Hellenicity in modern Greek art

June 3rd, 2018


The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2005, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article is based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic art historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present this essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation.

For example, the term Hellenicity is already problematic in its own merit. Hall (2002) discusses this term in relation to its archaeological and historical significance: it associates with the Hellenic identity of the ancient Greeks and the way this was perceived to be distinct compared to the identity of other ethnic groups. Still, Hall (2002) explains that although the term was based on ethnic criteria, it also included some broader cultural expressions, which at some point defined the understanding of “Greekness” in the ancient world. Hellenicity appears again with the formation of the Greek nation-state during the 19th century, when “Greekness” becomes a characteristic element of modern Greek art. This is the actual Hellenicity that is discussed in the present article.

The author admits that the bibliography used for writing this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations.

In a series of other articles, the author has already expressed his objections and complaints for the ways in which the publication industry abuses and exaggerates anything that has to do with intellectual property rights of photographed artefacts or artworks. For this online article, the author decided to play the game by the book and did not include any photographs that could attract negative attention. Still, the article is accompanied by some links from random websites that assist with the visual representation of the artworks mentioned in this study.

The point the author is trying to make is simple: no matter how much effort authors and publishers put into restricting the circulation of photographs of archaeological artefacts or pieces of art, there will always be websites that will circulate such material for free and out of their reach. What they are trying to achieve is totally pointless!


This paper discusses the way Hellenicity was expressed in three late/modern Greek art movements. The article is divided in three sections. The first section, discusses the adoption of the term by the representatives of the Munich School and examines the work of Nikephoros Lytras, who was the most important representative of academicism in Greece. The second section discusses the incorporation of Hellenicity in the modernity movement; it examines the work of Konstantinos Parthenis, one of modernity’s pioneers in Greece, whose work was characterised by the use of intense Helleno-centric elements. The third section examines the so-called ‘30s Generation, a School which adopted Hellenicity as its main form of expression. This section discusses a painting by Nikos Chatzikyriakou Gikas and assesses the influences of Parthenis’ generation on the thoughts and artistic expressions of the ‘30s Generation. Finally, the article concludes in relation to the differences among the three artists, and also the differences among the artistic schools they represented.

Hellenicity and the Munich School

The Munich School is a Greek artistic movement, which coincided with the appearance of academicism in European fine art schools during the 19th century. The term academicism describes an artistic movement, which aimed in the representation of themes by following a set of strict artistic rules based on the study of classical artworks and other masterpieces. The works of ancient artists of the Classical period, such as Phidias and Polykleitos, and also the work of the great Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, were perceived as the inspirational prototypes of academicism. Furthermore, apart from being an artistic movement, academicism was the carrying vessel of various social and political ideas, which were strongly supported by the great European monarchs of this period (e.g. Napoleon III) to promote their political ideologies. During the 19th century in Greece, academicism was sponsored by King Otto and his Bavarian government to segregate the Greeks from their historical and political past, and to introduce them to the western way of thinking (Daskalothanasis 1999, 29-31).

The representatives of academicism in Greece are conventionally known as the Munich School. These were artists who studied at the Bavarian capital and adopted the ideas of academicism, which they then introduced to Greece after becoming lectures in the Greek Highest School of Fine Arts. The Munich School was first established by Theodoros Bryzakis and expanded after Nikolaos Gyzis and Nikephoros Lytras were sent to study at the Academy of Fine Arts at Munich, where they followed the School of Karl von Piloty (Lydakis 1976, 124).

Nikephoros Lytras was born at the village of Pyrgos on the Island of Tinos in 1832. He was son of a marble-worker and born on an island with great tradition in sculpture (1); therefore, Lytras received various artistic inspirations from a young age. He began his studies at the Highest School of Fine Arts at Athens in 1850, and in 1860 he was awarded a scholarship and was sent for further studies at Munich. He was greatly influenced by Piloti and when he returned back to Greece in 1866, he was hired to teach drawing at the Highest School of Fine Arts and introduced pioneering teaching methods (Kairophylas 1989, 13-28).

One of Lytras’ paintings is titled “The Return from the Festival of Penteli”, painted around 1870 (2). Nowadays, the painting is exhibited at the National Art Gallery of Athens and belongs to the Koutlidis Collection (Kotidis 1999, 84). The painting represents a typical Greek family of the 19th century, returning home after a joyful event, which was the Festival of Penteli.


