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Nikos Zias

Fotis Kontoglou and the Modern Greek Painting

From the book "In Memoriam of Kontoglou", publishing house Astir, Al. & E. Papadimitriou, Athens, 1975.

Translated from Greek by Helen Mathioudakis.

Modern Greek art, which up to two or three years ago was almost unknown, is gradually becoming the focus of research and study and we may be near the day when we will have attained a general overview of this art and we will know each artist's work and contribution to its course. Only then will we be able to assess Fotis Kontoglou's contribution and role in Modern Greek Painting correctly. Therefore, the following thoughts, based on a limited knowledge of the material, may be temporary and they should be treated as such by the reader.

Fotis Kontoglou's diverse contribution to Modern Greek Painting could be summarised into three manifestations. His creative painting work, which was based on the Byzantine technique; his hagiographic work, which brought orthodox painting back to our churches; and, finally, his teaching, either direct or - mainly - indirect, which was one of the strongest factors which altered the course of Modern Greek Painting towards the discovery of the pictorial but, also, of the more substantial spiritual values of the Greek tradition.

When Fotis Kontoglou made his tempestuous entry into Greek artistic life mainly with his writing, but also with his painting, the situation in Modern Greek Painting had changed. The Munich School was subsiding but had not completely disappeared. Modern concepts about painting emerged with Parthenis, Maleas, and others, who were paving new roads led by the revolutionary glow of Paris where all modern artists headed to study.

Therefore, in reality, the motive that produced the change of course of the Modern Greek Painting was once again external and not internal. The only difference was that now this external source of our art was not the conservative, outdated School of Bavaria, which was artistically insignificant at that time, but the womb of revolutionary modern art. The turn from Munich to Paris had numerous advantages, one of which was modernity, the main one being that it gave young artists the opportunity to study the real problems of painting and freed them from spiritless adherence to academic principles and superficial anecdotal subject matters; however, it also had disadvantages which were presented by the first stage of Modern Greek Painting: imitation, faceless integration, inside which the danger of personality loss is lurking.

With his work, Fotis Kontoglou ignored both these tendencies which came from abroad and turned towards the local painting tradition which had been forgotten for more than a century. Although he had started working in the workshops of the masters of the Munich school (Iakovidis, Geraniotis, Vikatos, Roilos) and after his studies were abruptly discontinued, he went to Paris where he stayed for several years, he ignored both these dominant trends and followed his own way. Perhaps at first he was led that way by a European movement calling for return to the values of the national past, which harmonised with his Greek idiosyncrasy and his Eastern descent, where the Greek tradition and the orthodox faith had been kneaded into an indivisible whole, coloured by intense opposition to the West, the West which had a different faith, the West which covered its hostility with the veneer of friendliness.

The tragedy of Greek Asia Minor has a tremendous effect on him, separating him radically from the West, on the one hand, and, on the other, making him feel responsible for the continuation, even in another space, of the long-lived tradition which had withstood the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire and survived for four centuries and was now in danger of being completely lost as it had been uprooted from its own place, while it had been driven out of the free Greek territory by the invasion of the Western perception of art, life and, even, religion itself.

After the catastrophe, he goes to Mount Athos (as a pilgrim? As a researcher? As a hermit?) Stratis Doukas had made this pilgrimage first and, when he returned, he had brought with him the legend that "was to influence F. Kontoglou, Papaloukas, Velmos, and many others" as Kontoglou's favourite writer himself notes. Anyway, this trip opened up and clarified for him the way towards Byzantine Painting. However, the earth on which the seed had fallen must have been good and prepared. Because he had already started looking for his pictorial expression in the traditional art of the Byzantine Empire, guided by his idiosyncrasy, by a kind of romantic exoticism and by a strong painting instinct.

In this journey, he comes into more direct and substantial contact with our ecclesiastical painting and mainly with the post - Byzantine art of the Cretan School

In Mount Athos he studies and copies portable icons and frescoes, which were mainly painted in the 16th century by Theophanes and Fragos Katelanos. He exhibits his copies with Maleas in Mytilene.

