Christmas in Athens in 1915

On February 17, 1916, The Nation published in its “Foreign Correspondence” section a long essay by John A[lfred] Huybers, titled “Christmas in Athens.” Huybers is no stranger to this blog. Three years ago, I wrote an entire post about him, “On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait,” after discovering a pencil sketch of Bert Hodge Hill by him.

An English Australian, Huybers earned his living as an illustrator in America, and from about 1915 until his death in 1920 as a foreign correspondent for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor in Greece. He must have been friends with many members of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA or the School) including Bert H. Hill, Carl W. Blegen, and Edward Capps. Capps, who became the School’s Chair of the Managing Committee in 1919, remembered Huybers in the ASCSA Annual Report for 1920-21 (p. 21) with mention of a fund created in his memory (the Huybers Fund amounted to $714.53 in 1921, which is the equivalent of about $18,000 today):

“[He] was for many years a resident of Greece, whence he sent to the American press, and particularly to the Christian Science Monitor, admirable articles on Greek affairs. He died at Phalerum in 1919 [sic]. His writings showed such admirable sanity of judgement, good information, and genuine philhellenic sympathy and understanding that his friends in America, chiefly those of Hellenic descent, desired to perpetuate his memory in connection with the School, which they highly regard as the permanent symbol in Greece of American-Hellenic unity. We are indebted to Professor A. E. Phoutrides of Harvard University, for conceiving this idea and carrying it to completion, and to His Excellency Mr. Tsamados, then Minister Resident of Greece in Washington for generous assistance. A principal fund of $545 was contributed.”

During my research on Huybers, I found sixteen of his essays in The Nation, including one about the American School, large parts of which l presented in my post of April 2019. Lately, I rediscovered in my notes another one he published in February 1916 after spending Christmas in Athens (since Greece was still following the “old calendar,” Christmas was celebrated thirteen days later, on January 6th).

Wanting to experience Christmas Eve shopping, Huybers took a walk on Athinas Street (described as Rue d’ Athènes) which was and still is the largest market: “Not merely the booths in the market, but all the surrounding shops are open, without windows. The places that are most crowded, where most business is being done, are the shops in which the different varieties of cheese and olives are sold, which, with the excellent bread, are the main staples of life in Greece.” He then proceeded to explain that sheep were not raised just for wool and meat, but also for their cheese, and one would be surprised “at the variety of delicious and wholesome cheeses made from their milk.”  

Cheese and meat stalls on Athinas Street in the early 1930s. ASCSA Archives, Charles and Janet Morgan Papers.

Huybers could not praise enough the staple Greek meal of bread, cheese, and olives. “I have watched at the Port of the Piraeus splendid examples of manhood, who have spent the morning hours hoisting and swinging great sacks of wheat and carrying them on their backs down and up the plank barefooted from ship or barge to the wharf, and then at noon have made their meal cheerfully of bread sheeps’ [sic] cheese, and olives.” The video below is an excerpt from Triumph Over Time, a movie that the School produced in 1947. Although it was filmed three decades later than Huybers’s description, the scene in the port of Piraeus is very similar to the one in 1915.

The fruit stands were full of oranges, mandarins, lemons, citrons, as well as almonds and walnuts. The only fruit missing was the apple. The only apple Huybers found in the market was “a very small, greenish-yellow in color, with red stripes,” sold at a high price which Huybers refused to pay. The apple he is describing is the φιρίκι (firiki, or Pijrus Malus) grown on Mount Pelion, a tree that produces fruit every other year. Until 1960, it was the only type of apple found in the Greek markets. “If it pays to export American and Canadian apples to South Africa, there ought to be an opening here for apples,” scribbled Huybers.

Market stall selling olives in the early 1930s. ASCSA Archives, Charles and Janet Morgan Papers.

On Christmas Eve of 1915, “most of the entrances of the shops and booths were decorated with an arch made of two great fronds of the palm tree, twelve and fourteen feet in length, and long ribbons of wax paper in happy combinations of color.” The custom of the Christmas tree did not spread in Greece until the 1930s (especially after WW II) although the upper class did see Christmas trees in the houses of the foreign ambassadors in Athens as early as in the 19th century. Story has it that the famous General Makriyannis after seeing one at the house of the Russian consul in Greece Ioannis Paparrigopoulos in 1843 commented: “It’s nice but I don’t like to keep trees in my room, only my guns.” Huybers, however, witnessed the arrival of donkeys in town loaded with pine shrubs which he interpreted “as Christmas trees and for decorations.” On December 22, 1915, Zillah Dinsmoor, wife of architect William Bell Dinsmoor and an expatriate, “went with Mrs. Droppers [the wife of the American Minister in Greece] to buy her Christmas tree and to get cases of soap to put in the children’s stockings and stuffing for the inevitable pin-cushions with which we will all be presented on Christmas afternoon” (ASCSA Archives, Zillah Pearce Dinsmoor Papers).

Strolling through the meat market Huybers commented on the young milk lambs hanging from the hooks. Although “the Greeks might be taxed with wastefulness” for doing so, “roasted to the right point such food might cause a vegetarian to backslide from his faith.” For this not to happen, Huybers suggested that one would have “to read anew Pythagoras’s plea for animal life and his denunciation of man and his appetite as the worst of the beasts of prey: Thou slay’st the lamb that looks thee in the face.”  