The faces of the characters are drawn frontally. The father is wearing a traditional white dress; he is riding on the back of a donkey and he is holding a small musical instrument with strings, with which he appears to be playing some tune. The neck of the black donkey is slightly turned; the donkey is carrying a red rug or blanket and a large flask, objects that were used by the family after spending a day outdoors at the festival. The mother is represented to the left of the father; she is wearing a long black dress and a white cover around her neck and head. The mother’s arms are extended above her head holding a small child. The child’s arms are in cheerful motion, and in one hand, the child is holding a bitten bagel. Further to the left is the family’s son, who is also wearing in a white traditional dress and pointy shoes. He is blowing through a small flute, which is shown through the tightening of his lips. The family includes a small brown dog, which is represented at the bottom of the painting. The dog’s body is represented frontally and its head in profile.

The picture is characterised by intense and joyful motion. This is expressed through the movement of the donkey’s leg, the swinging of the dog’s tail, which is a sign of joy, and of course, through the small child’s motions on top of the mother’s shoulders. In the background, there are seven straight-standing trees, five on the left and two on the right side. Through the gap generated by the trees, the viewer can notice a dry landscape with two hills. At the top of the right hill, there is a characteristic white building, which is probably the church where the festival took place.

The painting is characterised by numerus features belonging to the academic style. The trees at the background strengthen the image’s vertical axis; there is perspective in the representation of space; faces are drawn frontally and the anatomical details of humans and animals are given in a naturalistic manner (Lydakis 1976, 145-7). The distribution of the light in the painting has been thoroughly painted. There is dense shadowing on the left side of the background, where the light appears to be blocked by the density of the trees. Colouring is performed through visual contrasting of bright and dark tones, such as the contrast between the red colour of the rug on the donkey’s back and the mother’s black dress.

The central figure of the painting is the father, who is represented as he is simultaneously riding the donkey and playing his musical instrument. Lytras was influenced by contemporary German paintings and this is noted in the way the father has been represented. Similar scenes had been previously drawn by Peter von Hess, particularly in his painting “The return of an Athenian family after the War of Independence”. One can note that even the title of Lytra’s painting resembles with that by Hess, suggesting some direct influences (Lydakis 1976, 144-6).

Despite Lytras’ broader academic style, Hellenicity is noted in relation the personality of his characters. The artist is heavily influenced by the Bavarian ethology that was introduced in the fine arts by Karl von Piloty. Ethology consists of a narrative representation of the ethos, customs and every-day activities of a group of people, aiming in the description of their cultural context (Daskalothanasis 1999, 32-3).

Despite the thrifty representation of the scenery, which reminds of the German countryside instead of Mount Penteli, the painting transmits strong elements of ‘Greekness’ through the characters’ representations. The clothing of each person, the father’s musical instrument, and also the family’s participation in a religious festival, are all elements of Hellenicity. Finally, one of the most basic social ideas of this period, the patriarchal family, in pictured through the Greek habit of having the man riding in a carefree manner, while the rest of the family is following him on foot.

Hellenicity and modernity

European modernity was an artistic movement that first developed during the end of the 19th century as a reaction to the stylistic constraints and lack of themes that had been previously created by academicism. The social conditions of that period favoured the rise of modernity, which was based of the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the western world. The main consumers of modern art were every-day people who lived in large industrial urban centres. By introducing new themes taken from the technological and industrial development, modernity experimented in relation to forms and colours, and produced new artistic movements such as impressionism, expressionism, and cubism (Daskalothanasis 1999, 40-1).

In Greece, the social and political conditions of that time did not particularly allow the fast spread of modernity. The society remained primarily agricultural, industrialisation was almost absent, and urbanisation moved on very slowly. The necessity for a change came a lot later through the need of the Greeks to identify with western developments. This required a cut off from the artistic tendencies promoted by the Munich’s School, as by that time Munich had ceased to be the most radiant artistic centre in Europe. Unfortunately, the first adoption of modernity in Greece only took place in relation to the renewal of existing styles due to the special conditions that existed in the country. A pioneer of Greek modernity was Konstantinos Parthenis (Daskalothanasis 1999, 40-1). His expressionism found its way through the progressive stratum of the Greek urban class, which by that time followed the liberal political views of Eleutherios Venizelos. The adoption of modernity by the urban populations of Partenis’ generation symbolised a social need towards the modernisation of the Greek state (Daskalothanasis 1999, 50-1).

The entire generation of Konsantinos Parthenis was nurtured on the political climate of the ‘Megali Idea’ (Great Idea), the Asia Minor Catastrophe (3), the anxieties of European industrialisation and the unrest before the First World War. In Greece, the views of Pericles Giannopoulos generated a reactionary movement against western arrogance. During the gradual rise of nationalism, the Greek artists searched for new themes and inspirations that were associated with Hellenicity, which derived from the ancient Greek past, the Byzantium, and folk art (Lydakis 1976, 356). Despite the spread of Helleno-centric modernity, which was primarily represented by Konstantinos Parthenis and Yiannis Tsarouchis, the broader movement remained loyal to the international principles of modernity. This movement was later named ‘consistent modernity’, and was represented by artists such as Nikolaos Lytras and Yiorgos Bouzianis (Kotidis 1999, 89-93).