It is important to note where Kontoglou was taught Byzantine art, because it interprets the subsequent course of his hagiographic art and, in general, his attitude towards Byzantine Painting. He studied in the Cretan School and he considered this as the most complete one or at least as the nearest one in time and followed it. At that time, the great works of the Macedonian School, like Panselinos' frescoes in Protaton, were in bad condition and the other works were unknown. Later on, when he worked on the restoration of murals of the main Byzantine era, he happened again to work in the Perivlepton Church in Mystras, this forerunner of the Cretan School. However, his great teacher was Theophanes of Lavra and Katelanos, and other Cretans and even later, based on theoretical principles, he considered the icons of the last centuries of the Turkish Occupation, when the artists worked only with faith and their mind was not at all involved, as the purest work of Christian Hagiography. Having this theoretical ammunition, when he came in contact with Macedonian painting he treated it with reservation, if not with prejudice.

In the ensuing years, he enriched his knowledge as he worked as a restorer in various Byzantine churches and Museums (Byzantine Museum, 1931 - 32, Museum of Kairon, 1935, Museum of Corfou).

As he has become knowledgeable in Greek traditional painting, when the time was ripe (1939 and afterwards) he gave his most important work in lay painting: the frescoes in the Town Hall of Athens. (Unfortunately, this is his only large work which has been preserved until now. Because the murals he had painted at home and which depicted his family, were destroyed; a few paintings with ancient topics were saved, such as Laokoon, in the Municipal Gallery of Athens, Bruto, etc).

In the Town Hall, he painted four compositions in the two rooms on the ground floor, friezes in the walls covered with white marble, using subject matters taken mainly from the history of Athens to illuminate the four walls of the Town Council Chairman's office. He divided these walls into zones. In the top zone he painted the most important heroes of Hellenism from the mythical years to the Revolution of 1921 full bodied, frontally. Ancient heroes and demigods, and saints like John Chrysostom or poets like Solomos are included among them. In the bottom zone, he painted scenes, battles etc, from various eras of the Greek History.

While painting these murals he encountered several problems. Earlier painters of mythological scenes and historical events of the classical era had created for the subject matters on which he would work an iconography and a painting technique based mainly on realism and classicism which seemed to them to be closer to the atmosphere and the form of the depicted events.

Kontoglou ignored the iconography, but, what is more, he dared ignore the "classical" manner. He chose the language of Byzantine Painting, which, in some cases, he enriched with the knowledge of anatomy and the plastic depiction of figures. His manner was based on Byzantine tradition, as the painter understood it, with predominantly narrow forms, a small scale, an austere outline, solemn and dull colours, with absolutely no loud tones or supplementary use of colours, with a preference for earthy colours, browns, dull blues, but in a wonderful unity. In essence, it looks as if one sees compositions where one colour and its variations predominate. Colour unity is supplemented by the tempered and balanced composition.

Regarding hagiography he starts from the beginning (some iconographical elements of Byzantine manuscripts recounting lay scenes are of limited scale and it seems very doubtful that Fotis Kontoglou was acquainted with them) and he uses all his rich narrative imagination in his effort to conceive and realise such a great work. The study of those murals might reveal sources of iconography and even of style, because many times, there is a differentiation in style from composition to composition. In the frieze of the Southern room of the ground floor, depicting the fight between Evmolpos and Erechthea and the personifications of Hymettos and Penteli, the painter uses the Byzantine traditional style to portray the mythical heroes with beautifully-wrought naked bodies of faultless anatomy and a pink skin, which bring to mind Pompeian models. In the same room, in the opposite composition, which depicts the personifications of the towns, the predominant features are calmness and the flat depiction of the modestly coloured female figures.

The character of the murals depicting the Macedonian Kings' great fights in the Town Council Chairman's office is different and it is closer to the two-dimensional Byzantine painting. Why did Kontoglou choose the ecclesiastic style to depict lay, pagan subject matters? Was such an act sacrilegious? Had he been led astray by the atmosphere of his times, which considered Byzantine art the most select art of the intellectual circles? Or maybe by pretentiousness and his desire to be innovative? I think that none of these reasons is true. Fotis Kontoglou believed in tradition. Not in a theoretical way, like an intellectual would. He believed in tradition as a continuation of life. He wanted to perpetuate this continuation with art. To recount the distant world of the Greek myth and History in the closest indigenous expressive manner: the pictorial language of medieval Hellenism Thus, he, a contemporary man from Asia Minor, joined the ancient tradition with the Byzantine Empire, achieving the continuity he wanted. He brought the distant heroes from the dusty books of the scholars to the familiar space and the form of the Saints of the Church, whom the simple people, who had not been adulterated by western pretentious culture, were used to living with. This was not a sacrilege, because earlier hagiographers had dared paint ancient Greek philosophers, Alexander the Great, and the other heroes, even inside the narthexes of monastic churches (Monastery of Filanthropinon, Monastery of Golas, churches in Kastoria, etc).

