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.
Posted by Maria Georgopoulou
Inspired by the recent inauguration of the new Makriyannis Wing, Maria Georgopoulou, Director of the Gennadius Library, here contributes an essay about the festivities that took place during the dedication of the Library in April 1926.
On June 2, 2018 the American School inaugurated the new Makriyannis Wing of the Gennadius Library. During the preparations for the opening, I was tempted to look back at the festivities for the inauguration of the Gennadius Library itself in 1926. As with other momentous moments in his life, John Gennadius was keen to keep in his scrapbooks as much information as possible about the events (Opening Exercises of the Gennadius Library, preserved in Scrapbook Φ38, p. 36).
The dedication ceremony of the Gennadeion took place on April 23, 1926 at 4.30 pm, after extensive preparations in America and Athens. The letters exchanged between John Gennadius and Bert Hodge Hill, Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), in November and December 1925 deal not only with significant matters, such as guest lists, but also with smaller details like the duration of the blessing (αγιασμός). Read the rest of this entry »
On Saturday December 27, 1902, a well-publicized wedding took place in London. John Gennadius, former ambassador of Greece to England and a great book-collector, age 58, and Florence Laing, the youngest daughter of Samuel Laing and the widow of painter Edward Sherard Kennedy, age 47, were married in a double ceremony, first at the Greek Orthodox church of St. Sophia and later that day at the Anglican church of St. Peter’s at Cranley Gardens. There are no photos capturing the ceremony or the reception that followed, but Gennadius, the creator of more than seventy scrapbooks, did keep numerous newspaper clippings announcing this celebrated marriage. More than a few of them mention that the bride had an annual income of roughly 8,000 pounds, leading some to hint that it may have been a marriage of convenience. Time proved that their union was a harmonious one; it lasted 30 years until his death in 1932. She outlived him by another twenty years. The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was the offspring of their union. The deed of gift was signed in 1922 and the building was completed in 1926.
The best source for John Gennadius’s life is a small, but thorough, booklet, Joannes Gennadios, the Man: A Biographical Sketch (1990), by Donald M. Nicol, director of the Gennadius Library (1989-1992). In it, there is very little information about the circumstances of how Gennadius met Florence Laing Kennedy. Nicol suspects that they were introduced by “Prince Alexis Dolgoruki, an acquaintance of Gennadios, [who] had married an English lady, Miss Fleetwood Wilson, who was an old friend of Florence.” In an endnote, Nicol mentions that Florence was an artist in her own right, having exhibited her “genre paintings” in the Royal Academy and other London galleries between 1880 and 1893. Read the rest of this entry »
“The decision made at the last Board of Trustees meeting… was to appoint a committee… to make an immediate study and prompt report on the Admiral’s House which as you know the School for some time has had the opportunity to buy. Will you, as Chairman of the Committee of the Admiral’s House, be good enough to write immediately to Henry Robinson, asking him to request [of] Mr. Kyriakides that he make a careful report as to the desirability of the house, the possibility of obtaining it and an appraisal not only of the price which the School should be willing to pay for it, but also his estimate of the price the owners would accept, the best terms available, the cost of maintenance, the cost of repairs or changes the School would need to make, the use to be made of it by the School, the income which the School would expect to receive from it, and the estimated cost of taxes or any other expenses which would be involved by the School in the advent of its purchase” wrote on December 7, 1964, Ward Canaday, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) to Charles Morgan, Trustee of the School and one of its former directors (1936-1938), and chair of the Managing Committee (1950-1960). Read the rest of this entry »
“A Greek Author Travels to the Country of the New Myth”: The Voyage of Elias Venezis to America in 1949Posted: April 1, 2014
This essay comprises the text of a talk that I presented in the Cotsen Hall auditorium of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), April 9, 2013, at an evening devoted to novelist Elias Venezis, whose papers reside in the ASCSA Archives. The text was also published (in Greek ) in the “Athens Book Review,” in an issue dedicated to Venezis. Since my essay discusses two of Greece’s most important novelists’ impressions from their journeys to America, I thought that it also deserved to be published in English and be made available to an American audience (here, I must thank my friend and former colleague Stefanie Kennell for her wonderful translation). For half of my life I have studied and worked in a Greek-American environment; there interest lies in examining how foreigners (usually described as philhellenes) perceive(d) Greece, and it is rarely discussed, at least in the broader community of the American School, how Greeks experienced America at critical times, such as in the first decade following WW II. The two authors, Elias Venezis and Yiorgos Theotokas, traveled in America during the period of the Marshall plan and the beginning of the Cold War, just before strong anti-Americanism began developing in Greece. For both, the voyage to America was a journey to a mythical land — as implied by the title of this essay, which is drawn from the title of a talk (“Ένας Έλλην συγγραφεύς στη χώρα του νέου μύθου”) that Venezis delivered at the Greek American Cultural Institution in 1950, immediately after his return from America.
For those who are not familiar with Modern Greek Literature, I should also add a few remarks about the so-called literary “Generation of the Thirties.” As commonly employed, this term describes a group (all male) of novelists, poets, and artists, who came of age in the 1930s. These men continued to be very productive and influential in the following three decades, to the point that a myth with regenerative power was built around them, one that still aspires and inspires (Leontis 2013). Nobel-prize laureate poets Yiorgos Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, novelists Angelos Terzakis, Stratis Myrivilis, Elias Venezis and Yiorgos Theotokas, are some of the most accomplished and distinguished “members” of the “Generation of the Thirties.” The personal papers of most of them have been deposited at the American School of Classical Studies.
In 2009, at an event devoted to Yiorgos Theotokas and the republication of his Essay on America, I was introduced to Greek travel literature about America. Theotokas was among the first writers of the so-called “Generation of the Thirties” who visited America a few years after the end of World War II. While taking receipt of Elias Venezis’s personal papers in 2010, I came upon the manuscript of Land of America and then, in discussions with the author’s daughter, Anna Venezi Kosmetatou, I was made aware of the fact that Venezis was actually the first of the famous “Generation of the Thirties” to travel to the U.S., in 1949.
Except for Theotokas’ Essay on America (Δοκίμιο για την Αμερική), which had the good fortune to be re-published a few years ago, travel writing of this type is difficult or impossible to find on the shelves of Athenian bookstores. When I looked for Land of America at a well-known bookstore in downtown Athens, clerks told me that it was the first time they had heard that Venezis had written a book of this sort. Perhaps this is because, in the age of globalization, trips to America have lost some of the magic and myth that used to surround them. Already in the 1970s, as Vassilis Lambropoulos writes, “with the spread of cinema and even more the advent of television in Greece, travel writing is losing its primary function and sparkle. The public does not need the guidance of an eyewitness to get to know foreign countries.”
Unlike the other writers and intellectuals who visited the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, Venezis began his long journey without the support of the American government. The famous program of cultural exchanges sponsored by the the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, popularly known as the Smith-Mundt Act, does not seem to have been implemented immediately in Greece. What is certain is that Elias Venezis and his wife either did not know about or did not expect American government support when they decided in the summer of 1949 to cross the Atlantic. On the opposite shore was Venezis’s brother, Thanos Mellos and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Eleni Nikolaidi, who had settled there just a year before.
Thanos Mellos wrote to his brother Elias and his wife on May 6, 1949, from New York: “I’ve told Elias that a place has been confirmed for his trip to America on a merchant ship that sails from a port in France. Perhaps there’s a way he can embark even from Greece. The trip won’t cost a cent. The steamship owner’s a friend of ours, and he’s offering it to us for free. You only have to get your papers ready, Elias, and send me a telegram.” Read the rest of this entry »