The Mystery Artist: In Search of François PerillaPosted: February 10, 2019
The American School’s haphazard art collection continues to fascinate me. It lacks any thematic cohesion and at first glance often makes no sense, because most of the works have little to do with the institution itself. Yet, it remains a source of mystery because these same works are also associated with people who were once deeply involved in the School’s affairs. Before they ended up at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter), these objects decorated the walls of private houses and were part of those households’ life history. In Janet Hoskins’s Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives (1998), six women and men from Eastern Indonesia tell the history of their lives by talking about their possessions, thus creating an identity for themselves through objects they made, bought, were given, or collected. Our people are no longer alive but many of their possessions are with us, and they have a story to tell us (if we ask them…).
Most of the artwork that hangs on the walls or decorates the mantels of the various buildings of the School comes from two households. One was the residence of two couples, Carl and Elizabeth Blegen (the Blegens) and Bert and Ida Hill (the Hills), who lived together at Ploutarchou 9 (Kolonaki) in the 1930s; the other belonged to the archaeologist George Mylonas and his wife Lela who lived in Saint Louis (Missouri) in the 1930s before they moved back to Greece in the early 1970s. Although both households were set up about the same time, the Blegens/Hills, because of Elizabeth’s personal wealth, began purchasing artwork immediately, while the Mylonases, both younger and refugees from Asia Minor, did not begin acquiring art until the early 1950s. (I have written about the nature of the Mylonas collection in a post titled “The Spirit of Saint Louis Lives in Athens”; on the two couples living at Ploutarchou Street read “The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9,” by Jack L. Davis; and Pounder 2015.)
Lately I have been trying to identify the items from the Blegen-Hill household, which came to school almost intact after the death of the house’s last occupant, Carl Blegen, in 1971. Although we have an inventory, the fact that the objects were not photographed or tagged before they were dispersed among the various buildings of the School (including Corinth) makes it difficult to identify their origin today. Some of the art, such Giovani Battista Piranesi’s “Vedute di Roma,” is easily identifiable, but portions of the collection remain shrouded in mystery.
In addition, we also lack indoor photos of the house, except for the one that shows the so-called “Greek Room.” (Take for comparison the interior of John Gennadius’s house in London, which was professionally photographed, making it easier to identify the artworks from it that came to the Gennadius Library.) Still we are slowly putting together a picture of the life and art at the Blegen residence. In a recent conference about Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, Vivian Florou reconstructed through archival research some of the social life of the house at Ploutarchou 9 during its peak times, before and after WW II (Florou 2015). In “Skyromania? American Archaeologists in 1930s Skyros,” I identified some of the embroideries and pottery that were once part of it. In “The Grecian Landscapes of Anna Richards Brewster,” I suggested that an oil by Brewster might also have once been belonged to the Blegens.
Today’s post focuses on another large painting that once hung on the walls of Ploutarchou 9 (item no. 10 in the Blegen Collection), but is now adorning the walls of my new office: a watercolor depicting the temple of Hera at Olympia, signed “F. Perilla 1930”. A quick search on the internet produced a few brief references to auction catalogs that identified him as a French art historian and artist, born in 1874, as well as to two recent translations of books he wrote about Chios (1928) and Mount Pelion (1940). A search in “Ambrosia” (the ASCSA’s online book catalogue) proved more fruitful, with several entries to publications by Perilla.
The earliest entry dates from 1927 and is titled: Le Mont Athos. Son histoire – ses monastères – ses oevres d’ art – ses bibliothèques. It is a medium size volume (32 x 25 cm), of about 200 pages, printed in Thessaloniki by a French publisher whose name and address figure prominently on the book: J. Danguin, Éditeur, 3o, Rue Jacob, Paris. In the Preface Danguin is also identified as the owner of “Éditions Papyrus.” The eye-catching drawings –lithographs of watercolors, or woodcuts of sketches– are by Perilla. Le Mont Athos is not a travel book but a scholarly publication to judge from Perilla’s bibliography. In the book’s Preface, the author reveals the only biographical information we have about him: that he did not know anything about the history of Mount Athos until 1920 (when he was already 46 years old), but which he managed to master and write a book about in the next seven years by conducting extensive library research and by taking three trips to Mount Athos in 1923 and 1924. It was during these trips that he produced the twelve watercolors and the numerous sketches that are included in the publication.
