From Artist to Myth: The reception of Sophia Laskaridou | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

Part B’: Α fusion of truth and fantasy, the birth of a myth

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Laskaridou’s reception in Munich and Paris

 

After leaving for Munich in 1908 Laskaridou is viewed with even more respect, an artist that lives abroad, participating in European exhibitions, getting awards and favorable reviews by European art critics. The German and French reviewers praise the composition of her artworks, the special atmosphere and the color sensitivity1; their comments are usually brief -except for two extensive articles in Notre Gazette and Les Nouvelles de Grèce, that included images of her art- but they’re being republished in the Greek newspapers so often, that they give the impression that they’re more extensive.

The Greek newspapers republish the French and German reviews on Sophia Laskaridou’s work, because they feel that the positive reception of Laskaridou is equivalent to the recognition of Greek art abroad. Although the Greek reviewers are suspicious towards the artistic Avant Garde, and often make fun of it by focusing on the reactions of the public in the exhibitions, it looks like they crave for the recognition of the progressive part of the European public, that understands and supports contemporary art.

Usually we think about the years 1908-1916 -the period when Laskaridou stayed in Germany and France- as the time when Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism were emerging and clashed with the existing visual forms; however, when we read the exhibition reviews we realize that the polarization was not so evident. The different tendencies coexisted in the exhibitions and became accepted as such. The same critic that praises Laskaridou’s work in the 10th Exhibition of the Kunsverein “because they give the impression of freshness and clarity, the colors are bright and sensitive, and they show a deep and personal observation of nature” in the next lines of the article comments positively on the way that Franz Marc painted the animals “with color and freedom”, although it is a very different artistic perception2. Belon, among the thousands of artists that exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in 1911, chooses to recommend just a few, among which Sophia Laskaridou and Marie Laurencin, that represented very different art movements3.

Therefore, the positive reception of Laskaridou’s work in Germany and France is due to the virtues that they found in her work and not to the fact that impressionist elements prevail in her visual vocabulary. It is certain that her attachment to the expressive means that were widely accepted from the end of the 19th century contributed to the positive reception. But on the other hand, it was a factor that didn’t help her stand out from the multitude of artists that were living in Paris at the time and were into the same artistic experimentations. Thus, she didn’t manage to make her work widely known and find a lot of buyers, apart from the Greeks living in Paris at the time. On the other hand, she didn’t stay abroad long enough, in order to open herself up to a wider circle of buyers and to find the courage to exhibit her more Avant-Garde experimentations (that are present in her sketches); it seems like she didn’t intend to stay permanently there.

The painters that she used to hang out with in France and Germany -her fellow students mostly- considered her art very progressive; in their eyes she was an “anarchist” because she kept her individual style. However, outside the Schools of Arts, the Modernist Avant-Garde made much bigger leaps than the steps of the most progressive art students.

When Laskaridou settled permanently in Greece in 1916 she was a renowned artist to the eyes of her contemporaries.

Sophia Laskaridou short European career would be mentioned in almost every artistic critic that dealt with her personality and work from that moment on. When that moment in time became a distant past, there began the process of turning into a myth; the stories about her intimate relations to famous personalities, like Pablo Picasso and Auguste Renoir, became notorious and decades later they would be presented as a historical truth, inspiring novels, TV series and theatrical plays.


Language and politics: The reactions to the use of the Modern Greek Language (Dimotiki)

 

Although Sophia Laskaridou’s art was quite revolutionary for the Greek standards -at least during the first decade of her career- and her life was very unconventional, she was received in a positive way. So it is a surprise that although her lifestyle was never criticized -despite the fact that she was a single career woman, traveling alone, working among men and apparently reconciled with her bisexuality-, she came across fierce reactions for using modern Greek (Dimotiki) in the titles of her works -and not Katharevousa (a formal version of Greek, based on ancient Greek, with some elements from Modern Greek).

