Thalia Flora-Karavia

Thalia Flora-Karavia



Half a century after the birth of the first Greek painter with academic studies, Eleni Altamoura (1821-1900), mother of the sea painter Ioannis Altamoura (1852-1878), a first wave of influential Greek painters appeared, such as Kleoniki Asprioti (1870-1938), Maria Iglesi (1882-1942), Thalia Diplarakou (1895-1985), and the more widely known Sofia Laskaridou (1876-1965).Among these pioneer painters for women’s emancipation, Thalia Flora-Karavia, born in the mountains of Siatista (1871-17/1/1960), the daughter of a priest, stands out for the richness and quality of her work. From the age of 3, she will grow up in Kantikioi (ancient Chalcedon) of Constantinople, a coastal area with intense picturesqueness, which she nostalgically captured in her works.During her school years, she studied as a scholar from the age of 12 at Zappeion girls’ school (graduated in 1888). As she will declare: “I was Zappis (…) 14 years old, I copied a work from a postcard. The unforgettable teacher of the Zappeio School, Kalliopi Kehagia, saw it and said, “This little one has talent. She must study.” The idea of ​​studying painting became my passion (from her interview with Nest. P. Matsa, eff. Ethnikos  Kyrykas, 22/6/1951). Kalliopi Kehagia was one of the pioneers  of the Greek movement for women’s emancipation, together with her brother who was a doctor. They were the two persons who made a decisive contribution to her decision, revolutionary for the time, to study painting (see Vas. Iliadis, ” Thalia Flora-Karavia” To Vima, 25/7/1954). Her mother – like Eleni Altamoura’s mother – was a “housewife” and “from the beginning opposed to her daughter’s radical choices” (Despina M. Tsourgianni, Thalia Flora Karavia, Athens 2005, p. 41). Her testimony, already from that period, highlights the romantic tendency of her character, which motivated her painting classes: “I made imitations of romantic landscapes and sometimes copies of lithographed school models. This fluency in drawing gave me the title “the Zappeian painter” from my classmates (Despina Tsourgianni)  “When life and art become one:  the case of the painter Thalia Flora-Karavia”, in Thalia Flora-Karavia – drawings by the front of Epirus [1913], edited by Eleni Margari, Ioannina 2013, p. 10). In 1895 she will manage to go to study painting in Munich, having worked in the meantime as a teacher, as the scholarship offered by Constantinos Zappa to a graduate of the Girls’ School seems to have been insufficient, and only after the death of her father and the resignation of her brother from his own artistic ambitions – as he was studying painting in Athens and then left his studies to work in Istanbul – and with his absolute support she managed to fulfill her dream. She will remain in Munich for three consecutive years and will initially study successively next to Nikolaos Vokos (1854-1902), Paul Nauen (1859-1932) and Anton Azbè (1859-1905), with the latter’s bossy way of teaching not fitting to her mentality. This led her to continue her studies alongside Georgios Iakovidis (1853-1932), with the opening of his famous School in Munich at the beginning of 1897.At the same time, she regularly visits the atelier of Nikolas Gyzis (1842-1900), for whom she will emphasize that he “opened bright paths of life and art” to her. Her course will be interrupted, as she will return to Constantinople and then take part in the “Third Art Exhibition” of Athens in 1899, whose main organizers were Viktoras Dousmanis and Theodoros Vellianitis, where she will also have her first contact with Acropolis, about which she will exclaim with emotion: “For the first time I saw so much light and light that penetrated the depths of my soul. And there, in a profound depth, all ethereal, adorned with gold, stand pillars—what divine hands have sculpted her so? And which celestial storms have inflicted upon her these wounds that now shimmer with gold and endow her with such vibrant enchantment? Acropolis, Parthenon, this is the sanctuary of prayer. Finally, she will manage to return to Munich for one year, 1899-1900, to find again her two most important Greek teachers Gyzi and Iakovidis, while her last lessons will be taken in Paris, where she travels in 1903 and attends for one year the free Academy of Grande Chaumière. It is also mentioned her long stay in Frankfurt (see Vas. Iliadis, ibid.)  Special part in Flora-Karavia’s life and work was her marriage in 1907 in Cairo with Nikolaos Karavia. After her death, Elisavet Psara will emphasize (post of Alexandria, 22/1/1960) that “she chose as her life partner the distinguished journalist and scholar Nikolaos Karavia, a worthy man of her in every way. The two of them were one of the most well-matched couples in the world (…) After his death, life had no meaning for Thalia on this earth.” When in 1907 Flora-Karavia exhibited her works with great success at the Continental Hotel in Cairo, Karavias, then editor of the newspaper Kairon, would aptly note (see D. Tsourgiani, Thalia Flora Karavia, p. 66) – an example of the intellectual communication that developed between them from the beginning – for her work: ” What principally