Is ‘Museum” really the right word for it?
Yes and no. Yes, because it enshrines a slice of history, the history of modern Greek art from the Second World War to the present day. No, because the great majority of the works exhibited here are by artists who are still alive and have yet to say their last word on the subject, so by rights they do not belong in a museum. In our opinion it ought rather to called a school, because in a sense – in several senses actually – that is what it is.
In the first place, it offers a lesson in patriotism: genuine patriotism of the best kind, a real love of one’s country which is demonstrated in practical ways, accompanied by no rhetorical flourishes and motivated by no desire for public acclaim. This particular lesson is quickly learnt. All one needs to know is that the man who created the museum was a successful businessman (from which one can learn a subsidiary lesson, which is that those engaged in commerce are not necessarily philistines); that the realization of his dream cost him as much as it would have cost to set up a well-equipped, profitable factory (so much for the popular illusion that successful businessmen are invariably motivated by self-interest) or alternatively a luxury villa of unimaginable opulence; and lastly – and most important of all – that this magnificent building and its contents has been donated to the nation, have become the property of the community at large.
There is another good reason for describing it as a school: from the day it opened, and for heaven only know how many years to come, it has been and will continue to be the only place in Greece where a schoolboy, a student, an art-lover or anybody else interested in learning something about the art of this country, can see the whole artistic testament of our own age gathered together in a single collection. Every work is sent in a context appropriate to it, be it made of canvas, wood, marble or other stone, metal or any other material which the artist has chosen as a vehicle for the expression of his desires, feelings, anxieties and fears, as well as certain hints (sometimes obvious, sometimes less so) of his premonitions of the future. For a layman to be able to perceive and assimilate all these things, he does of course need to have had some basic grounding in artistic appreciation, and unfortunately that is not always easily achieved. Nevertheless, it is a well-established fact that we often learn much more from frequent contact with the works themselves than we ever could from books, lectures or any other kind of cerebral approach. It is not unlike the situation of a lover who does not know the language of his loved one. Just as the attraction of one person for another establishes a rapport which overcomes the need for verbal communication, so in this case too, our desire to grasp the meaning of a work of art – if it is a sincere and genuine desire – makes up for our ignorance of the means which the artist has used to express that meaning: line, colour, modeling or whatever else it might be. The next stage comes when life together has proceeded smoothly for some time and one begins to learn the proper terms for all the various functions. Then there is a third and more advanced stage in which the relationship may be elevated to the “literary” level, so to speak, but without thereby losing the charm of intimacy that it possessed before.
Ιt is to them – to those who are in love with art or who may be about to fall in love with it – that these words are addressed. The intention is not to spoil the atmosphere of their romance but to give them, in simplified form, a few hints or guidelines taken from the one and only code of conduct that rules our relationship with works of art. These guidelines may in fact be regarded as practical advice, because they come from a man with the same background: a man who was neither a critic nor art historian nor some kind of “expert”, but whose familiarity with these things is the fruit of an “affair of the heart”, based on what he liked to think of as a harmonious relationship, that has lasted for a lifetime.
The first hint is that we should not try to look for logical explanations behind every work exhibited here. If we see a distorted human body or a landscape painted in unrealistic colours, we should not just walk by with the thought that the artist was incapable of reproducing shapes or colours as they are in real life. We only have to think of Cycladic figurines, Byzantine icons, El Greco, Van Gogh and any number of other great names from every period of history, and that fallacy will soon be dispelled. Nor should we be misled by the subject, or sometimes by the title of a work, into thinking that this is all there is to it. Subject matter has never been the be-all and end-all of an artist’s work: it is something he uses as a means to an end, because he does not try merely to reproduce it but to give it a personal interpretation of his own in terms of composition, colour, symbolism, metaphysics or whatever else he likes.
Similarly, we should beware of judging the objects we see here by the materials they are made of. The value of a work of art has nothing to do with the material. It may be made of pure gold and have absolutely nothing to say, or alternatively of the cheapest of base metals and yet deserving of our attention. There is never any excuse for being prejudiced against any kind of material as such, be it plexiglas, a collection of junk on a piece of wood, pieces of dyed cloth, ropes, light bulbs or anything else. In such cases as these it is the final result that counts, not the price of the material per metre or per kilogram.
And nowadays the final result is judged not only by its conformity to a set of aesthetic principles, such as the correctness of its structural axes or the harmony of its colour scheme, but also by its effectiveness in conveying to us an idea about our world and our environment which the artist, as a thinking person, has formed in his own mind. That idea may reflect a positive or a negative view of the subject: hostility towards the established social system or acceptance of the status quo, an irreverent attitude towards technology or unfeigned admiration of its achievements, satirical reflections on the recent past or extravagant attempts to idealize it and make it seem like paradise lost. There are any numbers of attitudes reflecting different schools of thought which, in art, are known by a variety of names, Common sense demands, however, that we should not attach excessive importance to the “message” of a work of art nor try to pigeonhole it under one or other of the fifty-odd “movements” that have arisen in the art world since the war. Artists have always been driven by a spirit of philosophical inquiry, ever since time began. One can hardly imagine, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci had no inkling of what would happen to the world after the arrival of the technological developments he foreshadowed, or that Delacroix was any less incensed by what was happening in Greece during its struggle for independence than modern artists are by similar events taking place on our planet today. Therefore it is not the “message” alone that ought to kindle a spark in us, but the extent to which the artist transmitting that message has succeeded in filtering it down until it is distilled into art.
Enough with words, however. Far better instead to put theories and all ideas of historical or artistic analysis out of one’s mind as far as possible, and to look at the works themselves. Familiarity, we feel sure, will breed greater appreciation and enjoyment.
FRANTZIS K. FRANTZESKAKIS, Editor of the art magazine “Zygos”.