The murals of the Town Hall could be his most personal and complete painting and his most important contribution to the history of Modern Greek Painting. It has not been studied specially (with the exception of Angelos Prokopios' article in the English-Greek Review of 1947) and, therefore, its role in the course of Modern Greek Painting has not been determined accurately. Moreover, it deserves to be presented again to the general Greek public, which has almost forgotten it.


However, Fotis Kontoglou's contribution to Modern Greek painting does not end with this work of his, which covers his creativity in the decade before the war. The painting sermon for a return to the local painting tradition and immediate release from the guardianship and direct artistic dependence on Western art movements produced marvelous fruit.

This Easterner who lived in Paris for some time, who met Rodin in person, as he mentions in one of his writings, was neither frightened by the brilliant surface of modern Parisian life nor dazzled by the artistic revolution taking place there. He may have been influenced indirectly only by the turn towards the medieval past. Loyal to the formal tradition of Greek art, he tried to find direct rejuvenation in the art of his own country and not in the art of the place which offered him hospitality.

Gradually, that need was realised by more and more sensitive receivers. Painters, aesthetic and art historians begun to turn towards the sources and the roots of tradition as a direct continuity. This phenomenon, naturally, was not only a Greek but a general European movement, from which the Greek movement was also watered. In fact, it is the deeper sense of romanticism. However, the efforts are initially limited to individual artists and they are often short-lived in the painters' life and work.

On the contrary, Fotis Kontoglou became a fervent preacher of this return with the absoluteness and the passion of the leader and the pioneer. He had the talent of writing, which helped him in this mission. Some young painters, like Yiannis Tsarouhis and Nikos Engonopoulos, study his sermons and frequent his workshop. They will follow their separate ways in the future but his fundamental doctrines will influence their work according to each one's personality. In addition to them, a whole generation of painters will listen to his teaching. This generation, the generation of the thirties, as it is called, will give to the Modern Greek Art its special physiognomy. Despite the broad range of their painting achievements and the special characteristics of its artists, it owes a lot in its beginning to Fotis Kotoglou's presence and work.

Certainly, Kontoglou preached in favour of a return to Byzantine Painting as he applied it himself in the murals of the Town Hall. Some painters of the thirties' generation followed him there as well, each one according to his own artistic personality, for at least a certain stage of their work, while there are artists of the post-war generation like P. Kopsides, M. Vatzias, and others, who express the pulse of their times (e.g. the events in the Engineering School - Polytechneio - by Vatzias) having as a distant basis the Byzantine technique, despite the fact that the material has changed as the tempera and the fresco were replaced by contemporary paints.

However, Kontoglou's broader lesson, which called for the investigation of indigenous painting elements either in Byzantine art, as he himself believed, or in folk art, as others believed, or even in ancient painting, as some people thought, appealed to a considerable number of painters who endeavored to find and express the real face of our country in their art, not only thematically, but mainly formally, as they believed that the union of the form and the content is one of the main characteristics of Greek uniqueness. This search for "Greekness", which became the main quest of the thirties' generation, owed its appearance to the seed which Fotis Kontoglou had sowed with unyielding zeal.


Kontoglou, however, was primarily a hagiographer. A painter of the liturgical art of the Orthodox Church, a painter that was aware of the theological character of Painting in the plan for man's salvation. I believe that here we should locate Kontoglou's main contribution to the ecclesiastic art: in the awareness of the great role painting plays in serving the worshiping and liturgical congregation of God's people, of Christ's body, the Church.

Fotis Kontoglou believed that hagiography is not a sideline or a parenthetical occupation but an elevated mission, a sacrament. He also firmly believed that Byzantine painting is the only expression suitable to this high goal. This awareness enabled him to change the course of modern Greek hagiography, which had been led astray, and turn it to the life-giving sources of Tradition. Without being the first or the only person who paints according to the Byzantine manner, he is the only one who believes in its worth throughout his entire life and not at some moment or for a brief period, influenced by external factors and trends.

We have a paradox here. For many years, this preacher of a return to Byzantine Art has not painted a single complete church in Athens, as some painters did, painters who belong to the above-mentioned class of hagiographers. Yet, he is the one who awakened orthodox consciences and helped rid the Church from wall paintings that had no painting substance and revealed an ignorance of theology. We know the importance the Orthodox Church attributes to Painting, and therefore we can understand the importance of correct, true Orthodox painting in the Church. Kontoglou tries to wake up the awareness of this importance.