captivates in her compositions is the ‘true truth”. No contracts, freedom of solid talent, dealing with the natural and extraordinary performances in part and in whole”. Through the mediation of her husband, who at the time published a newspaper in Alexandria called Ephemeris, the painter will succeed in daring something that must surely be counted among the most courageous acts in the history of art and not only up to that time for her gender, as she asked for permission to report for her husband’s newspaper from the front lines in order to simultaneously paint what she saw – judging by the abundance of works (over two hundred, many of which she donated to those who represented ) the request to report was rather a pretext for disrobing in a pictorial-pictorial document of the war (see Ifigenia Vogiatzi, “The life and work of Thalia Flora-Karavia”, in Macedonia-Epirus 1912-1913. Impressions from the war. Drawings of Thalia Flora-Karabia from the Collection of the National Historical Museum, edited by Dimitra Koukiou – Ifigenia Vogiatzi, Athens 2012). She is ranked with this participation, together with Georgios Roilos (1867-1928), Nikolaos Ferekidis (1862-1929) and the sea painter Vasilios Hatzis (1870-1915), who also immortalized scenes from the Balkan wars – first Roilos starting as early as the Unfortunate War of 1897– in the pioneering figures in war painting. She will exhibit her works at the Highschool of Greek Girls in 1913. As she will write, in a simple and romantic way in her foreword from her book (Impressions from the War of 1912-1913 – Macedonia – Epirus, Athens 1936, from the prologue) about that adventure: “something shocking gave me the urge to go and see this liberating struggle up close (…) I set off for Thessaloniki”.  The description of writer Kostas Ouranis about her unexpected appearance there is equally representative: “The sadness dragged me to the operating rooms, where one felt a mirror of the war and it was in one of them where I first saw Mrs. Flora-Karavia standing and indifferent to everyone taking sketches of the scenes of the surgery in front of the surprised eyes of the wounded and all of us who were expecting everything else, in Emin Aga, but a woman” (see Maria Sklavou-Mavroidis, “Thalia Flora-Karavia [1871-1960]”, in Greek painters from the 19th century to the 20th, vol. 1, Athens 1975, p. 409). The painter could be said to have a consciously romantic attitude towards what she saw, as with the idea of ​​a powerful Greece rightfully liberating the Greek lands strongly cultivated in her mind, she could not accept the image of the young people who were losing their lives. This, in fact, is the sincere feeling she expresses for both sides of the war, often referring to the hardships of the prisoners, but also to the chivalrous attitude of the “euzones”, showing at the same time the sequence that her written impressions have with her pictorial creation, transferring to her time the model of Choiseul-Gouffier (1752-1817), with his book Pictorial Journey of Greece which essentially illustrates his impressions of Greece 130 years ago, in an original free transcription for modern Greek painting. From July to October 1921, she will follow the Medical Corps of the army in Smyrna, Bursa and Moudania, organizing an exhibition at the Greek High School. In 1940, also, now reaching 70 years, she will return to Athens and record scenes from the past. Her exhibitions are numerous and in various countries, such as in New York (“ArtStudioBuilding”, 1924), in Istanbul (1899, 1909) in Alexandria (Savoy Hotel, 1911; Concert Hall Casino “SanStefano”, 1916; “Garden Hall of Rosettas”, 1918) and in Cairo (1907, 1916, “Greek Center of Cairo” 1940), in Paris (DurantRuel, 1925; 1928) in Thessaloniki (1950, 1980), and many times in her atelier at 139 of 3rd September Street in Athens near Agios Panteleimonas, but also in Alexandria, where she had opened her own School for women painters, with among others Jenny Argyrou-Liber (Lymberopoulou) (1902-1975) as her student. Among her group exhibitions, the exhibition she organized with Laskaridou in 1906 at the Philological Association “Parnassos” stands out, while she also participated in the Venice Biennale in 1934, the International Exhibitions of Rome in 1903 and Cairo in 1909, in the exhibition of “Omas of 17” in Zappeion in 1951, as well as in many important group exhibitions in Munich (1899, 1905), Smyrna (Panionios Association 1902), Belgrade (1954), Boston, etc. A large collection of her works can be found in the War Museum of Athens, as well as in the National Gallery, in the National Historical Museum, in the Municipal Gallery of Ioannina, in the Collection of the 3rd Army Corps in Thessaloniki, while her works adorn the Town Hall of Ioannina and were purchased by Benaki, from the Egyptian Ministry of Education, from the Egyptian Museum, as well as from the Embassy of Cyprus in Egypt. She had been awarded the Golden Cross of Brigadier Generals and in 1945 the Academy awarded her the silver medal. While in Athens, she participated in almost all of the women’s group exhibitions, while she was known for her kindness and her love of music.