Huybers was further impressed by the open cook-shops with their big copper saucepans and charcoal furnaces underneath. “The cook will lift the different covers for you: there are spinach and rice cooked together, bean soup, different varieties of beans with flavoring with herbs and pure olive oil, potatoes cooked with some excellent sauce, macaroni, and twice a week a good fish soup, roast meats and fried fish.” To further note that “it was a pity that America, so generous in her gifts from her own soil, has no such restaurants.”

One last thing that impressed Huybers was the Christmas carols.

“An empty earthenware jar is slung over a boy’s shoulder; it is covered at the top with the dried skin of a sheep’s or pig’s bladder. He drums on it with the fingers of the two hands, and there being no bottom to the jar, its shape gives its resonance. The other boy strikes a triangle. The musical metallic sound of the one and the muffled sound of the other, accompanying the chant of their young voices, make the quaintest impression.”

The triangle has survived until today, but not the jar. I had to search old photos in order to discover this primitive musical instrument, and I found one in the Voula Papaioannou Photographic Collection at the Benaki Museum. The boy in the middle seems to be beating such a jar with the tips of his fingers.

We do not know how and where Huybers spent Christmas Day. Probably not at the American School, which was almost closed because of the War. In 1915-1916, there was only one student, Ralph W. Scott. The absence of students made it possible for Bert Hodge Hill, the School’s Director, and Carl W. Blegen, the Secretary, to go to the States for Christmas, and also to attend the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Princeton. Huybers might have been a guest at the American Minister’s house, or at the Dinsmoors who rented a house on Xenokratous Street, although his name was not included in Mrs. Dinmoor’s list of guests. Although she would have liked to ask more people for a second gathering in the evening, she couldn’t do it because “this year the gas was so poor we can scarcely see.”

Because of the War, the School would not resume its academic program until the fall of 1920. From the fall of 1918 through the spring of 1920, the School rented its facilities to the Greek Commission of the American Red Cross.


A Journey in the Mediterranean on the Eve of the Great War, 1914.

On July 4th, 1914, Francis Henry Bacon (1856-1940) and his wife Alice (née Calvert) departed from New York aboard the S.S. Kaiser Frantz Joseph (the ship would be renamed the President Wilson shortly thereafter). The Dardanelles were their destination, where the Calvert family owned an estate, as well as a farm in nearby Thymbra. This is where Bacon had first met Alice in 1883, when the members of the Assos Excavations received an invitation to dine with Alice’s uncle, Frank Calvert (1828-1908). An amateur archaeologist, Calvert had conducted several excavations in the Dardanelles. Perhaps more importantly, he suggested that Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) look for Troy at the site of Hissarlik, not far from Thymbra, in the late 1860s. The Calverts were English expatriates long established in the Dardanelles, who made a living trading commodities with the benefit of consular posts.

The time was not good, however, to travel to Europe and especially to the Balkans and Turkey. Just a few days before, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife had been assassinated in Sarajevo. His death sparked a series of events that led Austria with the support of Germany to declare war on Serbia a month later. Within a week, the great powers of Europe were forced to ally with or against the main belligerents. Greece tried to remain neutral until 1917 (in no small part because the Greek King was married to the Kaiser’s sister and thus sympathetic to the German side), but the Ottoman Empire openly supported the Germans. 

Retracing his Steps

Bacon, a graduate of M.I.T (1876), first traveled to Greece in 1878, before the American School of Classical Studies was even founded. In 1881 he would join, as chief architect, the Archaeological Institute of America’s excavations at Assos in Western Turkey. Following Assos, Bacon pursued a successful career in interior design on the East Coast of America about which I have written before (Francis H. Bacon: Bearer of Precious Gifts from the Dardanelles). He is also credited with the design of the Shrine of the Declaration of Independence in the Library of Congress. Because of Alice’s attachment to the Calvert house in the Dardanelles, the Bacons frequently crossed the Atlantic. Occasionally, Francis would make a stop in Greece to retrace his steps.

After several stops including the Azores, Algiers, and Naples, the Bacons finally reached Patras on July 16th, where the couple parted. Alice continued on another steamer to the Dardanelles, while Francis planned to spend a week in Greece, starting from Olympia. “Splendid Victory of Paionios, and then the lovely, beautifully finished Hermes of Praxiteles – about the only authentic ancient masterpiece in the world,” Bacon scribbled in his notebook. The authenticity of the statue –whether it was a 4th century B.C. original or a fine Roman copy- had not yet been challenged.

The Olympia Museum, 1914. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

From Patras, Bacon took a little steamer to Itea. At Delphi he was much impressed by the restoration of the Athenian Treasury, which the French had completed a few years earlier (1903-1906.) He only wished that “they had restored the acroteria, two horses with naked riders prancing off the corners of the pediment.” Bacon, an ardent photographer, did not miss a chance to capture monuments and landscape, as well as to experiment with interior photography, which was exceptionally difficult at the time. “Back to the Museum where the Ephor Contoleon is very obliging and invited us to photo and measure anything we like.” I cherish Bacon’s interior photos because we catch glimpses of the old museum displays. To him we owe a partial view of the old Delphi Museum, built in 1903, and several charming photos of the local children who had befriended one of his fellow travelers. See slideshow below.

After two days at Delphi, Bacon headed off for Athens. “Start at Itea at 5 A.M. Steamer at 6:30 for Corinth Canal and Piraeus. There has been a landslide in the canal and the little steamer almost climbs over a pile of clay and earth in the narrow channel. Reach Piraeus at 4 P.M. Drive to Athens over the dusty road. Go to Hotel Minerva where I spent winter in 1883, now rather dirty and forlorn.”

(The Hotel Minerva located at Stadiou 5 operated until 1991. When Bacon first stayed in it in 1883, it was known as Αι Αθήναι. For more information and a photo of the hotel, check out the site of the Greek Literary and Historical Archive.)

