From Artist to Myth: The reception of Sophia Laskaridou | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
Part A’: The reception of the work and the first seeds of myth
From reality to myth
What makes a myth?
Mumbled words, scattered images, second-hand memories…
Some stories stay alive in collective memory, passing from mouth to mouth to the next generations. For as long as we host them in our thought, we nourish them with our imagination; before we pass them on, we filter them through our thoughts and our feelings.
Hardly ever do the small personal stories get registered in history books; they usually stay hidden in forgotten archives, dusted canvases, yellow newspaper scraps and breathe through oral narrations.
And as the present turns into a distant past and the truth subsides in the depth of time, the real starts to be embellished with fantasy, until it moves into the sphere of myth.
This has happened to many artists in the past, that have turned into myths.
The most characteristic example in Greek art is Sophia Laskaridou (1876-1965), one of the most famous Greek artists of the beginning of the 20th century, that lived and worked in Athens, Munich and Paris; her memory remained alive even though her works were forgotten in warehouses and collectors’ private salons. The stories about her courage to wander in the Greek countryside with a gun in one hand and a brush in the other, as well as the rumors for her relation to artists like Pablo Picasso or Auguste Renoir have kept her alive in collective memory long after her death.
In 2004 I set out to discover her forgotten work -and the result exceeded my expectations: from the 339 oil paintings, sketches and engravings that I brought into light, very few were known. The same moment that I absorbed her impressionist colors and discovered her secret experimentations with cubism, abstraction and surrealism -which she had never presented in exhibitions- a phrase repeatedly sounded in my ears: “Isn’t she the one who…?”.
This is how most people would start asking about the artist -as they sought to verify some story about her life, known from her diary and embellished with their fantasy, or some false rumor. This meant that Laskaridou was known not so much as an artist, but mainly as a persona that defied the social rules of her time. That made me look into how this almost mythical image, which was unique for Greek art, was formed. In order to achieve this, I examined the reception of her work by studying hundreds of articles written about her from 1898 until today1.
The evolution of the reception of Sophia Laskaridou’s work and personality
In Sophia Laskaridou’s face we recognize an artist whose character and activity are very important and play an important role in the reception of her work. On studying the special synchronous material of reception2, we realize that her personality attracts the interest of journalists, writers and artists of her time and affects the way in which her creation was received by her contemporaries. Little by little the media focuses their attention on her personality, in a way that the main interest is shifted from her painting to herself. As a result, four decades after her death her work has fallen into oblivion, whereas her personality inspires TV series, theatrical plays, historic novels and articles in magazines. Laskaridou played a major part in this evolution, by publishing an autobiography where her life experience, rather than her work, is highlighted.
Seeing Laskaridou’s work through the prism of the Theory of Reception, as it was set forth by Richard Jauss in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception3, the theory is applied -with some flexibility- not only in her work, but her personality as well. I will try to illustrate how Sophia Laskaridou’s work is presented in critic and literary texts and works of art, so that I see the overall reception by the public.
The reception background: Modernism and reactions
In the end of the 19th century, the time when Sophia Laskaridou started participating in exhibitions, the Greek art world was centered in Athens; the most important exhibitions were the Artistic Exhibition of Athens in Zappeion until 1899 and the Exhibitions of the Amateurs of the Arts and the Union of Greek Artists after that. These exhibitions attracted a great number of visitors, got a satisfactory number of sales and numerous artistic reviews in newspapers and magazines -to sum up, they were very successful, The art reviews usually included descriptions of the exhibited works, along with general thoughts about art. Their authors are art amateurs; they are novelists and journalists that imitate their French colleagues, by using the same witty style and elegant expressions. Their insufficient knowledge on the subject leads to non-circumstantial reviews. Nevertheless, their texts are interesting because they reflect the reception of the average exhibition visitor, who was a bourgeois, and-just like the critics- knew very little about art and therefore approached it based on his/her education.
