Nikos Hatzikyriakos - Ghikas ΝΙΚΟΣ ΧΑΤΖΙΚΥΡΙΑΚΟΣ - ΓΚΙΚΑΣ
Born 1906 Died 1994
“Ghika’s canvases are as fresh and clean, as pure and naked of all pretense, as the sea and light which bathes the dazzling islands. Ghika is a seeker after light and truth…It was Ghika’s painting which roused me from my bedazzled stupor.” Henry Miller
Athens Houses 1927-8
Paris Roofs 1952
View from Number 3 Kriezotou Street 1983
Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas’ life and contribution defy a short narration. He was a giant. His long and distinguished international career included group and solo exhibitions in Paris, London, and America. Recognized in the 30s as one of Greece’s most important new painters, he remained a vital force until his death in 1994. Close friendships with fellow artists like John Caxton and Ioannis Tsarouchis, with architects like Demitris Pikionis and Le Corbusier, and with literary giants like Henry Miller, George Seferis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Lawrence Durrell have become an inextricable part of his legend partly because his literary friends immortalized their encounters in memorable prose. (1)
Along with Theophilos, Fotis Kontoglou, and Ioannis Tsarouchis, Ghikas defined the art of a generation. Clarity of style, geometric designs, brilliant use of light and dark along with meticulous draftsmanship characterized his work and brought what his friend John Caxton called a ‘revitalized’ cubism to the Greek art scene, an approach which freed a generation of Greek painters from the restrictions of representative art. Ghikas was talented in so many media: painting, sculpting, book illustration, design (theatre sets and costumes) and more. And although greatly influenced by European trends, he could nonetheless argue that, in his work, he was, in fact, bringing the style ‘home’ because so many techniques considered new and avant garde in Paris, were already present in the Greek cultural continuum.
‘Ελληνικότητα’ or The ‘Greekness’ of Things
For Xatzikyriakos-Ghikas the underlying Greek character and shape of western art and architecture was self-evident. He saw Greek inspiration as the basis of all European art forms. Cubism was no exception. Its reversed perspective, lack of a horizon line, emotive use of colour, and highly symbolic representations were already present in Greek iconography, just waiting to be rediscovered and tapped.
Ghikas was born in Athens into a wealthy Family. His father, Alexandros Hatzikyriakos hailed from the Aegean island of Psara. His mother was a Ghikas from the well known Ghikas family of Hydra.
His talent was recognized early and his father saw to it that he had excellent tutors, including Constantinos Parthenis. In 1923 he arrived in Paris to study French literature and aesthetics at the Sorbonne. At the same time he studied at the Academie Ranson and at the engraving studio of Demetris Galinis. At the young age of 17, he had already participated in a group show at the Salon des Indépendants and by 1927 he had his first one man show at the Gallerie Percier in Paris.
Ghikas claimed that his real artistic awakening occurred when he saw the work of Matisse: At first I was influenced by the Renaissance. I attribute my baptism into modern art to Henri Matisse’s “Tea” (1)
In 1928 he had his first show in Athens along with sculptor Michalis Tombros at the Stratigopoulou Gallery. A stint in the army followed and then marriage to the poetess and sculptress Antigone ‘Tiggiei’ Kotzias in 1929. The marriage displeased his father. Nonetheless, they immediately embarked for Paris where they were surrounded by like minded artists whose lifestyle and ideas were in tune with their own. Antigone, or Tiggie, as she was known, had her own artistic connections within the Paris art scene; her encouragement was a great help to her husband’s development.
Ghikas had a wide circle of friends all during his life, friends whom he influenced and who, in turn, were influenced by him. He met Le Cobusier in 1933 on a boat to Piraeus. At the time, Le Cobusier was in the process of writing an architectural manifesto concerning how cities should be built which he would later publish as “The Athens Charter”. With a nudge from Ghikas, he gave two lectures at the Athens Polytechnical School. Le Corbusier’s style was influenced by the pristine white geometrical buildings he encountered on the Greek islands. He would take these designs a step farther thanks to reinforced concrete but their Greek roots are still unmistakable.