View of the Acropolis from the Hotel Minerva, 1914. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

A fine dinner at the Averoff would, however, compensate for the disappointing accommodations. Athens was hot and lethargic in July. “Impossible to do anything with such heat and dust. Shops all close from 12 to 3, and everybody takes a siesta.” They would find some relief in the premises of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (the School hereafter), which was almost empty, except for William Bell Dinsmoor and [Stuart] Thompson, “the young architect in charge of alterations in the building. Dinsmoor is working on drawings of the Propylaea now being restored.” The School was undergoing its first major expansion since its construction in 1886-1887, enlarging its library and adding an east wing to accommodate the growing number of students. Dinsmoor, also an architect and then just beginning a distinguished academic career, had recently embarked on the study of the Propylaea, a life-long project, which was completed after his death.

William B. Dinsmoor, Francis H. Bacon, and William M. Stanton, outside the Director’s House at the ASCSA, 1914. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

The restoration of the Southwest wing of the Propylaea was also the pet project of the School’s Director, Bert Hodge Hill, who frequently assigned its restoration on paper to the School’s students. It is aptly described by Emerson Swift who was a first year student at the School in the spring of 1913-1914. The students “sprang to it gaily” only to find out that it was “becoming increasingly more baffling. In a way, it resembled the old jigsaw puzzle but very much harder, because one worked not only in three dimensions but also on a grand and imposing scale.” Although Swift “enjoyed a rare sort of mental expansion,” he also commented “that Mr. Hill’s novel teaching methods proved him to be a true educational genius, at whose feet I would be honored to sit as a slow and baffled student” (Emerson H. Swift, Youthful Rambles: On the Trail of the Classics, 1912-1915, California 1975, p. 28).

As soon as he came to Athens, Bacon went up to the Acropolis. “[Will] try to photograph my ‘beauty’ the lovely archaic statue.” By ‘beauty’ he was referring to Kore 686 (also known as the Euthydikos kore), the upper part of which had been found in 1882 east of the Parthenon and the lower near the Erechtheion in 1886-87. Indeed, in Bacon’s scrapbook contains two great photos of Kore 686, which was displayed, however, without her lower part, although the connection between the two fragments had already been made in 1885. Attached to the base that supported the Kore is a piece of paper with “do not touch” instructions in French and Greek. The Greek is amusing because it does not use the expected “αγγίζω = touch” verb but the visitor is asked not to “θίγη τα αντικείμενα” (not to encroach or offend.) The other sculpture that grabbed Bacon’s attention was the Persian rider, which had been partially restored at the time. In Bacon’s interior photos we also catch glimpses of the Kritios Boy and the “Blonde Boy.” See slideshow below.

Bacon spent his last night in Athens at the Actaeon Hotel in Phaleron, “room facing the sea, breakfast on the terrace.” Actaeon, a true “belle epoque” jewel, which had opened ten years before, was perhaps the fanciest and most impressive hotel that Athens ever had. On July 26, 1914, Bacon finally reached the Dardanelles where Alice was waiting for him.

In the Dardanelles

After the devastating earthquake of 1912, Alice and Henry could no longer live in the large Calvert mansion: “We go to look over the big house to see the damage […]. The exterior not hurt much but what a terrible wreck inside.” The house not only suffered from the earthquake but also the years of neglect following Frank Calvert’s death in 1904. After a thorough inspection, Bacon concluded that “the house was a hopeless wreck, and it would be folly to attempt to repair it. The best plan would be to sell it, if possible, and then if the mill could be abolished, build a smaller house on the sea front, on the site of one of the stores […]. However, it is no time to do any building,” Bacon noted. He was referring to the “recent chasing out of the Greeks from all the coastal villages in the Troad. Armed bands of Cretans and Albanians were sent around to beat the Greeks and intimidate them, and a great influx of Turkish refugees from Thrace and Macedonia [who had been expelled from those areas after the victorious for Greece Balkan wars] have occupied their houses, driving out the inhabitants, most of them losing their furniture and household belongings to say nothing of their crops and animals.” These events of 1913-1914 were just a prelude to the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 which saw the expulsion of the Greek population from western Turkey.

From the Dardanelles the Bacons drove to the Calvert farm at Thymbra where the excitement of the day included the installation of a new English steam engine and a threshing machine. In the evening Bacon and Alice walked over to Hanay Tepe, “excavated by Uncle Frank so many years ago.” The site located 7.5 km southeast of Troy was first excavated by Calvert in 1853. In 1878-79, after the discovery of Troy by Schliemann, Calvert went back to the site and correlated its stratigraphy to the levels recorded at Hissarlik.

Upon their return to the Dardanelles on August 5th, they heard that Germany had declared war on Russia and France. “What will Turkey do, as well as Greece and all the rest?” Bacon wondered. Martial law was declared in the Dardanelles. One of their Turkish servants, Mustapha was drafted for the army. “He is only 27, has a wife and two children. Served all through the Balkan war while his family starved and now he must go again.” The Greeks who lived in Asia Minor were also recruited or else they had to pay a steep fine. Bacon worried about his return to America. Plans to travel in Germany and England were cancelled. “They say the Straits will be closed again and how will I get away…”.  By August 8th, England had declared war on Germany and Austria, and Germany began to invade Belgium. “What a state of affairs, nothing like it since the time of Napoleon” lamented Bacon. In addition, the banks had stopped all payments.

