Friday, May 22, 2009

Modern Greek Art Auction

To the surprise of many, the Modern Greek art market shows no signs of economic depression. On May 19, Bonhams auction house in London completed its Greek sale with stunning results, a $6.2 million sale. The sale took place in Athens and the buyers were predominantly Greek. "There is a real passion by Greeks for collecting Greek Art today," said Bonhams' agent. The clientele, however, also indicates the lack of interest by non-Greeks. Unlike its Classical or Byzantine correlate, Modern Greek art remains a closed national market, which is surprising given the international reaches of Greeks themselves as entrepreneurs or as diaspora communities.

Bonhams' auction broke many sale records. The highlights included, Nikos Lytras' Landscape ($175,800), Konstantinos Parthenis' Dawn ($566,700) above, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika's Studio with Easel ($513,220), Yannis Tsarouchis' Pasalimani ($315,160) and Georgios Bouzianis' Asian Princess ($238,800)

The lack of interest on Modern Greek art by an international audience is a product of many forces. For most, interest in Greece (tourism included) stops with the Classical and for a few with the Byzantine period. The importance of Ancient Greek in early American religious education has translated into the monopoly of Classical Studies in all Greek curricula. At the same time, Modern Greece has been so obsessively literary since its foundation, that it has ignored art history. Most national battles have been fought through language rather than the visual arts. Art history as an academic discipline hardly exists in Greek universities. In many ways, Greeks are textually over-literate but visually illiterate. The county boasts many writers of international acclaim and a couple of Nobe prizes. Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, Kazantzakis, Ritsos are household names to literary historians. Yet no Modern Greek artist has caught the same international attention. The contrast with Modern Italy is telling. Visual literacy and cultural investment on the arts (thanks to the Renaissance tradition) trumps Greece. Roman Catholicism's Counter-Reformation visual exuberance, moreover, has made visual rhetoric quite sophisticated in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France.

While teaching an independent study on Modern Greek Art in 2003, I realized how unsual it was to offer such a class in the United States. This is too bad considering how fertile the academic terrain is for "other," "lesser" modernisms (trying hard not to use the word "provincial.") Especially in the 1990s, the pages of the Art Bulletin were filled with reappraisals of Czech, Rumanian and Bulgarian modernism. After 9/11 the focus on minor Europe shifted outside of Europe altogether. What makes Modern Greek art interesting to a globalized context is not simply the cadres of national artists but also the Greeks of the diaspora whose international acclaim overshadows that of their peers living in Greece (e.g. Lucas Samaras, Yannis Kounelis, William Baziotes).

An appraisal of Greek-American artists alone is greatly needed. It is missing because the Greek American community has not been interested in the visual arts. The Greek-American identity has been dominated by Classical Greece, a phenomenon most brilliantly explored by anthropologist Yorgos Anagnostou. While teaching a History of Medieval Architecture class, one of my students approached me for an independent study on Modern Greek art. Fotini Xydas was a Greek-American senior majoring in Art History. The previous summer, she had interned with Christie's and was involved with the Modern Greek auction. And that's how the independent study began. Coming up with a syllabus was not difficult at all. Although there was no single textbook, the secondary literature in English was ample. After graduation, Fotini received a Master's in Museum Studies and began working for galleries in New York. She is currently Senior Research Associate at Citi Art Advisory Service and also pursuing a PhD. Although I knew that Fotini was unique, I appreciate how unusual her professional choices may have actually been in a Greek-American context. I have taken an informal survey among friends and colleagues in both universities and museums looking for young Greek American talent. Many Greek nationals in are taking Art History classes in American universities. They tend to be daughters of wealthy enterpreneurs, themselves art collectors, patrons and players in the Greek cultural arena. Those undergraduates typically return to Greece and oversee the family or the family company's cultural investments. The socio-economic profile is not different from American students in that respect. Given the lack of financial aid, undergraduates directly from Greece tend to be above-average in the socio-economic scale.

More surprising is the shortage of Greek-Americans, a much larger demographic pool than the foreign students. Greek-American students flock to Classical Studies instead. Looking at my own contemporaries, I note a few Greek-American academics specializing on Byzantium. This make sense; the Greek Orthodox Church of North America plays a central role in the education of the Greek community. I remember fondly Angela Volan telling me about her childhood inspirations in Merrillville, Indiana, looking up at the Byzantine mosaics of her parish.

Admitedly, Modern Greek art is a funny animal, missing the appropriate institutions for its study. The National Gallery in Athens and Melissa Publishing House have made huge contributions to the discipline in the last couple of decades. The flourishing Greek market must reflect this academic impetus. But time has come for Modern Greek art to break outside the national borders and receive greater exposure.

1 comment:

millinerd said...

Thanks Kostis - this is a very helpful orienting post.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States