The average exhibition visitor was repelled by the radical aspects of modernism, but little by little began to accept a mild modernism, where the style is quite free, but the subject is easily recognizable -something which is true about Sophia Laskaridou’s work. So, in the reviews up to1907 her style is considered “rather novel and therefore unknown and unusual to the broad audience”; however, her paintings are sold to collectors and the reviews are mostly positive; there are also some negative comments about “this eczematic color”and the “irregular brush strokes, which reveal an irregular inspiration, lack of perception and disbelief about the reality of the colors”.
On the contrary, her fellow artists, like D. Galanis, think that her free brush strokes “with the color put in thick protruding layers, give life to the canvas and powerfulness to the work”. S. Savvidis recognizes in her work “a good perception and quite some poetry’ and her teacher Nikiforos Lytras stated that “one day his student would honor her master” . Thaleia Flora-Karavia would remember years later that her works “had a lot of originality and Laskaridou was recognized as an empressionist vanguard with a spontaneous love for color”. The art people turn their attention towards her and recognize her artistic qualities, which the broad public would understand only after the first decade of the 20th century, after it had become familiarized with the visual vocabulary of modernism4.
Reception and politics: Looking for Greekness in landscape and art
The reception of Sophia Laskaridou’s work during first two decades of the 20th century is related to her progress in landscape painting -and the political implications behind this genre.
Laskaridou’s focus on landscape painting since the first years of her career is relevant to the fact that she lived in Kallithea, a suburb of Athens that was a rural region at the time, and also the fact that she began her career before getting artistic education, which means that she didn’t have sufficient knowledge to depict human figure.
At the time, landscape painting was considered of utmost importance, since it was related to the search for Greekness and the demand for the emergence of a Greek art, independent from western influence.
During the 19th century the emergence of national states encouraged every group with a separate national conscience to establish their identity, so that they could justify their claims on a specific territory. Similarly, in Greece, the search for Greekness was born by the need of the Greeks to set off their origin and to prove the continuity of the Greek culture throughout the centuries (from ancient Greece to Byzantium and from Byzantium to modern Greece)5; subsequently it was maximized by their desire to define their national particularity in relation to their neighboring countries and to substantiate their ambition to expand Greek domination on the regions of Macedonia, Thrace and the coast of Asia Minor -which became widely known as the “Great Idea” (Megali Idea). The scholars, the scientists and the politicians of the time searched ceaselessly for the unifying tissue within the Greek culture, the Greek landscape and the Greek people -in other words, the unchanging throughout the centuries essence of Hellenism that permeated every cultural element- so that they could substantiate the national beliefs and demands6.
The essence of Greekness was spotted in a series of abstract ideas, like simplicity, pureness, spirituality, harmony. These elements that ran through ancient Greek thought and culture, were thought to be emerging from the Greek landscape, which is dominated by a blinding light that eliminates almost all colours and simplifies outlines. According to the critics of the time the Greek landscape was an ideologically charged subject, that “hides so many patriotic demands” and “embosoms the unchanging soul of Hellenism throughout the centuries, which livens it up”.
Therefore, the writers and the critics of the time personify Greek nature and believe that it develops a two-way collaboration with the artists that approach it and depict it faithfully. In their texts the description and deification of Greek landscape often becomes more important than the artworks, that are usually evaluated according to the degree in which they manage to depict it faithfully.
The “Greek light” is presented as a special being that has a particular symbolism and a direct relevance to Greekness. The critics claim that every place has its own special light that marks the image and defines its essence -and this is also true about Greece.
Sophia Laskaridou, who used light and colour as her basic expressive means -whereas drawing and composition were not so important to her- managed to capture this light and to depict it successfully, and this is something that the critics often praise: “the Greek light, abundant and blinding, or discreet and calm, but always special and characteristic, can never be captured so certain and true as in the paintings of Laskaridou”7.