Bacon made arrangements to leave the Dardanelles with an Italian boat, the “Romania,” since the French and English ships were held in the harbor for fear of mines, but Italian and Greek boats dared to navigate the Straits following the pilot through the mine field. The boat was full of Greek and Armenian refugees from Constantinople. While still in the harbor waiting for the ship to depart, Bacon witnessed two dark hulls with German flags coming slowly up the Straits: the Goeben and the Breslau. According to Bacon, the Breslau moving slowly down the Straits came “to anchor right astern of the French reserve ship, [the] Saghalien.” “We saw the sailors all at their posts and as she stopped, her long guns begin to waggle up and down in the sunlight trained on the French boat. It was the most menacing thing I ever saw, and the assembled company gasped.” Four years later, Bacon, having witnessed  the Breslau in action, would glue a newspaper clipping from Jan. 23, 1918 on a blank page of his scrapbook: “Four Explosions as Breslau Sank. Airmen Chased Goeben.”

While sleeping aboard and waiting for the Romania to depart, Bacon and his company saw a small boat coming in from Constantinople and flying the American flag. Word came that she was leaving immediately for Mytilene. Without hesitation, Bacon, together with Captain Guy Pears of the Royal Engineers who was trying to get to Egypt, and a Mr. Moloney, a Reuter’s correspondent who wanted to get to Belgium to report on the war, grabbed the opportunity and switched boats. They landed on Mytilene on August 13th [1914] at two o’clock in the morning. They found themselves stepping around mounds: “the streets full of sleeping refugees, men, women and children, their household goods piled all around them. These poor creatures are driven by the Turks from their homes on the mainland opposite. Boats are coming with them daily.” Bacon was referring to the Turkish expulsions of 1913-1914.

For Bacon, Mytilene was a familiar place, “so full of old-time memories – when we had our house there the first season of the Assos expedition in 1881, when Howdy, [William C.] Lawton and [Charles] Bradley were here, […] and all the world was young.”   

Tales of a Greek Island

A few days later with another small Greek steamer, Bacon and his fellow passengers managed to arrive in Piraeus on August 18th. Waiting for the next boat that would take him back to America, Bacon managed to take some good panoramic photos of Athens, one looking towards mount Lycabettus and another towards Hymettus (see slideshow below). Finding that the steamer to New York would not sail shortly, Bacon decided to skip the heat and dust of Athens by spending a few days on the island of Poros. He had recently read “the very pretty stories of the Island by Julia Dragoumis.” Bacon was referring to Tales of a Greek Island that Julia Dragoumis had published in 1912.  Nearly forgotten today, Dragoumis (1858-1937) was a prolific author who wrote both in Greek and English, specializing in short stories and children’s books.

“Picturesque village on the narrow strait, clear blue water, nice room with balcony on the sea. 3 francs. Good eating in restaurant. Coffee and narghileh after under the Eucalyptus tree in the square with the fountain.” (See slideshow below.) After a good night’s sleep, Bacon planned for a day trip to the Temple of Poseidon at Calauria “where Demosthenes is said to have put an end to his life in B.C. 322,” and later in the day he took a sail in the bay, “past a pretty villa on a terrace with some pine trees at the back. The boatman says it belongs to Madame Dragoumis, the author of ‘Stories of a Greek Island.’ As I’d come on account of reading her book, think I’ll call and pay my respects.  Send up my card and a young man comes out, Mad[ame] D[ragoumis]’s son. He is sorry his mother has gone for a walk.” But later that same the evening after Bacon had enjoyed his narghileh on the quai, a boatman brought him an invitation from Madame Dragoumis, “if not too late.” Bacon took a boat across the bay to Villa Gallini, as the house was known, to spend a pleasant evening with the Dragoumis couple, their sons and other friends of the family.

The Villa Gallini was built in 1894 by architect Anastasios Metaxas (whose works in Athens include the French and the Italian Embassies and the Presidential Megaron [the former palace]). It was the summer residence of Dimitris and Julia Dragoumis, who spent the rest of the year in England. Among the many intellectuals who spent time in the house were writer Henry Miller in 1939, and, later, in 1947, poet George Seferis who composed his famous poem Κίχλη (Thrush) there. Julia and her husband were also friends of Carl and Elizabeth Blegen. On December 10, 1932 they took afternoon tea at the Blegen House at 9, Ploutarchou, where Julia presented some grape and grapefruit cuttings from the Villa Gallini for Blegen’s garden.

On his way back to Athens, Bacon made a quick stop on Aegina. “At a café near the quai I asked about the Museum, and presently a very pleasant Greek, Mr. Pelicanos, the ephoros, appeared and invited me to go to the Museum.” There Bacon took a photo of Ephor Pelicanos next to the marble sphinx found by Adolf Furtwängler (1853-1907).

Aegina Museum, Ephor Pelicanos posing next to the Sphinx, 1914. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

All Aboard for New York

On August 26th, 1914 Bacon finally boarded the Thessaloniki. The boat has just arrived from Alexandria. “She looks unkempt and dirty,” but there is no other way to get home.  Sailing along the Coast of the Peloponnese (and not through the Corinth Isthmus), the boat made quick stops at Kalamata and Katakolo (the port of Pyrgos) to take on cargoes of currants. At Patras Bacon went ashore to the U.S. Consulate to find if there was any news of the war. Consul Cook had just arrived from America “with $5,000,000 in gold, and several relief committees to assist Americans in Europe to get home.” The Thessaloniki finally started her long transatlantic journey. In addition to the passengers, the boat carried live cattle, sheep, etc. “which they slaughter on the deck daily for fresh meat” because there was no ice on the boat. “As for the pantry, galley, etc., the least said the better,” Bacon scribbled on his notebook. As for personal hygiene, he managed “to get a salt bath every day or two.”

