The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #23 - The Greek National Gallery's metamorphosis in the second half of the 20th century

Lefteris Spyrou's PhD considers the history of the Greek National Gallery. His paper today examines the galleries of the permanent collection to explore the political and social environments which caused the metamorphosis of the Museum over time.

When the National Gallery of Athens opened in 1915, the visitors saw 350 paintings, watercolours and drawings, exhibited in the outdated mode of the 18th century 'art-historical' hang. It consisted predominantly of Western European works - partly due to the nature of the bequest from whence it originated, and partly to do with the individuals in control of its 'Surveillance' committee. There was an attempt to align the upper classes of Greece with those of Western Europe, to remove Greece from its status as part of the former Ottoman Empire. The desire was to turn Greece and Athens from an eastern backwater, to the leading light of culture it had once been.

It was in the inter-war period when a gallery for Greek contemporary art arose. Over time, this became more and more important, as the gallery responded to the prevailing desire for the promotion of Greek culture and history: Byzantine icons and artefacts from the Ottoman period were now exhibited as examples of the continuance of the Hellenic culture throughout the centuries.

After the Second World War and Civil War, an ethnocentric ideal of society was promoted. Marinos Kalligas, the first Director of the gallery to hold a PhD, tried to determine the eternal aesthetic values which characterised Greek art across history. He sought to reprsent the evolution of Modern Greek Art, from a post-Byzantine icon to the art of the 1920s. Whilst he did display Greek work that reflected wider European tendancies, he emphasized their Hellenic qualities. This display covered six rooms. The following room displayed gifts given to the national gallery, and wider European tendancies - for although Kalligas was very Greek, he was aware of the political importance of involving the country in the wider continental dialogue. He waged war against socialist realism - particularly after the civil was - and also against abstraction. But by the 1960s they realised their were loosing this battle.

Perhaps the most difficult issue was the development of premises. The new building was inaugerated by Kalligas' successor, Papastamos, who displayed Greek art history in a chronological 'school' model spanning three hundred and more years. The prevailing ideology of Europeanisation and admittance to the EU deeply influenced the display - so on the upper floor, wider European art was displayed without a catalogue. Throughout Papastamos' tenure, temporary exhibitions were popular: the permanent collection was often moved.

The last major development occured in 2000, celebrating the centenary since the galleries acceptance and the beginning of the plans. The display was systematising and homogenizing, and the wider European collections were not the main focus. For the present director, the role of the gallery is to represent national life and nation.

The National Gallery of Athens has, over its history, metamorphosed from a gallery of European art to a gallery displaying the national Greek identity. Today the gallery is closed until 2015 - when it reopens, the gallery space will have been doubled. A new metamorphosis. But what will be its content and response to the troubled present of Greece and its relationship with the European community? Perhaps, Spyrou says, he will be able to tell us at a future conference here in Leicester.

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