The interdisciplinary field of Modern Greek Studies has been shaped mainly by scholars of literature, history, Byzantine studies, political and, to a lesser degree, social sciences, most of which are connected to North American and West European universities. Art historians have been involved rather marginally. This is probably not too strange, as most art historians of modern Greece are based in Greece, and they have not expressed much interest in collaborations and/or direct contributions in their field by scholars of other disciplines.
Meanwhile, in recent years we see artists, art curators and critics as well as public and private art institutions, becoming increasingly prominent in the field of contemporary cultural production in Greece. Members of this local art production scene are often collaborating with professionals across disciplines (anthropologists, historians, political and cultural theorists etc.). During the last decade or so, their work has attracted significant attention from abroad and Athens has become a small international contemporary art hub. There is little doubt that this internationalization is connected to the events and surrounding atmosphere of the so-called “Greek crisis,” and an external interest in how Greek-based art producers have engaged with it. It remains to be seen how sustainable this attraction will prove in the long run. After all, the international contemporary art world loves political crises and financial depressions as the occasional fascinations, for example, with post-1989 Eastern Europe or financial crisis-ridden Argentina, have demonstrated in recent decades. Greece has been taking its turn and share of attention.
Τhe external interest in examining Greek society, politics, history and culture through the lens of contemporary art might prove ephemeral and sometimes frivolous. Nonetheless, for us, art historians and theorists working in academia and interested in Greece, it does raise significant self-reflective questions about our contribution to such a project. There is, of course, enough art historical literature on key figures and canonical art works, “generations” or topics. But what about studies around less canonical art historical approaches and less discussed topics, such as the social milieus, networks and backgrounds or the political connections and activities of art professionals? What about topics not focusing on individuals as geniuses and on their masterpieces, but on analyses of a broader range of art and art-related phenomena, events, products and identities in their social, political and cultural context? Οr, in reverse, where are the studies using art as a tool to analyse social, political and cultural phenomena? How much have we, art historians, contributed to such projects so far? How much of our published research has found its way beyond the bookshelves of art historians? Finally, what could a more diversified and daring approach to art historical scholarship contribute to an interdisciplinary field of Modern Greek Studies in the 21st century?
In the discussion that follows, the above broad considerations are distilled into a few specific questions prompted by, but not limited to, the recently published book by art historian Areti Adamopoulou, Τέχνη και Ψυχροπολεμική Διπλωματία. Διεθνείς Εικαστικές Εκθέσεις στην Αθήνα (1950 – 1967) [Art and Cold War Diplomacy. International Art Exhibitions in Athens (1950-1967)], Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, 2019], and expanding beyond it.
Eva Fotiadi (EF): Your recent book, Art and Cold War Diplomacy, evolves around the history of five art exhibitions that took place in Athens between 1950 and 1967. They were all large-scale, international events with large visitor numbers. It is, I think, the first monograph that studies systematically and critically 20th-century art exhibitions in Greece, focusing primarily on the political and social context of their organization and reception, and secondarily on a strict art historical examination of their content. A few other research and educational projects about exhibition histories are currently underway. What makes the history of art exhibitions significant to study for art history and beyond? Moreover, what kind of challenges did you face in writing the book?
Areti Adamopoulou (AA): The study of exhibitions that shaped art history has already its own history in Europe and the USA. In the 1980s an intense research interest developed on the subject, resulting in a large wave of publications from the 1990s onwards. Exhibitions are complex events because they act on more levels than art works alone. They presuppose a selection of subject and objects and a preconceived narrative to convey meaning to a perceived audience. They are open, therefore, to complex analyses, based not only on style, subject matter or social connections to artists, patrons or sponsors. They allow an in-depth research on the exact site where art’s signification is constructed, maintained or even deconstructed, and are also open to discussions on cultural politics, ideological orientations and discourses on identity. It is surprising that art history ignored them for the best part of the 20th century, since in modernity exhibitions were the medium through which most art became known. Today the history of exhibitions is an established and interdisciplinary field of study.