By the time they left Gibraltar, Bacon and his fellow passengers had already spent ten days on the Thessaloniki “and Heaven knows how many more until we reached Sandy Hook.” Bacon finally reached New York on September 17th. His brother, Henry (also an architect, known today as the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.) was waiting for him. Francis was “once more in the land of the free” and “Allah be praised!”

A Rare Photo

At the end of Bacon’s scrapbook there are copies of letters that he exchanged with his co-traveler Captain Guy Pears in the following two years. Pears fought in the war in trenches in France.  In June 1915, while hospitalized in London after having been wounded on the battlefield, Pears received a copy of Bacon’s scrapbook: “Your journal brought back to me so vividly those happy days we had at Mytilene and Athens. One never knows at the time when one is well off, and I poor fool was fretting all the time about getting back to Egypt and fearing that if I were a day or two late, I should miss my chance of seeing some of the war…”.  

Francis Bacon and Guy Pears enjoying a nargilleh, 1914. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

A year later, Pears sent to Bacon through his father, the Levantine lawyer and distinguished historian Sir Edwin Pears (1835-1919), who came to Boston to lecture, a rare photograph that showed him and General Kitchener inspecting cadets at Woolwich. “It is of interest as it is the last picture of Kitchener,” wrote Guy Pears to Bacon on Sept. 29, 1916. Lord Kitchener (1850-1916), who built England’s first mass army in 1914 and is also known for his colonial victories in Sudan and South Africa, was drowned in June 1916 when his vessel struck a mine.

Captain Pears and General Kitchener inspecting work of cadets, 1916. ASCSA Archives, Francis H. Bacon Papers.

Author’s Note

Bacon’s scrapbook is one of nine which were recently donated to the Archives of the American School by his descendants. This one will be available online on the ASCSA’s webpage shortly.


The Forgotten Olympic Exhibition: Georg Alexander Mathéy’s Contribution to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

BY ALEXANDRA KANKELEIT

Alexandra Kankeleit is a German-Greek archaeologist and historian. She has been researching German archaeology in Greece during the Nazi period for several years. Since July 2021 she has been working for the CeMoG (Centrum Modernes Griechenland) at the Freie Universität Berlin, where she will teach a seminar on the 1936 Summer Olympics in the upcoming winter semester. Here she contributes an essay about the German artist Georg Alexander Mathéy (1884-1968), who lived in Greece in the 1930s and whose work was displayed in the Summer Olympics of 1936.

The Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe (BLB) has held a large part of the estate of painter and writer Georg Alexander Mathéy (1884-1968) since 1993. In 2017, the BLB organized an exhibition, titled Sprachbilder – Bildersprache: Die Künstler Helene Marcarover und Georg Alexander Mathéy, to showcase the works of Mathéy together with those of another artist, the painter and poet Helene Markarova (1904-1992). Both artists, whose work was shaped by the two wars, by migration and alienation, were able through literature to transform images into words, and vice versa. A wonderful accompanying publication provides insights into Mathéy’s life and creative work (Axtmann – Stello 2017).  

Trained as an architect in Budapest, Mathéy made his name as an illustrator of numerous books and magazines, achieving commercial success already at a young age. He also designed stamps, textiles, and a Rosenthal coffee service. Two of his stamp designs are still remembered today because of their intense colors and memorable motifs: the “bricklayer” (1919) and the “post horn” (1951). They can be described as classics of German stamp design.

In addition to this modern, highly reductivist formal language, Mathéy also mastered other, more traditional media, primarily in his large-scale watercolors and oil paintings.

I became interested in Mathéy’s largely forgotten contribution to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The starting point is material from the archives of the BLB, which provided new and important information about Mathéy. (I would like to thank the director of the BLB, Julia Hiller von Gaertringen, for her interest and active support in my project. A detailed German version of this article can be found on the BLBlog.) Further information can also be found in an unpublished research paper on Georg Alexander Mathéy, which the designer Ulrike Jänichen completed in 2003 under the direction of Professor Mechthild Lobisch at the Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule in Halle. She kindly made her work available to me.

Georg Alexander Mathéy, ca. 1930s. Source: Alexander Mathéy.

How did Mathéy come to be associated with Greece?

In 1926 Mathéy met in Leipzig his second wife, the piano soloist Polyxene Roussopoulos (1902-1999), daughter of chemist Othon Roussopoulos, who contributed to the conservation of the bronzes in the National Archaeological Museum (Moraitou 2020). Ιt was love at first sight (as claimed by their son Alexander Mathéy). Polyxene had a very close connection to Germany for family reasons. Her grandparents had lived in Leipzig for several years and German was the predominant language spoken at home. Mathéy, cosmopolitan by nature but also a Transylvanian Saxon of Greek descent (Ματθαίου) from Hermannstadt, in turn, felt a strong connection to Greece. Greek ancestry and Orthodox faith must have also played a role in his decision to move to Greece. He was not the only one. In the interwar period, several German artists who were particularly enthusiastic about the country’s landscape, culture, and extraordinary light came to Greece. These included, for example, painters Alexander Mohr and Conrad Westpfahl, and photographers Herbert List and Hermann Wagner (the last also worked in the Athenian Agora excavations).

In 1931 Georg and Polyxene moved to Greece. He was to remain there until December 1940. The Greco-Italian War, the invasion of the Wehrmacht, and the subsequent occupation of Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, ended his stay in Greece and also led to his separation from Polyxene, who did not want to leave her homeland under any circumstances.