Her work is characterized by multidimensionality and color dynamics, based on solid and painterly design, succeeding in this way in integrating two main virtues of her two great teachers, the color harmony and transparency of Iakovidis and the design freedom and painting imagination of Gyzis, combining them with the most free color teachings of Paris and the studies of atmospheric lighting of the countryside painters. Sp. Panagiotopoulos (Ethnos, 9/3/1955) will underline that it is “one of the few examples of Greek impressionist style”, and Eleni Vakalos will admire (Ta Nea, 9/5/1956) how: “she perceives, every moment, in painting, and renders it with a richness of color and a comprehensive design precision, which we rarely find in our other painters”. The painter Meropi Preka observes that her work is expressionism and impressionism together, as she renders the movement and the melody of the movements, but also the play of light. Gyzis had early recognized her inclination towards portraiture and indeed painted hundreds of portraits in her creative career. As she states: “I had the pleasure of painting almost all the writers and scholars of the past generation Xenopoulos, Nirvana, Palamas, Kokkinos, and even the unapproachable Kavafis, and many of the younger ones. The approach of our spiritual people was a special joy for me…” Gerasimos Vokos observes that “her portraits are dominated by a calm mood free from the disturbances of internal struggle”. At the time of creation, however, she worked with a romantic pulse, as testified by Maria Doxiadis, who had posed for her (see the documentary “Nostos” by SandrineDumas, 2016): “I remember waiting to hear the sound of the brush. She worked fast, she was quite nervous. She was tired at the end of every session.” Gina Politi who posed for the work of Sibylla (Girl who reads) which is in the E.P.M.A.S. will also emphasize in the same documentary the painter’s close relationship with her models and her characteristic look: “as if she could fit the whole world inside (…) relationship with the image, with these performances, the communication that the her eyes had with the world, was a rare thing”. Her artistic education knew no bounds, yet she never strayed from the truth as dictated by nature. Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989) who was close to her will underline (“Memories from ThaliaFlora-Karavia”, in Greek painters from the 19th century to the 20th, p. 417) that “she stood out, while on the outside it looked like the painting that everybody does. She had a deep respect for Van Gogh and spoke of him as one would speak of a contemporary person.” He  also emphasizes her independence and the self-taught dimension of her painting, as it should be noted that Flora-Karavia did not actually complete studies in any academic school and what characterized her was a traveling mood, satisfying her desire to come to contact with different schools of painting, and an autogenous development. Tsarouchis locates (see p. 417) in fact her charismatic element there,  “with all the respect I have for her”, as he emphasizes  he ranks her among the self-taught methods of her art ” who without technique find everything on their own (…) Naked and defenseless, emotional and free people, who spin the truth. Karavia like many others of the early 20th century was of this same race”. In fact, she also had a talent in writing and for a period maintained a column where she described her travel experiences, as Maria Sklavou-Mavroidis (p. 406) underlines: “In a series of impressions from her travels in Europe and America under the title Traveling gives beautiful descriptions full of romance, stopping at everyday details, which makes use of them. A large part of these impressions was published in the Journal. After all, she had also published her travel stories in 1934 under the title “A few days in Palestine”. In landscape painting, Flora-Karavia deposited an even greater dose of her painting talent than in the rather limited for her field of marine painting. As Athena Tarsouli points out (“The exhibition of Mrs. Thalia Flora – Karavia”, Ellinis, December 1934, p. 252-253): “she is the painter who vibrates directly from the form of the object and sees it with a clear eye and soul. She gazes upon nature with the healthiest of mental and emotional understanding (…) without the interference of “intellectuality”. Similarly, I. M. Panagiotopoulos (post Morning, 27/10/1934) will note that “the artist stands opposite man and nature with a warm heart”. With her ability to identify with her surroundings, she can and does render the space as she feels it at that moment. Besides, her amazing view of nature is combined with a peculiar pantheism of the German landscape painters, since as she emphasizes (see Yannis Voutsinas, 56 Greek painters- They talk about their art, Athens 2000, p. 162) in her interview: God is everywhere. Everything has its own charm, as long as you can distinguish it. And that’s why you only need to “have your thoughts pure, your heart uncontaminated by humble feelings”.  In her work as a war painter she is distinguished by her ability to render each character of the persons she meets in that special way that places each one in the wider setting of the war as an integral part of its history. One could say that it is almost as she directs a film and she certainly frames with photographic viruosity the faces that she captures with her art, as well as, as art critic and amateur photographer Pavlos Nirvanas points out (“Lady Flora’s war”, Estia, 4/27/13 ), about how she succeeds in conveying with her designs the deepest essence of the war that exudes in that work of hers: “She chases the light, until she stops it in its fatal passage over a landscape and she chases the expression in the same way on the mental landscape the richest of the landscapes of the world, which is the appearance  of man”.  Τhe techno-historian Angelos Prokopiou (History of Art 1750-1950 Romanticism-Realism-Impressionism, vol. 2, Athens 1969, p. 374): “Karavia experienced the events of the Balkan wars with the spontaneity of a reporter, who describes what she sees and retains the warmth and liveliness of natural truth from her contact with reality. This is why her painting has the thrill of contact with living things.” In a similar way the painter also illustrated the Asia Minor Campaign.

Anestis Melidonis
Art Historian
Scientific Associate of the Hellenic Diaspora Foundation