My book is indeed the first on the subject in Greek. This was a great challenge for me. Even choosing the exhibitions that I would discuss was a difficult task. There were many questions and dilemmas I had to face before even starting to write. Should I focus on a single decade or speak about a broader period? Should I present many events or highlight only a few? Should I discuss cultural politics of European institutions or present the Greek positions during the first Cold War decades? Another thing that made things difficult was the fact that there was a discrepancy between the great extent of research on cultural diplomacy of Greece’s allies and the few texts on Greek practices, none of which discussed visual arts.
I started off by posing questions in relation to the archival material I had in hand: How did Greece connect to the post-1945 Western culture? What kind of exhibitions were presented and how were they received by the Athenian public? How did art exhibitions serve ideological and political interests in Western European states and in Greece in particular? To which periods of the past and to which art works did “diplomatic missions” get assigned during the Cold War? My research revealed that after 1945, and especially after the end of the Civil War in 1949, there was an astonishing increase in the number of travelling exhibitions that included Athens in their schedule or were prepared especially for Greek audiences. This, though not a particular Greek phenomenon, was of special importance for Greece and its post-war cultural orientation: Greek museums had collections of ancient or medieval finds unearthed within the borders of the Modern Greek state, but lacked any significant collection of artworks from the Renaissance onwards. If travelling exhibitions were a tool of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War and promoted cooperation between European states, in the case of Greece these practices were influential events that shaped the cultural orientation of the country.
EF: Could you elaborate more specifically on the case-studies that you have chosen to analyze? What do we learn about relations between art, politics and the public sphere from these examples?
AA: In my book I chose to speak about important issues of post-war cultural practices and cultural diplomacy in Greece through the data of five international exhibitions. USA’s Cold War diplomacy and especially the role of the Museum of Modern Art in this frame have been the subject of numerous studies. The American interest for Greece and the practices employed are presented in my book through the “Family of Man'” (1958), the famous photographic exhibition that travelled around the globe and had millions of spectators. Commented upon heavily in every language, it was mostly ignored by Greek art critics.
The post-war art scene in Greece was still directed by a very conservative and reserved Academy, the Athens School of Fine Arts. The inter-war debates focused on determining a national style and modern art was a questionable choice for artists. In the 1950s the desire for participation in the canon of Western European art emerged strong. Since there was no collection of modern art in the country, the Stavros Niarchos collection exhibition in 1958 gave the opportunity to artists and to the wider public to see all Great Masters of modern art. In a similar way as Western Germany’s cultural initiatives after the war strived to erase the fascist past, Greece’s art scene attempted to escape from an internationally uninteresting recent art production and be incorporated in the contemporary Western canon. The impact of such travelling art exhibitions for both countries is evident in their later art production.
The UNESCO principles caused multiple changes in every European country’s legislation about the preservation of cultural heritage. It was the time when the idea of travelling exhibitions essentially came into being and flourished. Through the "Caravaggio and His Followers" exhibition in 1962, I present how Greece participated in the inter-European network of cultural exchanges. It is interesting to note that although Greek authorities were very enthusiastic about welcoming any exhibition offered, they did not allow any object from state collections to travel.
Greece became a member of every post-war Western European cultural institution. In 1954 the Council of Europe initiated a series of exhibitions which promoted the cooperation between European states and aimed at narrating the history of a culturally united Europe. Almost every year one state would present its main cultural contribution to European art through a large-scale exhibition with objects coming from any European collection. The 9th exhibition of the Council of Europe was entitled "Byzantine Art - An European Art" (sic) and was conceived and organized by Manolis Chatzidakis in 1964 in Athens. The exhibition deconstructed many stereotypes about Byzantine art and connected the medieval Greek past to the European common culture.
By the 1960s the conditions were ripe for large-scale Greek productions. The completely original "Panathenaia of Sculpture" were organised in 1965 by Tonis Spiteris. This was the first time that European modern sculpture was presented in Greece, just opposite the Acropolis. Through this exhibition, both by its name and choice of site, ancient Greece became the point of reference that connected the present to the past and Greece to Europe. Antiquity and Byzantium were still the focal points of art history in Greece, and became the main tourist attractions.