What role did Greece play in Mathéy’s artistic work?

Mathéy’s love of Greece is evident in numerous paintings, sketches, drawings, and texts, most of which were printed in newspaper articles and books. He was well connected to the so-called German colony in Athens and was highly respected and supported by a number of influential people. These included representatives of the German legation, senior staff of the German Archaeological Institute and the German School of Athens (Deutsche Schule Athen), and several members of the German press. His pleasing, never polarizing style was obviously in demand, so he had no shortage of commissions. Light, almost floating compositions of bright, harmoniously flowing colors were characteristic of his work. His paintings from the 1930s appear serene and calming – far removed from the extreme political and social events in Germany and Greece.

In 1933 he had the opportunity to present his work to a larger audience. Under the patronage of the representative of the German legation in Athens, Ernst Eisenlohr, and following a laudatory opening speech by the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, Georg Karo, Mathéy was admitted onto the Mt. Olympus of contemporary artists in Greece (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K3328D38,116; Reyle 1933).

In 1934, he created a monumental wall mosaic for the German Protestant Church in Athens on Sina Street, which was intended to lend a colorful accent to the subdued style of the Bauhaus building.

Mosaic by Georg Alexander Mathéy for the Evangelical Church of German Language in Greece on Sina Street. Photo: Alexandra Kankeleit, 2022.

The entrance portal is framed by two angels, who serve as a reminder of an important event in German-Greek history: the heroic struggle from 1821 to 1829 by German Philhellenes for the liberation of Greece from Turkish rule (according to the editorial in the Neue Athener Zeitung of April 21, 1935).

Mathéy and the Olympics of 1936

In the run-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics, numerous actions took place in Germany to express the cultural superiority of the German Reich, its progressiveness and modernity, but also its close relationship to ancient Greece. The torch relay, as well as several exhibitions about sports in ancient and modern times, were intended to highlight Germany’s outstanding role as the “guardian of the Holy Grail of the Olympic Idea” (source: the newspaper “Stettiner General-Anzeiger” of December 31, 1934, Carl and Liselott Diem Archive of the German Sport University Cologne). The Nazi regime spared no effort or expense to set in motion a gigantic propaganda machine. During the Olympic Games themselves, from August 1 to 16, 1936, at least eight exhibitions were held in Berlin alone (Führer 1936, 59-64).

One of the most important exhibitions, titled “Sport of the Hellenes” (Sport der Hellenen), took place on the Museum Island in Berlin. It was advertised in all media and would eventually count over 100,000 visitors. Little known and so far barely studied is Mathéy’s participation in this exhibition. In 1935, he had been commissioned by Theodor Lewald, the president of the German Organizing Committee (OC) of the Olympic Games, to produce four large-scale paintings of ancient sites in Greece (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 3 and K 3328 C 71 10). The “Greek Circle,” a series of romantic paintings of Greece by the Bavarian painter Carl Rottman (1797-1850), must have served as inspiration.

“Sport of the Hellenes”

On July 16, 1936, the exhibition “Sport of the Hellenes” was officially opened in the former German Museum, in the north wing of the Pergamon Museum (Führer 1936, 42). The catalogue and a few surviving photographs give us a glimpse of the selection and arrangement of the exhibits. Plaster casts of famous Greek sculptures were presented in the main hall of the German Museum (Lehmann 2003). These were exclusively representations of male athletes. In addition, there were smaller objects from various German museums, mainly vases, bronze figures, and marble fragments. The exhibition organizers were particularly proud of the fact that all objects (plaster casts and originals) were owned by Germans. However, it was not the German plaster casts that were illustrated in the catalog, but the originals in Greece (Blümel 1936).

Leaflet designed by Mathéy for the exhibition at the Neues Museum Berlin, Source: BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy.

Special importance was attached to a plaster-cast model of Olympia by the architect Hans Schleif. It was presented in the anteroom of the exhibition and was originally intended to be framed by Mathéy’s pictures of Greece. Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, those responsible – Theodor Lewald, Theodor Wiegand and Carl Blümel – rejected this plan. To Mathéy’s great displeasure, his paintings were moved to another part of the Museum Island (Axtmann – Stello 2017, 101).

Map of the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) Berlin. Source: Landesarchiv Berlin,
HistoMapBerlin (Map series KA, map sheet 4232, edition 1940)
.
 

The second part of the exhibition was held in the Neues Museum, which could be reached via an above-ground connecting passage from the Pergamon Museum (for the connecting corridors, see the YouTube film by Katrin und Hans Georg Hiller von Gaertringen, starting at 20:30). The corresponding exhibition space was renamed the “Olympia Hall” at short notice. Mathéy’s paintings with scenes from the Acropolis, Delphi, Epidauros and Olympia were presented together with other items in the skylight gallery of the Egyptian Court in the Neues Museum. Mathéy described the room as a “gloomy box that makes any contemplation impossible” (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 7). Previously inaccessible, the room had served for storage of plaster casts from Olympia since the 1920s.

Four oil paintings by Georg Alexander Mathéy for the exhibition “Sport of the Hellenes”: “Acropolis of Athens”, “Delphic Stadium”, “Theater in Epidauros” and “Today’s Olympia”. Source: BLB 95B 75264 RB 1,11.

