Where is Greece?
“Greek Summer is a state of mind,” declares the Greek Tourism Ministries 2020 pandemic-drivien ad campaign. But the reality is that Greece has been a “state of mind,” a quasi-mythical place, for a very long time. Western European Philhellenism began to take shape in the early days of Renaissance, as Byzantine scholars, fleeing the Ottoman armies, made their way to Italy and later France, bringing with them the ancient Greek learning that had been largely lost in the Latin West.
By the 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, Philhellenism had taken on a near religious quality. This was particularly true in the still disjointed German states, who saw themselves in the Greek city-states, in opposition to France’s or Britain's Rome-like unification.
Alexander Mohr was the child of the privileged German elite. As such, he was born into a culture that was completely saturated in a Philhellenic impulse. From early in the modern period, German intellectuals had idealized Classical Greece and drawn parallels between the ancient Greek city-states and the divided German states. If the united nation-states of Britain and France were like Rome, then Germany, which did not achieve unification until 1871, was like Greece--independent political units joined together by a shared history, culture, and language. German Philhellenism was a power force in German intellectual life until after the Second World War and some have noted that German idealization of ancient Greece undermined many aspects of the Enlightenment in Germany and helped give rise to German Romanticism. Moreover, others have noted that Germany’s long intellectual idealization of ancient Greece has not and did not always translate into fair or friendly relations with the modern Greek state. Alexander Mohr was both an inheritor and innovator of the German Philhellenic tradition. As you see in his paintings, his very real, lifelong experience with modern Greece seems to exist alongside, sometimes peaceful and sometimes not so peacefully, with his idealized image of ancient Greece. Where in these paintings do you see this juxtaposition?
As a young aristocratic, artistic German, born very shortly after unification, Mohr grew up immersed in this German philhellenic tradition. Many of his early paintings, particularly those made during the interwar years, deal with themes and images from Greek mythology. For example, Pentheus and Dionysus which is held by the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri.
The paintings presented here from the National Hellenic Museum’s collection suggest the ways in which, even after living in Greece, Mohr still believed in the myth of Greece. Note the way in which Byzantine churches and ancient ruins blend perfectly into modern scenes and people. Also noteworthy is the ways the Byzantine and Classical past merged for the artist.
Hi, my name is Katie Kelaidis, and I'm the Resident Scholar at the National Hellenic Museum. As a historical reality, modern Greek identity largely took shape in the furnace of the Ottoman occupation of Greek-speaking lands. That identity is created out of two historical parts: ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire, both of which have been significantly idealized not just by Greeks but by others. At the same time, these are two very different times and places, even in their idealized form. There is the rationalist pagan Greece of Plato and Aristotle and the mystic Christian Byzantine Empire of St. John Chrystostom. This tension creates much of the modern image of Greeks and Greece, both within and outside the community. Where do you see these tensions in the painting? Which images would you characterize as “Classical"? Which would you say are “Byzantine”?