This recognition is very important for a time when the observation and successful depiction of the Greek landscape is connected not only with the search of Greekness in art, but also the demand for the emergence of a particular national art scene. The critics observe that most Greek artists are educated abroad and thus adopt a foreign artistic style -foreign to the Greek visual tradition and reality. They think in order to create Greek art the artists should cut their ties with the Western prototypes, because “in the West the artistic tradition has become paralyzed and only ephemeral schools define fashion”8. Then, with a clear eye, they should explore Greek nature so as to discover the special virtues that characterize it and to deduce the basic characteristics of their art. Moderation (metron), precision, austerity, simple lines, clear atmosphere, broad light were elements that a “Greek” work should have. Secondarily, Greek painters should depict Greek subjects in a Greek manner; in other words they should extract the subjects from the countryside and tradition and depict it with an emphasis on their particularity.
From the first reviews, Laskaridou is praised for choosing “greek subjects” depicting them in an appropriate way. One of the most important virtues of the painter “worthy not just of praise, but of national gratitude” is the fact that one can recognize in her paintings particular places in Greece. Until the middle of the 1920s the successful depiction of the Greek landscape is commented in every artistic review about her and is presented as an outcome of her constant traveling throughout Greece; this allows her to study every place thoroughly and to paint it en plein air: “Just like Sophia Laskaridou has traveled through the entire country step by step, a wise hunter of new beauties and unreachable attractions, similarly, the entire Greece has stopped in the artist’s paintings”9.
The painting en plain air, quite popular in Europe since the beginning of the 19th century, was something that very few Greek painters practiced -probably because at the time the Greek countryside was a wild place, often run by thieves. Laskaridou’s contemporaries saw her exit from the atelier in a positive way: “This heroic Caryatid, fearless, who crosses meadows and canyons and climbs alone on dry rocks and crags of our picturesque country is worthy of admiration; she’s a perfect example of a true artist”10. The admiration for her courage to paint alone in the countryside11 set aside every prejudice about her deviation from the standard behaviour expected from women at the time.
Sex and reception: “Manly” and “Female” aspects in Laskaridou’s work
The fact that Sophia Laskaridou is a woman doesn’t seem to bother critics when it comes to evaluating her artistic work. Her paintings attract the interest of buyers, whereas the newspapers often publish images of her works and details about her life and work.
In group exhibition reviews female artists are generally mentioned alongside with men without discrimination. What is valued is the work and not the artist; therefore, the critics often criticize authorities and praise young artists irrespective of their sex. The women who participated in these exhibitions as professional artists were treated on equal terms with their male colleagues; from the beginning of her career Sophia Laskaridou is presented as a professional.
However, there are some reviews where the work of women is mentioned separately or judged with acquiescence as inferior, something that reveals that beneath the apparent objectivity there lies the usual prejudice about “female nature” and “female behaviour”12.
So, in order to present Laskaridou as a serious artist, the critics and the artists who talk about her feel the need to specify that her works are “absolutely manly and serious”. In other words they present her work as an exception of male art that is produced by a woman, without questioning the stereotypical for the time separation between manly creation, that is dominated by spirit and will, and female creation, that is dominated by feeling and grace.
However, they don’t fail to stress the “female features” of Laskaridou’s overall “male art”, interpreting her talent in colour as the result of a special female sensitivity. They believe that “she likes to depict places of female tenderness” and that her works are penetrated by a “fine grace”, an “unspoken tenderness, a fineness of expression that betrays a rose fantasy”; in other words they project in her art some features that , according to the stereotypes of that time, a woman should have in her appearance and her behaviour, like delicacy, grace, beauty.
The separation between “male” and “female” artistic creation is prominent in the reviews of the exhibition of Sophia Laskaridou and Thaleia Flora-Karavia in Parnassus in 1906; Karavia is considered as a woman who paints like a man and in all reviews the authors mention the difference between “Miss Flora’s strong talent, mostly manly and full of life” and “Miss Laskaridou’s fine and delicate talent”. Laskaridou’s work, where colour and feeling are dominant, is considered poetic and is identified with the female element in art, whereas Karavia’s has a strong spirituality, which is considered a male art feature.