About a hundred shots of Olympia by the photographer Walter Hege (1893-1955) were also exhibited in the same room, again to Matthey’s dissatisfaction. His correspondence reveals that he did not particularly appreciate Hege’s work, although a deeper conflict between the media of “painting” and “photography” may have been the underlying cause. In any case, Hege was courted by sports officials and art scholars during the Olympics in a way that certainly aroused envy among his colleagues. “The guy makes a fuss about his photos as if there were no other photographer in the world” Matthey scribbled in his diary (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 A 42,1 and K 3328 D 38,87; December 4, 1935).

Unfortunately, there is no documentation for this part of the exhibition. Only a few photos show the plaster casts of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, which had already been placed in the skylight gallery of the Egyptian Court before 1936 (Berger 2018, 90-93). On the basis of Mathéy’s correspondence and several newspaper articles, however, it is possible to reconstruct how Mathéy’s pictures and Hege’s photographs were presented to visitors: Mathéy’s pictures were hung on the narrow sides of the room and Hege’s photographs were attached to the “superstructure in the middle gallery,” i.e., presumably on the balustrade of the skylight gallery (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 20).

Review in the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, August 25, 1936.
Source: BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 A 95,42

Greek Landscapes
In the Olympia Hall of the New Museum, where the completed casts of the pediment figures of the Temple of Zeus hang, are exhibited the four Greek landscapes painted by Professor A. Mathéy on behalf of the Organizing Committee for the XI Olympic Games. Mathéy has lived in Athens for several years. The attempt to create a cycle of decorative Greek landscapes was successful. Mathéy continues a tradition that had been torn off since Rottmann’s Munich frescoes. The views of the present-day Olympia and the Acropolis, the Delphic Stadium, and the theater at Epidauros have the “grand manner” trait essential to decorative painting. At the same time, however, they are painted loosely and lightly, with thin application, with delicate modulations. The technique of breaking the surface into shades and rebuilding it from delicate tones comes from Cézanne. It is treated summarily here. But the colorful atmosphere of the Greek landscape, covered with delicate veils, echoes in us, its grace and Arcadian character.

The impact of Olympic participation: Later success in Greece and Germany.

Although Mathéy strongly resented the banishment of his paintings from the German Museum in the north wing of the Pergamon Museum, he subsequently received great recognition both in Germany and in Greece. Two of his works – “The Acropolis of Athens” and “The Delphic Stadium” – were bought by the Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin in 1936.

At the end of 1936, the German-Greek Society in Athens organized a special exhibition for Mathéy, presenting his works in Greece. It was very well received both by experts and interested laymen and was even visited by King George II. Reviews in German and Greek newspapers testify to his great success. On February, 4 1937, Mathéy was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of St. George: “H.M. King George II of Greece has awarded the German painter Prof. Georg A. Mathéy, artistic collaborator at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Silver Cross of the Order of St. George in recognition of his services to German-Greek cultural cooperation. As is well known, Prof. Mathéy created four large paintings of Greek landscapes for the Olympic exhibition, two of which have since been purchased by the Reich Aviation Ministry.” (Extract from the newspaper Neue Athener Zeitung, February 6, 1937, BLB Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 D 38,32).

Official invitation for the exhibition in Athens from 19 December 1936 to 10 January 1937. Source: BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 D 38.85. Click to enlarge.

Eventually and inevitably Mathéy’s fame reached the leading circles of the Nazi state. In 1942 Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Armament and Ammunition, commissioned Mathéy to produce three more paintings with views of Greece. “I am working for Professor Speer on three large Greek landscapes, which will later be used to decorate public buildings,” wrote Mathéy to archaeologist Peter Goessler on October 19, 1942 (Wuppertal Municipal Archives, Nachlass Wilhelm Dörpfeld, NDS 23 No. 16).

Whether Mathéy carried out this commission is uncertain. In addition, his four paintings for the exhibition “Art of the Hellenes” were most likely destroyed during the bombing of Berlin: “How sad that all your beautiful works in Berlin have been destroyed” wrote Lewald to Mathéy on December 25, 1944 (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 B 545 2). World War II ended the Greek chapter in Mathéy’s life and work. Divorced from Polyxene, he would marry again in 1945 and make a new start in Germany. He continued to visit Greece (and his son Alexander) as his museum pass from 1961 shows. Polyxene Mathéy (a cousin of Greek dancer, Koula Pratsika), an enlightened woman, made a career in Greece both as a music teacher and a choreographer, founding her own dance school and participating with her students in various performances of ancient drama.

Greek museum pass of Georg Alexander Mathéy from 1961. Source: BLB, Georg Alexander Mathéy estate, K 3328 C 44, 17.

Although Georg Alexander Mathéy is nearly forgotten today, he left behind works characteristic of his time, such as his stamp designs in Germany and the mosaic for the German Protestant Church in Athens. These invite reflection and further investigation by modern scholars. The fact that Mathéy and many other European artists, such as the ones mentioned above (Alexander Mohr, Conrad Westpfahl, Herbert List and Hermann Wagner) but also the likes of Piet de Jong and Georg von Peschke, chose to move to Athens in the 1930s, it is indicative of the city’s intellectual life that embraced modernism and avant-garde culture.

REFERENCES

Axtmann A. and A. Stello (eds.) 2017. Sprachbilder – Bildersprache: Die Künstler Helene Marcarover und Georg Alexander Mathéy. Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung in der Badischen Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe vom 12. Juli 2017 bis 30. September 2017, Karlsruhe.