However, up until a few decades ago, the issue of language was one of the most controversial issues among politicians, scholars and men of letters, from the end of the 18th century until the end of the Dictatorship of the Colonels (1974). Although Katharevousa was the official language of the state and the main expressive means of the intellectual life, from the end of the 19th century it began to lose ground: from the 1880s and on poetry and literature were being written in Dimotiki. In 1917 the government of Venizelos established the teaching of modern Greek during the first three classes of primary education, and thus gave an important boost to the use of the language. In general, the democratic and liberal governments always supported Modern Greek, whereas the conservatives promoted the use of Katharevousa.

Therefore, Sophia Laskaridou’s choice of using modern Greek when giving the titles to her work and supporting the language openly was nothing short of a political statement. This is why she came across such different reactions, from joy to outrage. The supporters of Dimotiki would ask her to make a statement in favor of the language, whereas the opponents reacted in a fierce manner.

For example, in one article written by Kavalieratos, an opponent of the use of modern Greek, he underestimates her statements as “the words of a woman”, implying that women talk nonsense. In other words, in order to undermine the value of her opinion, he resorts to chauvinist stereotypes. This proves that although contempt towards women was not so evident, it existed nevertheless.

There are also some opponents of modern Greek, however, who accept the right of the artist to use the language that inspires them the most -since their creations are visual and not literary.

However, Laskaridou uses modern Greek when she writes as well -poems or narrative; her language is so live that it almost sounds like oral speech. Laskaridou was a conscious user of Modern Greek and befriended some of its most renowned supporters, like Manolis Triantafullidis.

 

Beginning of oblivion, Beginning of myth

 

During the Interwar, the “Greek” art that had been visualized a few decades earlier, had already began to take shape; it was an art following the tendencies of European Avant-Garde to a great extent, filtering them however through the Greek artistic tradition.

At that time, Expressionism and Abstract art gather the interest of the public and the reactions of the critics. In 1924, same year that Koula Rompappa and Girgos Gounaropoulos become the the focus of all criticism with their common exhibition, Laskaridou’s exhibition gets mediocre reviews, as the mature work of an important painter of another era. In order to confirm her value, the reviewers stress that two decades ago Laskaridou’s work had been subject to harsh criticism; in other words, it is rejection and not wide acceptance that is considered as a sign of artistic value.

Laskaridou’s exhibitions in 1924 and 1927 mark a crucial point in her artistic career and the reception of her work. She is very popular; there’s massive assistance to her exhibition and a great number of works are being sold. However, during the next 25 years she almost disappears from the limelight, participating in only a handful of group exhibitions from time to time. It was only in 1952 that she would organize her next personal exhibition. But at that time her work would be received as an outdated resonance of the art of the past, and the interest of the public would be displaced from Laskaridou’s creation to Laskaridou herself.

From the 1930 and on we find the first newspaper articles about Laskaridou’s life. They narrate events such as her meeting with King George in 1903 in order to convince him to let her become the first woman who would register to the School of Polytechnics; there’s also the first -anonymous- mentioning of her romance with Pericles Giannopoulos4, that would become legendary after a few years.

 

The artist turning into a myth

 

After 20 years of being almost completely absent from the limelight, in the beginning of the 1950s the interest of the press is awakened. The journalists that visit her in her house in Kallithea present the meeting with her like a trip in time and the acquaintance with her work like the discovery of a lost treasure; their articles resemble more like fairy tales than journalism, something that reinforces the newborn myth of Laskaridou. Their articles are rife with nostalgia for a time that forever gone by, a time when the natural beauty of the landscape around Athens had not yet been distorted and the people of the upper class were surrounded by glamour.

The writers’ preference to retell the same stories over and over again slowly but steadily create Laskaridou’s myth; a myth constituted by fragmentary events from her studies in Greece and abroad, her romance with Pericles Giannopoulos and her feminist values and actions.

Sophia Laskaridou gave food to the imagination of the reporters and the public, because she was a free spirit, that dared to open up roads where she found barriers, in order to make her dreams come true. As As the admirable events of her life become second-hand and third-hand narrations, they become more and more embellished with imaginary details, acquiring an autonomous existence in the end, as myths that would inspire writers and screenwriters. On the other hand, as these narrations disregarded the entity of her life and work, they ended up remaining in collective memory as the only known facts about her, shadowing thus her artistic work.

