Irene Orati:
Origin and Evolution.
Greek Illustrated Books 1900-1950

The exhibition "Mythologies of the Book. Contemporary Greek Artists" aims to present the entire spectrum of the contribution of Greek artists to book production. The first part of the exhibition includes a series of representative publications which epitomise certain periods, promoted some special traits or served as models within the relatively short history of modern Greek illustrated editions.

The important books illustrated by Greek artists from 1900 to 1950 –the period included in the first part– are certainly a lot more. These editions were selected in such a way as to demonstrate the principles, underline the continuity and showcase some landmark editions from that era.

There is no parallel in Greek art of the European tradition of illustrated books, unbroken from the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to the current electronic publications. Historical circumstances led to the Greek centres’ isolation from the cities of Europe. Such publications were only addressed to Church circles and the small expatriate communities in Central European cities.

Unable to keep up with the proliferation of illustrated books in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, Greece only makes its debut in this field in the early 20th century, at first timidly and then experimentally adopting various illustration techniques. Not surprisingly, the early attempts are influenced by the widely accepted aesthetics of Symbolism and the traditional notion of books of the late 19th century rather than the radical trends of that time which shaped book aesthetics in the 20th century.

In Paris the illustrated editions de luxe –printed on quality paper with more than one suites, mostly etchings– had already appeared since 1880, with the collectible livres d`artistes following in the first years of the 20th century. These editions combined the work of painters with the visions of ambitious art publishers like D.H. Kahnweiler and A. Vollard, introducing a subversive aesthetic not always acceptable to bibliophiles, who turned to more traditional forms of illustration.

In Greece such editions arrive in the early 1920s, coming from foreign publishers or from the artists who illustrated them; they appear only occasionally and are addressed mainly to book collectors. It is more than a decade later that Athens-based publishers begin to commission artists –engravers, mostly– to illustrate albums published in very limited numbers.

Yannis Kefalinos
Shine and fall silent, 1951
Yannis Kefalinos
Anatole France, Sur la Pierre blanche, 1924
Dimitrios Galanis, Lycourgos Kogevinas and Yannis Kefalinos are three Greek artists who lived in Paris since the beginning of the century and got to know the interests of French bibliophiles. They turned to illustrating books and worked with French publishers for the production of mostly common editions; in order to publish an album with a content of particular interest to them, they would often finance the production themselves.

Galanis became a naturalised French from early on and lived in Paris to the end of his life. He made the personal acquaintance of Derain, Maillol and Matisse and got to know their illustration work. For his own work he embraced the aesthetic of Maillol rather than the innovative techniques and the fauvist aesthetic of Matisse. The compositions he favoured were associated mostly with traditional illustration and expressed through elaborate headpieces and tailpieces, impressive initial caps, full-page frontispieces and full-page narrative pictures in editions that were painstakingly executed as a whole (Carmen, Nourritures Terrestres, Terre Natale). He produces etchings and manière noire engravings and more rarely end grain woodcuts (Oedipus the King). His album Histoire Naturelle is considered to be of unsurpassed aesthetic and is included among the most accomplished illustrations of similar texts, along with J. Renard’s Histoires Naturelles with illustrations by H. Toulouse-Lautrec (1899) and P. Picasso’s Histoire Naturelle (1942) again by Buffon. It is worth noting that Galanis did not illustrate texts by Greek writers, and it was only in very few cases that he was inspired by classics (Idylles de Theocrite).

Dimitrios Galanis
André Gide, Les Nourritures Terrestres, 1930
Lycourgos Kogevinas
Marie Aspiotis & René Puaux, Corfu, 1930
On the contrary, the painter and engraver Lycourgos Kogevinas opted for themes which promoted the historical Greek landscape and combined them with texts on Greece written by French scholars in editions with superbly executed and detailed etchings (Grèce Paysages antiques, Le Mont Athos, Corfu etc).

During the period he lived in Paris Yannis Kefalinos illustrated French literary texts (Sur la Pierre blanche), but mostly he studied the aesthetics of books and was subsequently led to design a new Greek font. Upon his return to Greece he edited two magnificent editions. In the album Ten White Lecythi in the Athens Museum the superimposed impressions of different printing techniques on the same page (burin engraving, etching, aquatint and coloured woodcut) faithfully reproduce the feel of the delicate compositions on these ancient Attican vessels, in an edition of unique aesthetic value which successfully reproduces the lost atmosphere of classical painting. The Peacock, a pioneering educational album with unusual diagonal compositions, continuous colour surfaces and clear forms, remains to this day a perfect example of lucid writing and austere illustration.

Efthymios Papadimitriou, Solomon, Song of Songs, 1938
After the mid-1930s, illustrated publications and limited editions of albums, mostly with woodcuts, are produced in Athens and find a steadily responsive public. However, the time when this form of art saw an unprecedented growth was the war years (1940-1945). The need to communicate, the lack of painting materials and the urge to protest made most Greek artists turn towards all kinds of publications. Some engraved works to illustrate hand-written texts (From within the walls), while others formed clandestine groups, engraved and printed small woodcuts and distributed them in albums (The Shrine of Freedom). In the material collected from those years one can trace the hidden potential of many artists who became heavily engaged in book illustration but only during that specific period.

The 1950s was a period when illustrated books flourished more than any other time in Greece. Large albums were published, using coloured woodcuts for the most part and illustrating texts of the ancient and historic literature and, to a lesser extent, contemporary literary works. The austere images point to influences from ancient and Byzantine imagery and, selectively, from the contemporary European trends.

Taken as a whole, the Greek editions illustrated with original prints managed to create a tradition within a few decades and become known to a wider public. There is no doubt that the combination of printmaking and books allows the expansion of the text through visual elements which become definitive means of "visual communication".

Irene Orati

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