10 May 02 2015 The Folk Art of Greek Shop Signs:
The Folk Art of Greek Shop Signs
Dedicated to the sensitivity of the folk-artist.
When Dory Papastratous wrote a foreword in Athens, 1974, for the book “Greek Shop Signs” (“Η Λαϊκή Επιγραφή στην Ελλάδα”) she lamented the fact that popular traditions of Greece had been neglected to some extent owing to the strong impact of ancient Greek civilizations on modern Greek thought and ideas. The urge towards modernisation under the influence of Western standards also played a part in this neglect. By 1974, the new ways of life were fast replacing the traditional ones and as such there began a growing trend towards preserving Greek arts and crafts. In an endeavour to show one of the almost unknown, yet popular forms of Greek folk art, the Papastratos Cigarette Company commissioned a superbly illustrated book entitled “Greek Shop Signs”.
I was given a copy by a friend and work colleague, Kostas Tzimoulis, who was the photographer for the project. With the old signs rapidly disappearing and being replaced by less artistic new ones of an inferior quality, time was of the essence. Kosta’s recollections of travelling the length and breadth of Greece including many of the islands had us in fits of laughter. After all, the project began in the late 1960’s and the dictatorship of the Colonels headed by George Papadopoulos reached into every facet of Greek life at that time. Photographing in remote villages often saw Kostas and his associates taken to the local police stations to give a full account of their “dubious” behaviour in the area. Fortunately we can laugh now, but in those days the Dictatorship ruled with a heavy hand and artists and left-wing sympathizers loomed high on their radar. All together, the team took over 10,000 photographs of which about 400 were finally chosen.
In order to understand the significance of these shop signs, it is necessary to explain the reasons for making them. The needs of the community first produced the shop sign and not, as might be assumed, for advertising. In the established society, every shop was obliged to have its “identity card” on which was clearly stated what kind of shop it was and to whom it belonged – a kind of public announcement. Gradually, the unimaginative text began to take on artistic aspects and endeavoured to become “beautiful”. From this point on, the shops themselves took on distinguishing and reassuring trade names such as “Sincerity”, “Honesty”, etc., which carried the added weight of self-advertisement and influenced the public psychologically.
To distinguish himself from his rivals even further, the shop-keeper looked for a good artisan or painstaking amateur. In turn, the artisan aimed to show his artistic abilities resulting in something both could be proud of. In order to achieve this, the sign had to blend in with the architectural facade of the shop in colour, position and size. After that, the nature of the establishment’s wares, its name and proprietor’s name had to be presented with taste. According to an architectural formula, the letters and the way they were decorated were of primary importance.
Apart from a few which had been signed, in most cases the artists are anonymous. Of those that are signed, some are by the famous painter, Theophilos Hadzimichael from Mytilene, before he became a painter in his own right. (See earlier blog dedicated to him) In most cases, the style was created “alla Turca”, with rare exceptions such as the Ionian Islands and other regions reflecting the Frankish influence. After The Asia Minor Catastrophe 1922, most refugees settled among the poorer districts and filled with a passion to survive, they added their own patterns of life to the communities; patterns which were not unfamiliar to Greece itself. Because of the migration, 1922 became a hallmark in the development of the folk shop sign and from that time onwards, it became possible to date many of the signs. Only a few in the book are from earlier times dating from before 1900.
The early artisans knew almost nothing about lettering, shading and painting, nor did they know much about the tools of the trade such as brushes and rulers. In spite of this, they displayed spontaneity and flexibility in drawing and colouring. They created letters and coloured like children with taste – they were the pure “primitives”. They were not professionals and were very rarely paid for their work. Instead they would be paid in kind – a few free hair-cuts and shaves or a few kilos of fruit and vegetables. From this group, we see the emergence of the artisan, either born into a family of artisans or belonging to the icon- painter’s guilds. These were the artist’s most likely to establish workshops, create a personal style and prepare sketches. Their knowledge of icon painting allowed them to bring new skills to sign painting, e.g., the transferring of gold leaf or attaching gold, brass and silver to wood and glass. Nevertheless, they always maintained their naivete and innocence. Some of them, such as Theophilos went on to become painters in their own right but many remained lonely itinerants with their little bags, their rulers, and their ladders on their shoulders as their sole profession.
I am particularly fond of the “Saranda Avga” – “The Forty Eggs” which I came across when travelling through Crete. The date is 1924. When I asked the owner, a young man in his thirties, why the Kafenion was called this, he said it was from his grandfather’s days. Apparently he used come into Heraklion daily from his mountain village selling eggs and his call was always “Forty eggs; forty eggs”.And if you look closely, the artist has painted exactly forty eggs.
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