Kontsantinos Parthenis was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1878, and studied between 1897 and 1903, initially in Rome and then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach. He returned to Greece in 1903 and was appointed lecturer at the Highest School of Fine Arts between 1929 and 1947, where he introduced completely new artistic ideas. In 1937, he was awarded with the golden price at the international art exhibition of Paris for his painting “Hercules fighting against the Amazons” (Spiteris 1979, 219-20). The painting was painted in 1922 and is nowadays exhibited at the National Art Gallery of Athens (Kotidis 1999, 89).


The artwork represents a clearly Greek theme, inspired by the myth on the battle between Hercules and the Amazons. Hercules is represented naked, holding a bat in his hands, ready to deliver the final blow to an Amazon lying wounded on the ground. The Amazon is wearing a white dress; she is carrying a shield and a spear, which is pointed against the hero. On the left, there is the lying corpse of a semi-naked Amazon still carrying a spear in her hand, and on the right, there is another corpse of a totally naked Amazon, carrying no weapons and lying on her one side. The background is dominated by three tall trees with wide trunks and dense leafage. Further at the back there is a small mountain and the blue sky. The painting’s Hellenicity is not only expressed through its mythological theme, but also through the selection of specific colours that are common in the Mediterranean basin. For example, the sky has a characteristic bright blue colour, while the skin of Hercules is painted in a dark tone, as if the person in tanned.

The painting’s style complies with the broader principles of modernity. There is perspective in the representation of space; the elements are painted flat; there is no use of scale and proportion (e.g. the sizes of the mountain and the trees are disproportional); and finally, the characters are represented in an abstract manner (Kotidis 1999, 86). Finally, the central figure of the painting, Hercules, is not placed harmonically in the centre of the artistic composition; instead he is drawn at the centre of the terrestrial lower half of the painting, which is covering a small portion of the surface.

Hellenicity in the ‘30s Generation

The term ‘30s Generation refers to a group of intellectuals, primarily novelists, poets and artists, who formulated and presented their social views during the decade of the 1930s, and promoted Hellenicity as their main aim. This specific generation lived through the same events as Parthenis’ generation (e.g. the Asia Minor Catastrophe, etc.) and formed anti-western views, which aimed in rescuing Greek cultural heritage from intrusive western elements. Such pursues followed two different paths: firstly, there was a revival of Byzantine traditions, the main representative of which was Fotis Kontoglou; and secondly, there was a shift towards folk art, which was at that time represented by the painter Theophilos Chatzimichael.

Hellenicity inspired artists with neoteric tendencies, such as Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas and Nikos Egonopoulos. Within the broader ethno-centric political climate of the 1930s in Europe, which promoted local nationalism, Greek art adopted Hellenicity and used it to promote the political views of the Metaxas dictatorship (4). In that sense, Hellenicity in the ‘30s Generation moved away from being a purely artistic expression and moved towards serving the needs of ideological propaganda (Daskalothanasis 1999, 66-68).

Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas was a neoteric artist who was inspired and influenced greatly by Parthenis’ generation. In fact, the work of Parthenis often included some covered elements of abstract art and cubic tendencies, and such element became stronger in Greek art after the 1930s.

Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas was born in Athens in 1906. He originally worked with Parthenis between 1919 and 1920, and in 1922 he continued his studies in France, where he followed cubist and constructivist tendencies followed by the Paris School. He was influenced by the work of Picasso and by the Orphism of Robert Delaunay (Lydakis 1976, 409-10). He returned to Greece in 1934 and he was appointed a sketching lecturer at the National Metsovian Polytechnic in 1941 (Spiteris 1979, 307).

A characteristic painting by Gikas is called “The Great Composition of Hyrda”, where the artist presents his childhood memories from the island of Hydra in Greece. The painting is a typical oil on canvas composition, 211mm long and 131mm wide; it was painted in 1948 and is nowadays exhibited at the National Art Gallery of Athens (Lydakis 1976, 409-10).


The composition presents a scenic view of Hydra town in cubistic style. The houses are represented rectangularly, although without losing their scenic fidelity; their shapes elaborately render the insular architecture with stones. There is no specific viewing angle and the houses’ roofs are represented from multiple directions. The painting is characterised by a tendency towards neat and abstract representations. The horizon, the landscape at the background, the sun and the clouds are drawn on the same visual level without the use of perspective. The dominant colours are grey, brown and red, and there is no naturalistic representation of such colours. In general, such colour-combinations are used to represent terrestrial features; however, in the above painting by Gikas, these are used to represent features such as the sky, the sea and the clouds.