Ghikas and The Third Eye
With Stratis Doukas, Ghikas edited an art magazine called The Third Eye from 1935 -37. The aim was to promote and develop new ways of perceiving art. Its contributors would all became famous: DemitrisPikionis (architect) , Spyros Papaloukas (painter) , Socrates Karantinos (stage designer) , Takis Papatsonis (poetry), Michalis Tombros (sculpture) and Angelos Theodoropoulos (engraving).
Demitris Pikionis and Ghikas became close friends. In his autobiography Pikionis would say of the periodical: What seminal lessons came from that clash of spiritual natures that each one represents! Frankly, I do not know what I offered to them, but I am conscious of what I owe to each of them. (2)
In 1942, Ghikas became a professor of drawing at Athens’ National Metsovian Technical University, a post he would hold until 1958. Together with Pikionis, he even designed the symbol of the school.
Ghikas and Hydra
The 18th century Ghikas mansion on Hydra
All of Ghikas’ homes were important to him and his work but the 40 room house on Hydra was close to his heart because of the holidays he had spent there as a child. Its imposing bulk towered over the village of Kamini and the sea. He hosted his many friends there. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote most of Mani there and later referred to the house as “a perfect prose-factory”.
Ghikas’ 1955 version of his Hydra house
A Sea Change
In 1958 Ghikas met Barbara Hutchinson Warner (then married to the classicist Rex Warner) and ended his 30 year marriage to Antigone to marry her. They had met in the United States and subsequently travelled together to India, Tibet, Japan, and Hawaii. Antigone retained an apartment in the Ghikas home in Athens and they apparently remained friends. What ripples and/or waves were created by the ending a 30 year relationship and the beginning of a new one were not subjects that his literary friends chose to tackle publicly.
Nikos, Barbara, John Caxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Joan in Hydra, 1958
Life on Hydra carried on as before until 1961 when one night the house burned to the ground (3). Ghikas never returned.
The sixties were productive years.
Το 1963-5: Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghikas converses with the poetry of C.P. Cavafy
1964: ‘The Cursed Serpent’ of Manos Hatzidakis with sets and costumes by Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas.
In 1969, the couple bought a new property on Corfu in the neighbourhood of Karasia. Its renovation and gardens became a lifelong project, as his painting continued…
'Ο Απολλώνιος', a work from the Corfu period
Number 3 Kriezotou Street
In Athens, Ghikas lived and worked in the five storey building on Kriezotou Street that his father had built in 1932. It was designed by the architect Constantinos Kitsikis. Luckily for us, he donated the house and its contents to the Benaki Museum. It is now called The House and Museum of Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas and is close to Syntagma Square. It is not always open because of the economic crisis that has changed so much in Greece recently, including the opening hours of museums. Call first (Tel: 21 0361 5702, but do visit if you can because seeing so much of his work ( and there is a lot of it) in situ is an experience well worth having.
His bronze bust at the entrance to 3 Kriezotou Street is by Tinian Praxitelis Tsanoulinos
His Grave in the First Cemetery
Section One, Number 403
His monument is a tad disappointing. It is a family grave, of course, with a bust of his father at the pinnacle and pretty standardized symbols on the stele. Nikos’ name is under the lit lamp. I had secretly hoped for something Picassian, a bold geometrical design, or even a contemporary relief like Tsarouchis’ on the grave of Odysseus Elytis…
(1) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2n4FjXaYH0- You tube has a great nine minute video called Who were Ghikas, Craxton and Leigh Fermor?
(2) Αυτοβιογραφικά σημειώματα, Κείμενα ΜΙΕΤ από (Γράμματα Δημήτρη Πικιώνη Ν. Χατζηκυριάκου- Γκίκα, εκδ. Ίκαρος, σελ. 77).
(3) Perhaps to make up for the loss of their famous artist, Hydriotes offer various lurid accounts of the’ fall’ of the house of Ghikas (still an imposing ruin). One suggests that Antigone’s housekeeper was less than pleased by the new arrangement and lit the fatal match. Another involves ‘the curse’ of Leonard Cohen, then an unknown poet living in Hydra. His efforts to meet Ghikas were spurned (true) by the great man – and hence the curse and a fire! The truth may be less spectacular – a careless caretaker. One thing is certain: a fire on a hillside on waterless Hydra would almost certainly ensure total destruction.
The Miller quote at the beginning is found in http://www.alisonlesliegold.com/?p=989 as well as the Cohen ‘myth’.