25 MAY 2016

Theofilos: The Great Greek Artist You Have Probably Never Heard Of

In June of 1961 the famous Greek poet and Nobel winner Odysseas Elytis was casually walking in the busy streets of Paris when a poster for a Louvre Exhibition caught his eye; it introduced a Greek artist whose traditional view of the world proved to be refreshingly pure in an era of overwhelming artistic experimentation. “Well, yes”, he thought, “there is indeed justice in this world”. For Theofilos, like ever so many great artists, was largely unappreciated in his time, eventually dying in poverty. Decades later sophisticated esthetes and wealthy Parisians finally acknowledged the talent of this naïve disciple of the senses, a talent that few had ever appreciated in his homeland.
Theofilos’ art has a unique effect. The more time you spend studying his paintings the more the elongated, strict faces of the saints his grandfather painted seem softened by his kind brush; the plainest colors look vibrant; the themes taken from history and mythology are brought to life right in front of your eyes, as they were interpreted by the innocent, glorifying view of the world that very few adults manage to carry on later in life. Stories are magically realized in painting and you are forever lost in a kinder utopian world, where all evil and hardships are banished.
Was his art a desperate attempt to exorcise his inner demons? Was it an attempt to escape the harshness of his everyday life? For his life was indeed too harsh. Born in a family of ten in a small village of Lesvos his childhood was a time of oppression, and young Theofilos often found solace in painting. To escape the stifling criticism of the tiny village he ran away to the cosmopolitan city of Smyrna where he worked and painted uninhibited, creating some of his best works. Here he shaped his visual language and choose themes from Byzantine, Ancient and Modern Greek History, devoting himself to his art.
Theofilos’ love for Greece led him to Thessaly to volunteer in the Army; fate intervened and the war was over before he could enlist. The picturesque Pilio enchanted him and he decided to stay there. Though he lived in poverty, Theofilos always remained true to his art; he painted murals in local shops and restaurants for food, roaming around aimlessly in his outdated traditional foustanela until he was discovered by Giannis Kontos. The wealthy landowner immediately recognized his talent and commissioned him to paint his house. Theofilos was finally free to pursuit his true calling. Under the protection of Kontos he created some of his greatest masterpieces.
Yet a few years later he ran again back to Lesvos, driven away by the practical jokes of the locals in Pilio who never fully understood his peculiarities of dress and manner. Theofilos was devastated. His art was the only means of communication that penetrated the huge walls of isolation that he built around him; still, his art reached the famous art critic Teriande who, fascinated by Theofilos, provided him with paints and brushes and promoted his work in Parisian salons of art. Theofilos was free once more to create, free in his pursuit of what he perceived as utter and total happiness. Who knows what else he might have created, had he not died suddenly in this shabby little room of his…
Theofilos and his vision live on through his art.  His childish naiveté is visible in the clean lines of his murals, his love for Greece shines through his choice of subject matter, his insistence on tradition can be traced in his uncomplicated manipulation of color. When you travel throughout Greece you realize that the secret of Theofilos’ inspiration is hidden in plain sight all around you; he is a painter born and nurtured by what he saw and lived in. He is the hospitable people he paints, the stories of antiquity, the sea and mountains, the gods and heroes of past and present. In short, he is all of Greece.



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