07 March 02 2015 Theophilos Hadzimichael: Artist of Mytilene: A Passion for Life
Theophilos Hadzimichael: Artist of Mytilene: A Passion for Life
Theophilos Hadzimichael is a name hardly known outside of Greece, yet within Greece itself, his artistic achievements to modern Greek art is of great significance. Theophilos was born in 1868 in Mytilene, the eldest of eight children. His father was a shoemaker and his grandfather on the maternal side was Constantine Zographos, a painter and in particular, a painter if icons. Constantine grew rich on his commissions and was able to give houses to his daughters, one of whom was Penelope, Theophilos’s mother. Constantine was a man of social standing and wore costly and elegant clothes, in particular, the baggy trousers (salivaria) and lived to the ripe old age of 102. As a child, Theophilos had no appetite for formal learning and as he spent most of the time drawing, his father decided to take him out of school and apprentice him as a shoemaker. However, he had no liking for the trade and was sent to work with his uncle, a builder and decorator by the name of George Zographos, a son of Constantine. His uncle made Theophilos carry mortar and grind the paints. One day the lead oxide made him dizzy and he fell off a ladder and cracked his skull. Two boys carried him home but it was likely that the incident scarred him permanently.
Theophilos was about fifteen when he decided to leave for Smyrna. For almost fifteen years, his relatives knew nothing about his whereabouts. His mother kept on inquiring without hearing where her son was. In Smyrna, he lived in the St Demetrius quarter at the house of a woman who made clogs. It seems that it was in Smyrna that he first began to make a living out of painting but lost most of it. It was also in Smyrna when, every 25th of March, he put on a fustanella (kilt) and used to go to the Greek Consulate. In one of his self portraits, he adds after his signature :Door-keeper (Kavass) of the Smyrna Consulate”. It appears that he was not the official door-keeper but simply ran errands for the Kavasses of the Consulate. For Theophilos, who was crazy about Greece, almost anything that meant heroism and a desire for liberty, the Greek Consulate was something sacred and important. It is not known how long he stayed in Smyrna but it is thought that he left because he killed a Turk in order to protect the Greek Consul’s life in an assassination attempt. Apparently he spoke with great pride about his valour.
After Smyrna, we find Theophilos at Macrynitsa in Thessaly. It was here that he showed the first real signs of artistic genius. It is also here that his sensitive and independent nature scandalized the small bourgeois and villages, and the slightest defect or lapse could give them an opportunity for revenge. After one particularly eventful episode he was forced to leave. He was invited to dinner and a marriage was proposed to him. He refused and in jest, his hosts threatened to kill him. Somebody, by way of a joke, pulled away the ladder on which he was standing in order to decorate the facade of a shop and he fell to the ground. Injured in body and soul, and full of bitterness, he left for Mytilene. On his return he had three trunks which among other things, contained an old muzzle-loading gun, pistols, long cavalry pistols and cartridges. One of the boatmen, a friend of Theophilos’s father, saw all these things, notified him and the luggage was landed at night. The following day, The Turks began searching for him but the officials were bribed and left him alone.
On his return to Mytilene, Theophilos was ill and suffering from a fever. His brother, Stavros, took him home and cared for him and in return, Theophilos painted frescoes on the walls of the house. The subject was the epic Cretan literary work,”Erotokritus“. After another move, he went to live with his mother until her death in 1932. His brother, Stavros, supplied them with bread every day. Theophilos was left-handed and slow of speech and was often the butt of jokes. Much of this was also due to his eccentric ways. He always wore the fustanella which was not the costume of his native island. Summer and winter, he wore a cape and the usual accouterments of the fustanella. The long white hose now worn by the evzones of the Royal Guard in Athens with a very short kilt, were not customary among the peasants. But Theophilos wanted to look like those old warriors , those unrivaled heroes of The Greek War of Independence; idols of his he had so often painted. In a bag hanging from his shoulder, he used to stick a piece of wood with a Byzantine flag with an eagle. He also wore tsarouchia (thick pigskin shoes) which weighed many pounds from repeated resoling. In the belt of his fustanella, he used to carry about the things he needed for painting. He wore his hair long as priests do and which he tied up in a knot in the manner of priests and the ancient Greeks in pre-classical times. He liked to have long nails and he worked sitting on the floor. He never frequented coffee-houses or anywhere were large groups of people gathered, and in Mytilene at least, he never smoked or drank. Mild-mannered, he never went to church either.
A lover of disguise, Theophilos often dressed up as Alexander the Great and dressed up street boys as Macedonian soldiers. In turn, the boys jeered or threw stones at him. An outsider all his life, Theophilos was befriended by his fellow islander, Strati Eleftheriadis, who had lived in Paris since his youth and was none other than E. Teriade, the friend of Matisse, Laurens, Giacometti, Braque, Picasso and so many other great artists. This was the time when the great artists of today, great names of the Paris school whose works now represent fortunes, lived with enthusiasm and hope, and Teriade was a poor Greek who loved painting and could acquire such works only as gifts from friends, the painters whose names are now legendary. In 1919, when Teriade met up with Theophilos again in Mytilene, he gave him the means to live and whatever materials he needed for his painting. Teriade commissioned a series of works without specifying time limits, which would be exhibited in Paris. The order was given a few years before his death and was carried out brilliantly. At long last, somebody was taking Theophilos seriously. One Sunday in 1934, he went to visit his brother and sister-in-law who remarked on how ill he looked. After offering him tea and a biscuit, he left. It was the last time they saw him. A neighbour reported hearing him groaning that night. When she knocked on the door there was no answer. Theophilos had placed a heavy stone behind it. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Panteleimon. His grave is no longer there but his house is now a museum, housing a fine collection of his works.
Whether on the walls, cotton cloths, boards, pieces of tin or whatever he happened to come across, Theophilos’s work is an expression of enthusiasm for his subject, be it The Greek War of Independence, Erotokritos or simply scenes from everyday life. There is a conviction and honesty in his work. He may not have been classically trained in the European manner, but his work represents an important contribution to the heritage of modern Greece.
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