Within a year of the publication of Le Mont Athos, this middle-aged man, who seems to have appeared from nowhere, produced two more illustrated books: a short one, more of a travel-guide, about the Daphni Monastery and an impressive tome on Chios. Chio: L’ ile heureuse, Editions Perilla (1928), is a lavish edition on thick paper featuring many of the author’s watercolors (15), sketches, and photographs from his time on the island. (A Greek translation of the book was published by the Coraes Library in 2009.) In the preface of this volume, Perilla thanks George Choremis, Leonis Calvocoressis, and Nicolas Paspatis for their hospitality. He must have been a guest at the Choremis mansion which he praises for its famous garden (περιβόλι) and rich library. In the Daphni book he is already advertising the appearance of three more travel books: Salonique, Mistra, and Excursions en Grèce. Not only this, but by 1928, when the Chios book appeared, Perilla had established his own publishing house, titled “Editions Perilla,” using the Nike of Samothrace as his logo (although he is still printing in Paris with “presses de A. Lahure” and Théo Brugière for the plates).
Two years later (1930) Perilla published Grèce: Croquis dè route, this time a car journey, sponsored by the newly founded (1924) Automobile and Touring Club of Greece (Ελληνική Λέσχη Περιηγήσεων και Αυτοκινήτου, aka EΛΠΑ), to promote travel to ancient and modern sites in the Peloponnese and central Greece. It’s in this book that I discovered the watercolor of the Temple of Hera at Olympia, which ended up at Ploutarchou 9. In addition to being a fine artist and scholar, Perilla could write prose with ease, thus making his books something between travelguides and travelogues:
“A une petite gare isolée au bout de la plaine d’ Argolide, un nom fameux retentit: Mycènes! … Où est Mycènes? Là-haut, cachée dans les montagnes. Montagnes arides, sombres, sinistres; asile du people sauvage et rude qui bâtit une ville, des palis, des tombeaux par l’ amoncellement titanique de blocs immenses.”
(For the production of this small book he went local, trying one of the largest and oldest printing houses in Greece, the Aspioti-Elka enterprise in Corfu).
In the meantime Perilla continued his prolific production by publishing another large volume: À travers la Macedoine (1932) which is, in terms of size and quality, equivalent to Le Mont Athos and Chio. This book was also was printed by Aspioti Elka, except for the fine heliogravures which were printed in France. The photography is particularly noteworthy. Unlike Perilla’s previous books where photographs were sparse, this one has many of high quality, including captivating portraits of local men and women and breathtaking aerial photos (which must have required expensive equipment).
A Sought-After Travel Writer
Through these books Perilla must have earned a fine reputation as an author, artist, and publisher. In 1936 the organizers of the Third International Congress of Comparative Pathology in Athens (IIIme Congrès International de Pathologie Comparée a la Faculté de Médecine d’Athenes, du 15 au 18 Avril 1936), under the patronage of King George II, commissioned him to enhance the conference program with a series of watercolors illustrating some of the archaeological sites that the participants and their spouses were going to visit during a two-week cruise at the end of the conference. (I was fortunate in finding this book by accident while browsing the Geography and Travel section of the Gennadius Library because it is not listed under Perilla’s publications.)
About this time –it is unclear exactly when because it is sine datum—Perilla published another volume, also rare today, about the Greek islands. Sponsored by “la compagnie de cabotage de Grèce,” as a means to promote cruise travelling, Les iles de la Grèce featured text, watercolors, and aerial photos of the Cyclades. (Another copy of this rare book can be found in the Dimitris Kondominas Collection at the Benaki Museum.)
Just before the outbreak of WW II in Greece, in June 1940, Perilla published a pocket size, tour book about Mount Pelion (Au pays des centaures. Le Pélion (1940), printed in Athens by “Pyrsos Editions”). We have no idea if he stayed in Greece throughout the War or if he went back to France or elsewhere. Perilla is, however, in Athens by 1942 when he republished Daphni. A year later he republished Grèce: Croquis dè route under a new title, Aquarelles de Grèce. In a brief preface he explained that he did it because the 1930 edition had been exhausted, but also because he wanted to pay tribute to Greece, the land of his happy wanderings (“vagabondages heureux”). There is a gripping detail in this book: the announcement of a publication about Romania (“en préparation: Roumanie”) which makes me wonder if he spent the early years of the War in the northern Balkans. (A bibliographic search for the Romanian book did not produce any results, most likely because it was never published.)
A Neighbor of the Blegens?
In 1944 Perilla published two more books: Vieille Athènes and Promenades Attiques. Both included new watercolors and photography, especially Vieille Athènes where for the first time the photos surpass in number the watercolors. Promenades Attiques features more impressive aerial photography (see the spectacular photo of Piraeus), which he must have taken before the War.
