominating sense of the sketch, without covering them with colour. At the same time, when he wanted to emphasize outlines, in some of his compositions, he left an unpainted gap on the surface, thus creating a different impression (Houses in Hydra, 1955, oil on canvas, 33 x 32 cm, Landscape of Antiparos, 1948, oil on cardboard, 44 x 64 cm). Sometimes he used oils, at times focusing his attention on the intense, almost sensuous juxtaposition of colours, at others employing what painters call the turpentine technique, that is, using a large quantity of turpentine to thin the paint, and at others his medium was watercolours on paper, capturing the feeling of the moment. Although he lived during the troubled times of the interwar years and experienced the traumatic events of the Greek Civil War, he insisted on viewing life with serenity. He maintained that theme does not make the painting, but that the painting makes the theme, stressing that, “Beauty is everywhere as long as the painter has the ability to present it.”
Papaloukas never rested. He persistently strove for the conquest of a new imagery, adopting elements from the Post-Impressionists, the Fauvists and the Nabis. Starting in the second half of the 1930s, he attempted a different approach to interpreting and rendering light with pointillism. Georges Seurat had already developed this technique of analysing the static shades of colour in nature into points or small brushstrokes, allowing the viewer’s retina to recompose the image via the interplay of impressions. Papaloukas’s works from his pointillism period resemble a mosaic made up of distinct, coloured tesserae and his familiar expressive idiom. It is solidly balanced and calculated. Papaloukas always returned to Nature until the day he died, offering an oeuvre rich in inspiration and pulse, revealing and highlighting the poetic paradise of Greece. His 260 works, a representative and indisputable testimony to his course towards the conquest and interpretation of the Greek landscape, awash with unique light, gain distinction in an exemplary manner in the Theocharakis Foundation collection.
Their presentation to the public gives every art lover and art historian the opportunity to gain direct access, through the most comprehensive overview of Papaloukas’s oeuvre, to the development of Modern Greek painting. Allow me to express my wish for similar exhibitions of the works of the great innovators of Greek art, such as Konstantinos Parthenis, Konstantinos Maleas, Michael Economou, Yerasimos Steris and Diamantis Diamantopoulos, among others.
Continuing the active participation of the private sector in the cultural events of Greece, Basil and Marina Theocharakis, with their Foundation, make their own mark in the promotion and advancement of the visual arts and music in the 21st century. Through their long-standing and active involvement in the arts, they make a promising contribution to the dissemination of Greek culture – an indestructible culture in the face of passing fads, a culture always returning to its eternal ideals, giving us the rejuvenating ability to embark on the spiritual adventure
for initiation to the essence of the world and the universe.
Director of the Visual Arts Programme B & M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music
GCI EXHIBITS CURATOR