Fotis Kontoglou painted both portable icons and murals. I believe that the portable icons were older. However, it is very dangerous to express conclusions for this section of his art since his icons are dispersed in various parts of Greece and it is not easy to have a full overview and, therefore, to form a correct judgement. The icons we have met seem to follow the teachings of the Cretan School in general terms, but the personal element is strong. The drawing is confident and clear, the forms are generally closed. The faces and the hands have been modelled in dark brown colour. For the clothes he prefers quiet tones which match the face and the bare parts, at least in his earlier works (e.g. the icons of the Temple of Saint Nicholas in Patisia, 1947, icon of Three Hierarchs in Kapnikarea, 1934, etc).

For a different reason, the evaluation and the study of church murals are also difficult. Fotis Kontoglou used to work with his students and it is often difficult to distinguish his own work from his students' work. One of the earliest wall paintings is the church, or, to be more precise, part of the wall paintings of the church of Life-giving Source in Liopesi, which was painted by Fotis Kontoglou and Terzis, a student of his, in 1946. The military Saints at the faces of the eastern columns of the dome (Saint Theodore, Saint George, Saint Dimitrios, Saint Merkourios, etc) are some of the best specimens of Fotis Kontoglou's hagiography. Robust forms, modelled according to the Byzantine technique which also show intense signs of Fotis Kontoglou's personal technique impregnated with folk tradition. The saints are portrayed as brave young men and champions of the faith. In these works we have Kontoglou's most personal hagiographic work - always within the ecclesiological context of Orthodox Tradition. The Cretan School is his basis but the colour and the drawing are nourished by the juices of a lively and creative painting and not an imitating one. Like in all creative eras of the long-lived Byzantine art, the artisans remained faithful to the traditional technique and mainly to its innermost core, which expressed the invariable truth of the revealed faith. However, as they expressed and continued the faith, they could express humbly and sincerely themselves and their times and the eternal was joined with the temporary without any confusion and without one dominating the other. Kontoglou tried to do this in the murals of the church in Liopesi. However, later, he seemed to have restricted this ambition of his. A more detailed study could show whether this supposition is correct as well as its causes. In the murals of the 1950's and afterwards (Kapnikarea, Saint George in Kypseli, Saint Nicholas in Patisia), the most outstanding parts are the ones where the painter follows the Cretan standards. Typical specimens are the Lord's murals on the built iconostasis of Saint Charalampos in Polygono, which were painted in 1955. They were created according to the Cretan manner, with generally sober colour tones, black colour as background and brown modelling on which the lights are developed in a lighter tone or drawn with white brushstrokes, the tight drawing, the closed, robust form, the colour unity and the internal ethos show the competent artist in his own environment.

We talked about Kontoglou's contribution as a teacher, more in the sense of the guide and the inspirer and less in the sense of the academic professor. If he deserves this title for the lay modern Greek painting, his role in hagiography was tangible, immediate and highly productive. Of course, before him or concurrently, iconographers such as D. Pelekasis, An. Asteiadis and Sp. Vasiliou work according to the Byzantine manner. But only F. Kontoglou is the ardent teacher who gathers around himself people who want to study the sacred art. At a time when Byzantine iconography is not taught officially in the Higher School of Fine Arts (until today there is no special chair but hagiography and fresco are taught by an instructor), the zealous young artists study in Kontoglou's workshop and scaffolding. His students, Ralis Kopsidis, Petros Vampoulis, Georgakopoulos, Papanikolaou, Ioannis Terzis follow their separate ways. Some turn toward folk expression, to which they join Byzantine Tradition, another toward the Macedonian School, each according to his personality. Therefore, while he did not create a school in the strict sense of the word, he created this group of artists who paint all the church walls in the Byzantine manner.

Part of his teaching work is the writing of his book "Expression", that is "Retailing of the most honourable orthodox hagiography, which is also called liturgical, including the technology and iconography of the said peace-cast art, namely, the interpretation of the technical methods and the holy types of icons, as well as an explanation of the fineness and the spiritual beauty and the honour thereof". Based on the earlier writing tradition of the "Interpretation of painting", by Dionysios from Fournas, and on his own knowledge, he records all his experience, so that it may be of use to the ones that will choose to continue the "Peace-cast" liturgical art of the Orthodox Church. The continuation of tradition was the great passion of this charismatic person and to this passion he devoted all his strength and all the talents which the Lord entrusted to him and which Kontoglou dedicated to His Glory.
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