One of thing that I want to see as a tourist is a National Gallery of that country. I want to see a National Gallery that represents the country and not just the usual didactic collection inherited from the nobility featuring the usual artists, like the National Gallery of Ireland. I want to see art that represents the country, that tells part of its culture, shows me some of its artists.
The National Gallery of Greece in Athens is worth visiting; my only regret was that it was too small. There are only 3 floors and about 7 gallery spaces. 3 of which were being used for an exhibition about Ernst Ziller (1837-1923), a German neo-classical architect who designed many important buildings in modern Athens, as the capitol of modern Greece; just as Walter Burley Griffin, (1876 – 1937) was the architect of Canberra as the capital modern Australia.)
The other 4 gallery space are occupied by modern art from Greek bourgeois artists, early 20th century Greek artists, post-war Greek artists, and European Art from the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th. The last of these was the poorest part of the collection made up chiefly of second rate artists curatorial described as “attributed too…” follower of …” or “from the school of …”. There are no great masterpieces by internationally famous artists in this collection but that is not the point of this collection.
Australia and the modern Greek nation are both similar in age. Their respective national galleries are different both in their collections. The Australian National Gallery features a didactic collection that in a way imitates the National Galleries of England and Ireland. Showing that they are the inheritors, or at least the possessors of an artistic tradition stretching back to the European renaissance. There is a bit of this in the Athens gallery with this rather poor collection of European masters, but this is only a small part of the collection.
Most of the art in the Greek National Gallery is Greek and comes from the collections of the Greek bourgeoisie. This is one of the strong parts of the collection and made the art easily approachable. These paintings showed the interests of the Greek middle-class in themselves through portraits, their life in genre paintings and Greek artists.
Greek artists were influenced many of the European artistic trends of the 20th Century from impressionism, realism, symbolism, cubism, expressionism, abstraction and Pop but there is no futurism or Dada. And instead of Surrealism the Greek artists were more influenced by George de Chirico’s schola metafysica. Greek plein air paintings, the Greek impressionists, are just as beautiful as their other European colleagues. The gallery has a strong collection of Nikos Chartzikyiakos Ghikas (1906-94), the Greek Cubist painter.
I didn’t know anything about modern Greek art before I went to the National Gallery of Greece in Athens. I hadn’t seen any art by any modern of contemporary Greek artists. The only Greek art I knew about was ancient Greek that I studied as an undergraduate student and El Greco, because he worked for most of his career in Spain. The National Gallery of Greece does have 3 El Greco paintings but they use his proper Greek name – Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos). The Museum of Byzantine art in Athens had, a few days earlier, done an excellent job of filling in my knowledge of what had happened between ancient Greek and modern Greek art.
The National Art Gallery of Greece could be accused of being hellenocentric in its collection but this is the appeal to visitors like me. The collection does not alienate the foreign visitor with bombastic nationalism but has serious and balanced curatorial voice. Greece’s history is on display in paintings ranging from the usual 19th century nationalist paintings to the relationship between Greek genre painting and Orientalism. The influence of modern European art on modern Greek art is also explored along with the effect on Greek art from the 1967 coup that attempted to terminate the avant-garde. Instead the coup provided extra motivation for the “New Greek Realists” to use pop art styles and other realist techniques. I particularly enjoyed Kostoas Tsoclis’s 1972 collage of newspapers on a pencil drawing of a fence, titled “We Art All Responsible”. It is a beautiful, tragic and strongly beautiful work of political art.
The gallery’s collection of modern Greek sculpture, and sculpture generally (considering that they have 3 Rodin sculptures), is another of its many strong points. Joannis Avramidis “model for the column of humanity” (1963-85) creates a modern order of architectural column with interlocking human forms.
If you want to get to know and enjoy modern Greek art then the National Gallery in Athens is good place to start.