In the preface, we learn one more biographical detail about Perilla, that he lived on Ploutarchou Street (“la rue Plutarque où j’ habite, l’une des plus sympathiques de la ville…), which means he was also a neighbor of the Blegens and the Hills, although the Blegens and Mrs. Hill were in America during the War. (Elizabeth Blegen who also painted watercolors must have known Perilla’s work and him personally.) Still he must have bumped into Bert Hodge Hill, who was the only member of the Blegen-Hill household, who continued to live in Greece during the War. Although Perilla’s choice of words in the preface is careful, he does not hesitate to refer to the gloomy atmosphere of the city, with the “death engines” flying over the famous Attic sky (… “d’invisibles engins de mort voguent dans la stratosphere”), as well as to reminisce about prewar, carefree days. I wonder, however, how he managed to finance three new editions during the German occupation, when most printing houses had been shut down or were under close surveillance (none of his war publications provide any information about the printer). In 1945 Perilla issued Loisirs d’ Athènes which is described as “édition de luxe,” but, unfortunately, we do not have a copy at the Gennadius Library.
Publishing the Makriyannis Paintings…
His next book came as a surprise to me. In 1949 Perilla published the twenty-four paintings of General Makriyannis in a noteworthy edition which featured both color and black- and-white lithographs of the paintings (Fragments de la vie heroïque de Makryjannis suivis des ses images de l’ époque grecque). In Chapter III, where Perilla writes about the history of the paintings and their rediscovery by John Gennadius, he mentions the American School and the Gennadius Library where the paintings reside; yet, I found it strange that he does not thank either the Librarian of the Gennadius Library or the Director of the American School for permission to publish the works or for their facilitating his research. No less interesting, the Gennadius Library had to buy the book from Kauffmann’s bookstore in 1954. You would think that Perilla would have given a copy to the Library (unless it was lost for some reason). Whatever is the story, we are grateful to Perilla for producing an illuminated initial with the Gennadius Library in it.
The Vanishing Intellectual
One of his last publications, most likely the final one, is a book about the three heroic islands of the Greek War of Independence: Hydra, Spetsae, Psara… (1950), also printed, as the Makriyannis book, by Pyrsos Editions. As usual, the book features many of his watercolors as well as pencil drawings –a novelty–but no photographs. The text is informative and recounts the history of these islands, especially in connection with Greece’s independence. By the time Hydra came out Perilla was 76 years old, but he remained a good storyteller. We lose track of him after 1950 (and there is no death date in the bibliographic entries of his books in libraries).
For a man who was so intellectually productive, it is strange (not to mention sad) that he remains so forgotten. Of course, history is full of examples of vanishing artists and authors, who were once extremely popular and then faded into oblivion. Who remembers Hans Makart, except for a few scholars, who was a contemporary of Manet and Monet, or George du Maurier, Henry James’s friend and rival? (There is a nice short essay “How do Artists Vanish” in the Spectator by art critic Martin Gayford, who is contemplating the future of Damien Hirst; and for the rival friendship between Du Maurier and James, I recommend a favorite novel, Author, Author by David Lodge.) Some are rediscovered, others not…
But back to Perilla. I am particularly curious to know what happened to his watercolors, sketches, and his vast photographic collection. Iole Vingopoulou, a connoisseur of travel authors and travelogues, comments about how little we know regarding Perilla: only that he lived in Athens for a few years, around 1930, and wrote illustrated travel books (Vingopoulou 2005, p. 128). Eleni Beliyanni in her introduction for the Greek edition of Χίος: Ευτυχισμένο Νησί (2009), was also not able to contribute any new information about Perilla’s life. The Teloglion Arts Foundation in Thessaloniki may be in possession of some of Perilla’s artwork because his name appears in the list of paintings exhibited in one of their shows in 2013, titled Η Θεσσαλονίκη των Τέλλογλου. Ζωγραφική – Χαρακτική –Γλυπτική. But other than that and the School’s watercolor of the Temple of Hera at Olympia, where is the rest of what must have once been a substantial art collection?
Note: After I had written this post I received a note from Jack Davis informing me about another book by Perilla, published in 1954 (at the age of 80) titled Delphes (unfortunately we don’t have a copy at the Gennadius Library).
Florou, V. 2015. “The House at 9 Ploutarchou Street: A Grape Arbor and a Dense Shadow of Beautiful Meanings,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J.L.Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta, pp. 121-146.
Pounder, R. L. 2015, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives,” ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 85-98.
Staikos, K. and I. Vingopoulou, 2005. Ο Ελληνικός κόσμος μέσα από το βλέμμα των περιηγητών, 15ος-20ός αιώνας : ανθολόγιο από τη συλλογή του Δημητρίου Κοντομηνά, Athens.