This becomes particularly evident in the publications about the retrospective exhibition of 1952, where the articles mostly focus on her life and barely comment on her work. The reporters consider that her artistic creation has already taken its place in the history of modern Greek art and thus they make no critical comments; they just describe the works presented without taking a stance. A few nuances against the apolitical nature of her subjects reveal that the times have changed; at that time the public demanded an art that wasn’t just pleasing to the eye, but also troubling to the thought.

Taking a huge leap towards the 21st century, we see that the approach to Sophia Laskaridou’s work has hardly changed since the 1950s. The history of modern Greek art has wrongly categorized her within the painters of the School of Munich -whereas her work was actually oriented towards French painting, as the dramatic change of her style after her stay in Paris reveals- and received is as a sample of Greek impressionism, ignoring the expressionist and symbolic elements that are present in it. The very small number of known works limited any comment on her in just a few lines -and in these cases what is commented upon is her feminist values and not her artistic merits.

The interest on her personality remains strong until today; the myths about her are still present in published articles and online forums, where we find quite exaggerated stories about her -for example, that after her death she had turned into a ghost haunting her place of birth.

The exhibitions organized by the Municipality of Kallithea about Sophia Laskaridou -from 1999 till 2001- and the foundation of the Sophia Laskaridou Gallery in the house where she used to live have awakened the interest about her work, but have not managed to do it justice, because the small number of the works exhibited, and their quality, that was not representative of her artistic work, as well as the fact that they were exhibited along with low quality works of unknown artists that were falsely attributed to her, have distorted the image of her artistic creation5.

 

Building her own myth: Autobiographic pages

 

Sophia Laskaridou’s myth has its roots in the admiration for her eccentric personality and looks; subsequently, it began to take shape with the narrations about memorable events of her life by the press; but the most important creator of the myth was Laskaridou herself, who fed press stories and the public’s fantasy. In 1955 she published her autobiography, entitled “From my diary. Memories and contemplations” and in 1960 the “From my diary. Annex: A big love”, where she focused on her love with Pericles Giannopoulos6.

Her memoirs begin with her departure for Munich and stop before she returns to Athens in 1916. They are constituted by small narrations of events that occurred during her stay and her trips in Europe and are not a detailed narration of her entire life. Every chapter is an event, an adventure or a trip, embellished with descriptions of Greek or foreign customs. There are no dates -except for the first chapter, where she talks about her struggle to matriculate in the School of Fine Arts of Athens -that didn’t accept female students until that time- and the exhibition with Flora Karavia in Parnassos. In her narration, she often juxtaposes events that didn’t take place at the same time, but happened in the same place. In other words, the point of reference is space, not time. This focus on the aspect of space is emphasized even more by the descriptions of customs and habits, that make a circle in time.

It is surprising that she hardly ever mentions her work or important events in her life -in the first book she only gives an insinuation about her partner’s suicide with a few words in a footnote. If we assume that she deliberately narrowed her autobiography to just a few events of her life, then we assume that what she wanted to make known was her personality, and not her work, and that she was keen on narrating a pleasant, interesting, or charming story that she lived, not her entire life. Thus, every chapter is a story with a beginning and an end, whose colors and atmosphere are fully depicted.

Therefore, her fragmentary narration resulted in a book that is strongly reminiscent of her paintings: every chapter is a full image where the color, the impressions, the feelings are transmitted to the reader through a simple and everyday language and a dense narration.

In 1960 she published “From my diary. Annex: A big love”, as a “respectful memorial to the fifty years from Pericles Giannopoulos’ suicide”. Her romance with the idealist scholar, who disseminated the revival of the ancient Greek spirit is livening up in the pages of the book, is presented here in a more idealistic way comparing to her previous narration in Estia. The years that went by made the real image of her beloved one fade out, erasing the negative shades of his personality -like his melancholy and his manic crises- letting only his positive aspects linger. It seems like her love story was what she wanted to leave behind; during the last years of her life she was constantly thinking about him, talking about his suicide with a feeling of strong guilt -as her denial to marry him in order to pursue her artistic career freely played a great part to his depression. The connection of her name to the name of Giannopoulos, that turned into a legend after his dramatic -and spectacular- suicide aroused the imagination of scholars, screenwriters and public, empowering her personal myth.