From work to artist: A first step towards myth
Sophia Laskaridou’s sex influences, up to a point, the reception of her work. Moreover, it influences how she was received in the beginning of her career, as the reviews that comment on her appearance reveal. It seems that Laskaridou is considered to be exceptionally charming for the beauty standards of her time, probably because apart from her beauty she had a very strong personality that surprised her contemporaries.
Most of the artistic reviews focus on her tall silhouette, her strange hair and her “artistic” look. They view the artist herself as a figure coming from some modernist artwork: “Secession from head to foot. Secession hair. “New art” hairstyle. “New art” look. Ironic, dreamy, smart, questioning look, sometimes with the blaze of the sun and sometimes with the mistiness of the black crayon. Her Secession stature;Tall up high, with an undefined elegance and a silhouette that is bizarrely outlined in dark lines. Her irregular features and her irregular way of walking give a special impression of beauty, delicate and graceful. The genius, the soul and the education of an artist”.
The descriptions of Laskaridou’s appearance stress that her artistic temperament can become evident from her appearance; they connect her appearance with her personality. She is identified with the prototype of the “new woman” that emerges in literature and painting around the turn of the century.
It is true that in the art reviews of the time there are no comments on any other artist’s appearance13. The critics seem to realize it and try to justify their obsession with Laskaridou’s appearance by presenting her looks as a projection of her art and vice versa. We can assume that the surprise of the new, the presence of a professional woman artist in the male dominated space of exhibitions was the main reason why they were so curious about Laskaridou. What was also important was that her beauty, her strong personality and her work, which had a different touch, constituted the prototype of a complete artist in the eyes of the critics, something that also influenced her contemporary writers and artists that got inspired by her, as we shall see.
The comments on the “female” nature of her work and her looks become obsolete with the passage of time, when she is established in the conscience of the critics as a renowned painter. However, the focus on her looks, her character and her eccentric habit of traveling as “fanatical as a missioner of art through many picturesque places in Greece” leave, nevertheless, an important mark in the reception of her work: the curiosity and admiration about her personality that evolves slowly into the creation of Sophia Laskaridou’s myth.
Jauss Hans Robert, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Minessota, 1982
Lewis Reina, Gendering Orientalism, Race, Feminity and Representation, London 1996
Nochlin Linda, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, (1η έκδοση: 1989), London 1991
Varika Eleni, The ladies’ revolt, The birth of feminist conscience in Greece, Athens 1987 [Publication in Greek: Βαρίκα Ελένη, Η εξέγερση των κυριών, Η γένεση μιας φεμινιστικής συνείδησης στην Ελλάδα (1833-1907), Αθήνα 1987]
Gotsi Chariklia-Glauki, The logos about woman and female artistic creation, Thessaloniki 2002 [Publication in Greek: Γκότση Χαρίκλεια-Γλαύκη, Ο λόγος για τη γυναίκα και τη γυναικεία καλλιτεχνική δημιουργία στην Ελλάδα (τέλη 19ου-αρχές 20ού αιώνα), (διδακτ. διατριβή), Θεσσαλονίκη 2002]
Grammatikopoulou Christina, The painter Sophia Laskaridou (1876-1965), Thessaloniki 2007. You can read the entire book online here: http://invenio.lib.auth.gr/record/72682/files/?ln=el [Γραμματικοπούλου Χριστίνα, Η ζωγράφος Σοφία Λασκαρίδου (1876-1965), Θεσσαλονίκη 2007]
Grammatikopoulou Christina, “Woman in Greek painting of the first half of the 20th century”, in: Maria Tzivanoglou (ed.), Three Generations of Women, Thessaloniki 2006 [Publication in Greek: Γραμματικοπούλου Χριστίνα, «Η γυναίκα στην ελληνική ζωγραφική του πρώτου μισού του 20ού αιώνα», στο: Μαρία Τζιβάνογλου (επιμέλεια), Τρεις Γενιές Γυναίκα, Θεσσαλονίκη 2006]