During my research I realized that the first post-1945 decades were a period of intense renegotiation of every kind of identity and of formation of many “certainties” in the cultural field that follow us until today. As for Greece, it was the first time that the country was systematically elaborating on its European identity. Greek intellectuals, for the first (and perhaps the last) time, felt that they participated on equal terms in the formation of contemporary European culture. Yet this was not the case for Greek artists, as the study of the exhibitions of the period shows. Therefore, there is much I have learned through my research and there is still much to discover by examining the history of exhibitions.
EF: One of the most striking discoveries in your book, at least for me, was that the travelling photographic exhibition, ‘The Family of Man’, had actually been shown in Athens in 1958. The ‘Family of Man’ is a canonical, textbook example for the history of exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1955). When it was presented, for instance, in France and Germany it evoked the critical engagement of figures such as the philosophers Roland Barthes and Max Horkheimer respectively. Up until today, it is extensively referred to and discussed in international literature, either from a museological perspective due to its sensational hanging of the photographs (you discuss this topic briefly on pp. 96-100), or in relation to the ideological propaganda it served as a travelling show financed by USIA (United States Information Agency, linked to the CIA). Yet in Athens the exhibition barely triggered any debate among local art and culture professionals: neither at the time it was shown nor in later decades. In the book, you maintain that art historians have largely forgotten it ever took place in Athens. How could we interpret both the initial lack of interest, as well as the later amnesia?
AA: The reception of this exhibition in Greece was a surprise for me, too. However, I believe it can be well explained if we consider the broader historical framework. On the one hand, the USIS at Athens (United States Information Service, the local branch of USIA) often organized propagandistic photographic exhibitions, some of which were part of the Marshall Plan agreement. The Athenian public was used to attending this kind of events at the same space (the Zappeion Megaron) where the “Family of Man” was on show. Perhaps Greek art critics perceived it not as art, but as part of the USA propaganda. On the other hand, photography was hardly considered an art form in Greece. Some academics, whom I have interviewed about the exhibitions they saw during this period, could not recall attending it. On the contrary, they had vivid memories of the Byzantine art exhibition and of the “Panathenaia”. The general “amnesia” about the event is also archival. When trying to locate photographs at the major archive on the exhibition, the Centre national de l'audiovisuel (Château de Clervaux, Luxembourg), where the “Family” is presently housed and preserved, I discovered they had none from Athens! The photographs in my book came from the Photographic Archive of the Benaki Museum at Athens, where one can find less than twenty shots.
No matter what we think about the “Family” today, I believe that the reason why countless art critics and intellectuals got so involved with it was that its tour had a clear political agenda and its ideological dimensions seemed more transparent than those of any other art exhibition organized by MoMA. Its decennial tour in 37 countries, in five different versions adapted to different national audiences, started in 1955 in two key cities: West Berlin and Guatemala, both of which had suffered the effects of Cold War politics. The importance of Greece on the USA public diplomacy agenda is evident by the fact that Athens was one of the early stops in this mythical tour. It seems the exhibition was important for Greek policies, too. Its staging at the Zappeion was facilitated by a committee whose members were all pro-monarch, conservative people.
EF: In the introduction you write that, “the post-war Eurocentric and Western-oriented Greek national identity was created and consumed primarily as image [p. 21, emphasis mine].” You relate this position, for example, to the impact of commercial visualizations of Greece in the tourist campaigns of EOT (Greek Tourism Organisation) that targeted foreign as well as local tourists. You also refer to the distribution of photographic images by popular media focusing especially on the example of the weekly magazine Eikones. By means of photo reportages the magazine followed the lives of stars, from actors to royals, and promoted the comforts and pleasures of a Western consumerist lifestyle, including those of tourism. Interestingly, Eikones collaborated also with USIS Athens for the organization of another photographic exhibition titled, “A Decade of Progress“ (Μία Δεκαετία Προόδου, 1957), presented at the same space as “The Family of Man” in 1957 (p. 89-92). The topic of the earlier exhibition was the modernization, or rather the reconstruction of Greece after the war, a project largely funded by the Marshall Plan.
Visual culture studies is not an area of much interest among art historians in the Greek context. Yet the above observations in your book about how images functioned in the ideological shaping of the Greek population’s identity and horizon of desires, seems to suggest that this could be a promising future project for art historians. Could you expand a bit on your observations and conclusions regarding the creation and consumption of identity as image in post-war decades?