Berger, F. 2018. “Apollon und Zeus in Berlin. Zur Aufstellungsgeschichte der Giebelgruppen vom olympischen Zeustempel,” in: M. Maischberger and B. Feller (eds.), Außenräume in Innenräumen. Die musealen Raumkonzeptionen von Walter Andrae und Theodor Wiegand im Pergamonmuseum, Berlin 2018, 75-102

Blümel, C. 1936. Sport der Hellenen, Berlin

Führer zur Feier der XI. Olympiade Berlin 1936. Herausgegeben vom Organisationskomitee für die XI. Olympiade Berlin 1936, Berlin 1936: digital copy

Hege, W. and G. Rodenwaldt, 1936. Olympia, Berlin.

Lehmann, S. 2003. ” ‘Sport der Hellenen’ – Die Berliner Ausstellung von 1936 und der jüdische Archäologe Alfred Schiff (1863-1939),” in: A. Höfer, M. Lämmer and K. Lennartz (eds.), Olympische Spiele. Olympic Games. Jeux Olympiques, special edition of the journal Stadion: Internationale Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Sports 29, 2003, 199-220.

Moraitou, G. 2020. Othon Rousopoulos and the Early History of Archaeological Conservation in Greece, Athens.

Oppeln-Bronikowski, F. 1935/36. “Die Olympia-Ausstellung ‘Sport der Hellenen’ im Deutschen Museum, Berlin,” in: Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur 51/12, 284-288 : digital copy

Reyle, R. 1933. Der Maler Georg Alexander Mathéy (Athens 1933) : digital copy


The Charioteer of Delphi in the Clutches of WW II

BY ALEXANDRA KANKELEIT

Alexandra Kankeleit, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Roman mosaics, has also been part of an extensive project of the German Archaeological Institute (Athens and Berlin), titled The History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. As part of the project, she has examined a host of bibliographic and archival sources in both countries that document activities of German archaeologists in Greece from 1933 until 1944. Here she contributes an essay about the adventures of the Delphi Charioteer during the German Occupation in Greece.

The Charioteer of Delphi (Ο Ηνίοχος των Δελφών) is one of the best-preserved and most important bronze statues of ancient Greece. Since its discovery in 1896, it has been one of the main attractions of the Archaeological Museum in Delphi. As a symbol of ancient civilization and the eventful history of Greece, it is still a frequently recurring motif in the visual and performing arts (Figs. 1-2).

Fig. 1. Film still from “Ο Ηνίοχος” by Alexis Damianos (1996).
Fig. 2. Scene from a video game about the Oracle of Delphi.

During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the Charioteer was promoted together with the Discobolus of Myron and the Boxer of the Quirinal as the prototype of the Greek athlete in antiquity (see Olympia Zeitung 3, July 23, 1936, p. 46). Thus, his face adorned the covers of catalogs and propaganda material circulated in 1936 on the occasion of the Olympiad (Figs. 3-4).

Figs. 3-4. Publication “Sport der Hellenen” (Sport of the Hellenes) by Carl Blümel with a photograph by Hermann Wagner; and catalogue “Olympische Kunstausstellung Berlin, 15. Juli – 16. August 1936” (Olympic Art Exhibition Berlin, July 15 – August 16, 1936) with a graphic representation of the Charioteer by the Dresden artist, Willi Petzold in: “The XIth Olympic Games Berlin, 1936: Official Report, Vol. II

German scholars also increasingly turned their focus on the Early Classical masterpiece. In his Habilitation “Der Wagenlenker von Delphi” (The Charioteer of Delphi), the archaeologist Roland Hampe (1908-1981) pursued his goal of reducing the many “ambiguities, misunderstandings, differences of opinion” concerning the monumental bronze group. His manuscript was completed in August 1939 and published as a monograph in 1941 (Hampe 1941).

Read the rest of this entry »

The Cretan Idyll of Harriet Boyd and Charles Henry Hawes

BY CURTIS RUNNELS – PRISCILLA MURRAY

Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University and an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology in Greece, and his wife Priscilla Murray, an anthropologist and Classical archaeologist, here contribute to From the Archivist’s Notebook a story about their purchase of a sketchbook from the early 20th century with watercolors depicting places and people on Crete.

We visited an antiquarian bookfair in Concord, New Hampshire, about twelve years ago and a booth belonging to a dealer from Vermont, who specialized in original artwork, caught our eye.  Sorting through piles of miscellaneous materials, we found a few things relating to Greece, and a small (8 by 4 inches; 20 x 10 cm) artist’s sketchbook grabbed our attention.  It was displayed on a table opened to a watercolor view that seemed familiar.  Surely it was the entrance to the harbor at Herakleion on Crete!  And indeed, penciled in one corner was the inscription “Candia,” the older name for the city which both confirmed the identification and provided a clue that the sketchbook, as dealers in antiques like to say, “had some age.”  There were other artworks in the sketchbook that are dated to April 1905, and still others with various dates in 1915, and one dated to 1916.  The artwork from 1905 was the most interesting for us.  Turning the pages of the sketchbook we saw line drawings of dancers at Knossos and a man drawing water from a well in Siteia, pastels of houses labeled Knossos and “Sitia, as well as watercolors and line drawings of Mykonos, Ios, and other Cycladic islands, Sounion, and Athens.  The unknown artist was interested particularly in the new Minoan finds from Knossos as is evident from the line drawings of wall paintings and artifacts in the “Candia Museum.”

Although there is no artist’s signature, we guessed that the artist must be someone interesting, perhaps even someone we would recognize.  After all, how many Americans or British travelers (the fact that the titles are in English is the reason for assuming the nationality of the artist) were sufficiently interested in Knossos and the Minoans to visit Crete in 1905 at a time when there was much unrest on the island?  We bought the sketchbook and took it home to do more research. 

Watercolor of Candia
Read the rest of this entry »