Kotidis Antonis, Greek Art. 19th Century Painting, Athens 1995. [Publication in Greek: Κωτίδης Αντώνης, Ελληνική τέχνη. Ζωγραφική του 19ου αιώνα, Αθήνα 1995]
Kotidis Antonis, Modernism and “Tradition” in the Greek war of interwar, Thessaloniki 1993 [Publication in Greek: Κωτίδης Αντώνης, Μοντερνισμός και «Παράδοση» στην ελληνική τέχνη του μεσοπολέμου, Θεσσαλονίκη 1993]
Laskaridou Sophia, From my diary. Memories and contemplations, Athens 1955 [Publication in Greek: Λασκαρίδου Σοφία, Από το ημερολόγιό μου, Θύμησες και στοχασμοί, Αθήνα 1955]
Laskaridou Sophia, From my diary. Annex: A great love, Athens 1960 [Publication in Greek: Λασκαρίδου Σοφία, Από το ημερολόγιό μου, Συμπλήρωμα: Μια αγάπη μεγάλη, Αθήνα 1960]
I only name here some of the bibliographic references, not all of them, because the majority of the sources come from Greek newspapers from 1898 to 1920, inaccessible to most readers -especially to those who don’t speak Greek. I have put the entire reference list in the Greek version of the article. You may also read my dissertation online here for the full bibliography.
1 Christina Grammatikopoulou, The painter Sophia Laskaridou (1876-1965), Thessaloniki 2007 [publication in Greek]. This article comes from a chapter of the dissertation, with the title “Word, Memory and Image: The reception Sophia Laskaridou’s work and personality”.You can read it online here.
2 Antonis Kotidis, Modernism and “Tradition” in the Greek art of the Interwar, Thessaloniki 1993, [publication in Greek]. Kotidis makes a distinction between the special synchronous material of reception, that is the reaction to the artistic work, and the broader synchronous material of reception, that is, the reaction towards artistic creation in general.
3 Jauss Hans Robert, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. In the chapter “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” the author sets the basic principles and objectives of the theory of reception, whereas in the chapter “The Poetic Text within the Change of Horizons of Reading: The Example of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen II’ ” applies the theory in Baudelaire’s poem. He sets out to discover what were the expectations of the contemporary readers and how the poem fulfilled or contradicted them, what was the literary tradition and the historical and social situation relevant to the text, how the poet himself perceived the poem, what was the meaning given to the poem in the beginning and what were the meanings that were given to the poem afterwards.
4 These phrases are taken from reviews in Greek newspapers from 1902-1920. For the detailed bibliography see the Greek version of the article here or my dissertation about Laskaridou which can be downloaded here:
5 In 1830 Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer published his book “Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters”, where he stated that the modern Greeks had no relation to the modern ones. His theory raised controversy on the subject and pushed Greek scholars into looking into the subject, in order to prove the continuity of Greek culture through historic and folklore studies.
6 The discussion about Greekness, that opened during the 19th century, keeps coming back whenever the Greeks have the opportunity to project the Greek culture abroad. A good example for this was the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where images from Greek art, from 3000-2000 B.C. until today were merged into one show.
7 G. B. Tsokopoulos, “Greek Light”, Athinai, 11-12-1907 [Publication in Greek]
8 Petros Vlastos, “Artistic Exhibition”, O Noumas, 6-4-1908 [Publication in Greek]. The reviewer here stated that the most beautiful artwork were the colors of dusk, that he faced when he came out of the exhibition.
9 G. B. Tsokopoulos, ibid.
10 Akropolis, 15-11-1903 [Publication in Greek]
11 Sophia Laskaridou, From my diary. Memories and thoughts, Athens 1955, p.19 [Publication in Greek].
12 Christina Grammatikopoulou 2007, ibid., pp.12-13.