AA: What essentially changed significantly after 1945 was the profound effect of mass media in Eastern and Western societies alike. More than ever before ideologies and beliefs were shaped through the press ―which proliferated immensely in the USA and Western Europe after war restrictions on paper rationing were lifted― as well as radio and television programs. Advertising grew rapidly and glossy images constructed stereotypes of every kind of identity. It was strange for me, who grew up feeling a European, to detect how in the first years after World War II a common European cultural identity was constructed. And even how every European state’s policies formed the very notion of national culture and promoted it among their citizens and abroad. I felt I took too many things for granted!
Evanthis Hatzivassiliou has argued that for small countries like Greece, especially in the Balkans, the entry into one of the Cold War coalitions signified the continuation of their interwar struggle for modernization. For Greece the period of intense westernization, and thus, intense modernization, began in the 1950s. New life-style magazines appeared (such as Eikones, that you have mentioned) and newspapers increased the number of their pages. The press, along with radio and cinema productions, were the main tools for shaping public opinion. The new Greek audience was becoming increasingly urban, enjoyed easier access to higher education, free time and paid vacation, they could afford to travel for tourism, watched Hollywood movies, and loved to dream about participating in the Western consumerist utopia. The mass media nourished their new desires and stereotyped the post-war Greek identity. What did it mean to be Greek? Certainly, to respect the linear narrative of continuity of Hellenism through the ages, to be European and Western, in this order. In this frame, even cultural events were consumed as spectacles.
I consider the “Panathenaia” exhibition as a primary example of such a spectacle. Spiteris managed to select sculptures by the most famous European modern artists. As his archive reveals, he consciously avoided to include “Easterners” and followed carefully the contemporary canon for large-scale exhibitions, such as the Kassel Documenta. He staged the exhibition just opposite the Acropolis, implying a connection between classical Greece and contemporary art creation. He photographed meticulously the most emblematic works (by Henry Moore, Renoir, Picasso etc.) with Parthenon as a background and disseminated them worldwide. He ensured that all important European newspapers and magazines would cover the event. He obviously perceived it not only as an art exhibition, but as a tourist attraction, too. And, indeed, he made the “Panathenaia” the most publicized art event ever that took place in Athens. Spiteris was the first Greek curator in the contemporary sense of the word. His texts reveal how he perceived his role, but also his notion of national identity. For him Greece, without doubt, was a Western European state and should look as one. He swept under the carpet the fact that there was no tradition or organizational skills for such a task in Greece and pretended that the exhibition was organized by an institution, as large and established as the Venice Biennale! He did everything he could to cover for damaged exhibits due to lack of appropriate safety measures. He invited a prominent Greek architect from Paris, Yorgos Kandilis, for the display design. And, above all, he paired what was the European canon with Greek classical antiquities. At the same time, he tried to avoid Greek contemporary sculptors, as he thought they did not fit into that canon. Finally, when he was almost forced to include a few modernists, he did so gracefully.
What was considered Greek in this exhibition conformed with the European stereotypes about the country: the cradle of democracy and culture, the land of famous antiquities, the serene attic environment, the wonderful tourist destination. It is revealing that Greek art critics, who wrote about the “Panathenaia”, did not comment on any of the points raised above. At best, they nagged about the scarcity of the representation of Greek sculptors or about the poor quality of the art on display: it came from great names, but the objects chosen were not the best examples. Was there no other element of the contemporary Greek culture to be discussed or presented? Were these the only omissions? Were there no conflicts or debates about contemporary Greek creativity? In my opinion, this fact shows how “natural” was for that period to understand one’s identity as an image in the press, as a stereotype to be consumed.
Other purely tourist attractions of the period support my argument. The Athenian Sound and Light, which began in 1959, illustrates how Greek culture was perceived by other Europeans and Greeks, too. The spectacle was technically a French production, based on the dramatic illumination of the Acropolis. The narrative, written by a French, placed the 5th century BCE battle of the Greeks against the Persians on the Holy Rock, presented as the archetype combat of good and evil, civilization and barbarism, Western democracy and Eastern tyranny. The inauguration ceremony was grandiose, with Malraux, the first Minister of Culture in France and Europe, delivering a speech and hundreds of French marines attending the event. Pop culture was definitely crossing the borders of high culture there, making this a significant moment in post-war Greek cultural history.