After her death her works were scattered in private collections -with the exception of few works that formed part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery- and thus became inaccessible to the public and got submerged in oblivion; however, weren’t forgotten, on the contrary, they gained an autonomous existence and as they would get embellished with fantasy, they became more lively and interesting to the public. Therefore, although nobody remembered her works, most people knew Sophia Laskaridou as the “first woman” who managed to study in the School of Fine Arts, as a woman who had lived a glorious and unique life in Europe and had fallen in love with Pericles Giannopoulos.

Although her memoirs give us very few clues about her works -except for some of them that are published in images and very few that are mentioned- they reveal a very important aspect of her creation: the emphasis in experience. Before she painted something she tried to live it; before painting the English Channel she asked to live a tempest tied to a mast, when she wanted to paint the tide in Bretagne she almost got buried in the sand, before painting the Apaches in Paris she wanted to get to know to them at a close distance, despite the danger of being killed. Although she often talks about the power of destiny, in her autobiography we see a dynamic character, that makes her own plans and shapes her destiny.

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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]

 

FOOTNOTES:

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 Münchner Νeueste Νachrichten, 8-1-1909. “Au Salon des Independants”, Notre Gazette, juin 1911, σ.13. Salmon, “Salon”, Vie Française, 30-4-1912. Louis Vauxcelles, “Exposition des Artistes Français”, Gil Blas, 30-4-1912. Thiebault-Sinon, “Exposition, Salon 1912”, Temps, 1-5-1912. Rohner, “Salon 1912”, Revue Artistique, Juin 1912. Balagny, “Salon des artistes français, Notre Gazette, juillet 1912. Sarradin, “Salon des Artistes Français”, Journal des Débats, 30-4-1912.

2 Münchner Νeueste Νachrichten, 8-1-1909.

3 Belon, Patrie, 29-4-1911

4 In an article in Nea Estia (1-7-1939) by G.Chatzinis we find the first information on the love of Sophia Laskaridou and Pericles Giannopoulos, based on the narration of the painter, who remains anonymous. Although it was long time after Giannopoulos’ suicide, the painter has not forgotten about the negative parts of their love story: for example, she implies that she didn’t want to marry him because of his psychical problems, whereas twenty years later she’d claim that it was because of her wish to study and to feel free. With the passage of time, she idealizes her love story.

5 See Christina Grammatikopoulou, The Painter Sophia Laskaridou, Thessaloniki 2007, pp. 277-278.

6 Pericles Giannopoulos (c.1869-1910) is a unique case in the intellectual life of Greece of the beginning of the 20th century. He had studied for two years in Paris, where his impressive looks and his eccentric personality had caused sensation to the literary and artistic circles; he had been a friend of Jean Moreas. After the death of his father (1892) he suffered a mental breakdown and he was obliged to give up on his life of fun and substance abuse. Subsequently he stayed for 8 months in London, where he joined the symbolism movement, but he had to leave because of his deteriorating mental health. He returned to Athens in 1893 and managed to recover substantially and form part of the local society, as an eccentric dandy and writer. But he never managed to make his nationalist ideas reach the wider public, despite the fact that he distributed for free his two manifestos New spirit (1906) and Call to the Greek public (1907). Since 1899 he had a relationship with Sophia Laskaridou, but her absence abroad and her firm decision not to marry him, as well as the public’s indifference to his ideas, seem to be the decisive factors that lead him to materialize his vision on the ideal suicide, which he had conceived long time before and he had even narrated it to his friends: he rode a white horse and entered the sea, where he shot himself (8-4-1910). His spectacular suicide became sensational news in the press, that covered the issue extensively. Sophia Laskaridou was in Munich at the time of his death. Guided by premonition, she went back to Greece, only to find out that he had shot himself a few days earlier. Desperate with grief, she tried to take her own life, but luckily she was discovered by her mother before it was too late.

Text and Images © Christina Grammatikopoulou, 2007.