History of Art Professor Emeritus
University of Athens
"Annunciation – Poetry"
Konstantinos Parthenis (1878-1967) is undoubtedly the greatest Greek artist of the 20th century. He is the one painter who successfully combined freedom licensed by modern art with Greek spirituality and clarity, valorizing precepts from ancient, Byzantine and, of course, modern art, which he familiarized himself with during his Paris years.
Parthenis accomplished what he considered as fundamental trait of an artist: the personal signature of the artwork; today any art lover easily recognizes his work. Furthermore, his work has a profound spirituality that allows it to resist time, beyond the rapidly ever-changing artistic styles nowadays. This is the reason why every show of his art is an event of higher aesthetics offering that profound shock provoked by the true artwork.
The Museum of the City of Athens (Vouros-Eutaxias Foundation) has come with the inspired idea of presenting a quite large artwork under the title Annunciation or Poetry, so far relatively unknown to wider audiences; and also gathering certain works on Annunciation, a theme which Parthenis was very enthusiastic about and treated in a composition that -as far as I know- is nonpareil in European and Byzantine imagery.
Annunciation is placed in an outdoor space modeled on the courtyard and the fountain of the Holy Monastery of Zoodochos Pigi of Poros (1) -an acute remark by Ev. Mathiopoulos (C. Parthenis.Η Ζωή και το έργο του, Adam Publications, Athens 2008, p. 172) with some minor variations. A section of the architectural background in Annunciation owned by the Museum of the City of Athens departs for its part quite further.
In this unpublished work, the two main figures of the scene are arranged in an original composition. The right part of the painting depicts Holy Mary standing upright in a closed form, bringing her right hand before the chest, and leaning the head in a pictorial translation of the words "(Luke, 1, 38) Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" spoken by Virgin Mary. The color of the figure is a virgin one, very pale rose. From the top, there descends the Angel with large vertical wings suggesting the great course of descent from heaven. The long tunic of the Angel has the same quite milky blue color. The Salutation to Virgin Mary, the Angel announcing the great miracle of the immaculate birth of the Son of God is pictorially translated in certain paintings by the typical -even underdeveloped- gesture of speech; in the majority of the paintings, being much more completed, this word beyond word is represented by the language of music coming from the lyre that the Angel holds in his (non visible) left hand, and whose strings he touches with the right hand. The background building has the color of the sky, blue, with some complementary colors such as rose and green ones (2).
Those unreal colors create a metaphysical atmosphere, that of the miracle, further accentuated by the lily, which comes out of a vase at the far end of the painting (3).
Those paintings are dated from the early 1910s (1910-1911). Some twenty years later, in the 1930s, the artist paints another Annunciation, this one of a different imagery: this quite large painting (100 x 100 cm) presents a landscape with one building on the right, in front of which the Holy Mary is seated, while the Angel comes from the other end and Salutes her.
The second work presented in this exhibition is a large painting (318 x 158 cm) owned by a Private Collector; it hasn’t been fully documented or presented to the general public yet, although published in the aforesaid book by E. Mathiopoulos (p. 359). This work belongs to the last creative period of Parthenis, during the 1950s, and bears two titles: Poetry and Annunciation. A. Kotides accepts the title Annunciation (Μοντερνισμός και Παράδοση στη Νεοελληνική Τέχνη του Μεσοπολέμου, Thessalonica 1993, p. 129).
In the centre of this work there is a young woman seated, her head turned to the right and her body to the left, while the dress covers her up to her knees. On either side of her, there are roughly sketched buildings and columns. On the right, there is an erect figure with a scroll and, in the left corner of the painting, a cupid holding a lyre in a far smaller scale. To the right and to the left of her head, there are two sizable plants. The upper part is covered by a winged figure -an Angel- with quite roughly executed wings. The colors here are bright red ones for the figures and the buildings, blue-green ones for the background. It is a monumental composition designed with a great deal of freedom and abstraction qualities (4).
I think, for my part, that the title Poetry is more pertinent than Annunciation; firstly, the typical features of the representation, such as the depiction of Angel speaking with Mary, or the nearly omnipresent lily, are absent here. There is also a heavily signified detailing of the costumes. The woman is represented as wearing a dress up to her knees, her legs being nude, a distinct feature that -as far as I know- is unparallel to any other representation of Holy Mary. Moreover, the Angel that overflies the woman seems more like giving her inspiration rather than Saluting her.
The National Gallery also owns the equally sized draft of the painting (5). Of course, the drawing holds the overall concept of the final work, this last one quite remaining close to that first concept. The drawing is of great value for the additional reason that it captures this initial shock of the artist, while proving the serious working ethos of a great artist during his composition studying. The fact that he created another painting an identical theme, although in a smaller scale (87 x 54 cm), shows the interest invested in that composition; this other piece belongs to the Art Gallery of the National Bank of Greece, being much less elaborate in details (6).
The artwork presented here to the wider art loving public is no less than a quite powerful composition that enriches Parthenis's creative production and, equally, the Neohellenic painting in general.