EF: Let us move away from your own work and consider other research projects related to art and Greece, by other fellow art historians. I also have in mind PhD, postdoc or more senior research projects of recent years, whether already published or not. Could you think of examples of studies that would also be interesting beyond our sector, but are likely not to have circulated enough yet?
AA: Part of my recent research is on the history of art history in Greece. I mention this, because I believe that part of the answer on interdisciplinary and more general approaches lies in the struggle of establishing art history as a separate academic field in the country. Recently, a colleague asked me to propose a contribution for a European conference that wouldn’t have Greece as a focal point but would expand on more general issues. I realized this was out of my comfort zone. His provocative quote “Are you really saying that what Greek art historians are interested in is of no relevance to anyone else?”, really set alarm bells ringing in my head. Are we that isolated? Are we that introvert and preoccupied only with our limited local material? Perhaps yes. Art history entered officially the Greek academic system in 1965, although it existed as archaeology since the 19th century. I consider this late entry as a symptom of the westernization of the country in the post-war era, because in Greece the name came to designate the study of European art production from the Renaissance onwards. This marked a shift from a research focused on Greek subjects to art produced more broadly in Europe. However, until now our main object of study is art produced in Greece during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially painting and sculpture. There are very few books or projects which move away from the national borders or examine other forms of art. We do not show any interest to broaden our audience or expand our field of study, we do not usually cooperate in interdisciplinary terms.
Language is another obstacle. Many Greek scholars, myself included, share the romantic view that small languages, like Greek, will eventually disappear if we do not serve them loyally. This does not comply with the current academic competitive rules, but it still holds a flair of ethical consciousness in a world devoted to professional antagonism. There are many research projects that would interest an international audience, but the texts are written in Greek. Apart from my two books, I have two recent examples in mind: Kostas Ioannides, Μια «υπερόχως νόθος τέχνη»: Ποιητικές της Φωτογραφίας. Τέλη 19ου – αρχές 20ου αιώνα [An “exquisitely hybrid art”. Poetics of Photography, End of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century”], Athens: Futura, 2019 and Irene Gerogianni, Η περφόρμανς στην Ελλάδα, 1968-1986 [Performance Art in Greece, 1968-1986] Athens: Futura, 2019. We are opening up, but not as fast as one would want!
I believe art history has a very short history in Greece, one that did not yet allow for establishment, self-reflection and deconstruction. The time is ripe, however, to see new researchers move away from the established norms, pursuit a career outside the Greek academic system and address an international audience.
The recent shift in the way we examine our subjects and the fact that more than ever before texts by Greek art historians are being published in international fora, are all good signs. Modern and contemporary Greek art can be of interest to broader audiences, too, depending on our viewpoint. The choices are exclusively ours. Exhibition and institutional history can be fruitful starting points to examine art production in Greece and contribute to the broader field of Modern Greek Studies.
Amsterdam and Thessaloniki, August 2020
Areti Adamopoulou is Professor of Art History at the University of Ioannina, Greece. She has authored two books in Greek (Post-war Greek Art. Visual Interventions in Space, University Studio Press, 2000, and Art and Cold War Diplomacy. International Art Exhibitions in Athens, 1950-1967, University Studio Press, 2019) and edited three volumes. Her research interests focus on contemporary art, national identity and art, art history’s history and history of art exhibitions.
Eva Fotiadi is a historian and theorist of contemporary art and design. Her expertise lies in collaborative and hybrid artistic practices, site-specific projects and relations between art, design and the public. She is the author of The Game of Participation in Art and the Public Sphere (Maastricht, 2011) and numerous articles. She has been a research fellow at Free University Berlin (DRS, Marie Curie) and Princeton University. She is a lecturer at St Joost School of Art & Design, where she also coordinates the international exchange program Speculating The Future. Together with Prof. Maria Boletsi she coordinates the research group Crisis, Critique and Futurity at the University of Amsterdam