Without abandoning his cubistic style, Gikas explored Hellenicity through the representation of the most typical features of the Greek insular landscape. Despite the broader tendency of the ‘30s Generation towards secession from western prototypes, Gikas does not seem to expel them. By contrast, he employs the principles of cubism to stress a typically Greek characteristic, which is insular architecture. The taxonomic categorisation of Gikas’ work to the movement of Hellenicity is only attributed to few elements included in his work, but mostly through the artist’s political ideology, which complied with the nationalist line of the Metaxas dictatorship. For the 4th August Regime, the stylistic elements of various artworks were not perceived as anti-Hellenic and pro-western; instead, they were recognised as different expressions of “Greekness”, which were used in support of nationalist ideology (Daskalothanasis 1999, 64-5).


After examining the work of three artists, which followed different tendencies in Greek art, it can be noted that the perceptions of Hellenicity in the Greek arts varied through time. Nikephoros Lytras, who was the most important representative of academicism in Greece, perceived Hellenicity through the ethographic characteristics of what was believed to be a typical Greek family of his time. The external appearance of the people, the patriarchal character of the family, the religiousness and participation in public festivals, were all represented with realistic conventions and with the use of academic cannons. Such cannons included the use of perspective for the representation of space, the use of strict scales, the use of shadows and the uniform distribution of light.

Konstantinos Parthenis was the main representative of what is known as Helleno-centric modernity. The Hellenic character of his work was seen in the selection of themes inspired by ancient Greek mythology, such as the battle between Hercules and the Amazons. At the same time, he attempted innovative colour combinations, which were common in modernity, in order to represent the natural colours of the Greek landscape (e.g. blue skies) and people (e.g. tanned skin). The adoption of neoteric tendencies by Partenis also included the use of flat representations, the lack of scale, the abstract representation of his characters and the asymmetrical distribution of central themes.

Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas was a representative of the ‘30s Generation, who diverted from the main norm in the exploration of Hellenicity, which was based in the revival of Byzantine themes and folk art. By contrast, Gikas adopted Hellenicity in his own way. In relation to his themes, he focused on the representation of Greek landscapes, and in relation to his ideology, he followed the principles of nationalism and the Metaxas regime. His style was clearly neoteric and western in its inspirations, following constructivism and cubism. His work was characterised by neat and abstract representations without use of geometric perspective, and the use of specific colours that were not employed in a realistic manner.

During the course of Greek art from the academic approaches of the 1860s to the Helleno-centric approaches of the 1930s, it can be noted that the artistic themes remained Greek in their inspiration, probably due to the social and political nature of the Greek society. By contrast, the artistic styles of such paintings followed western prototypes, as western ideas always affected the way of thinking of the Greek intellectuals.


(1) Yiannoulis Chalepas was a famous Tinian sculptor, who was also from Pyrgos and studied in the Academy of Fine Arts at Munich between 1873 and 1876.
(2) The title in Greek is “Επιστροφή από το πανηγύρι της Πεντέλης”. The word panegyri refers of a popular festival associated with the celebrations in the name of a Christian Saint. Mt. Penteli is one of the three mountains surrounding Athens and the name Penteli associates with an Athenian suburb located at the base of this mountain. In some sources, the painting is also titled “The return from the bazaar”, probably because the word panegyri and pazari (bazaar) have similar meanings.
(3) The Megali Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα or Great Idea) was the product of Greek nationalism during the late 19th and early 20th century. It suggested the creation of a modern Greek state that would include geographical territories, which were occupied by Greek-speaking populations but were still under foreign rule. The Megali Idea was abandoned right after the Greek defeat during the 1919-22 war, which led to the loss of Asia Minor and the destruction of Smyrna (Izmir) by the Turkish armed forces. This chapter in the Greek history is known as the Asia Minor Catastrophe and it took place in September 1922.
(4) The dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas began on August 4th, 1936. It was also known as the “4th August Regime”. It lasted until his death on January 29th, 1941, right in the middle of World War II and only three months before the defeat of Greece by the Axis.


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Hall, J.M., 2002, Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kairophylas, G., 1989, Nikephoros Lytras: The Patriarch of Modern Greek Painting, Athens: Philippotis.
Kotidis, A., 1999, ‘The post-war face of Greek art’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.) Arts 1: Greek Representational Arts. Review of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 3, Later and Modern Art, Patra: Greek Open University.
Lydakis, S., 1976, Greek Painters, Volume 3, The History of Modern Greek Painting, Athens: Melissa.
Spiteris, T., 1979, Three centuries of Modern Greek Art, 1660-1967, Volume 3, Athens: Papyros.