Painting Larissa's New Picture

G. I. Katsigras Museum, the newly opened Larissa's municipal art gallery,
presents the public with a rich collection created by an art-loving surgeon

By Christy Papadopoulou, Athens News

As a child, Larissa-born surgeon Georgios I. Katsigras, then an amateur painter, used to collect stamps, books and photographs. His "collecting disease" stayed with him and as an adult he went on to build up a significant collection of Greek paintings, now displayed at the newly opened Larissa Municipal Art Gallery - G. I. Katsigras Museum.

It was back in 1981 when Katsigras (1914-1998) addressed a letter to Aristidis Lambroulis, Larissa's mayor at the time, offering to donate his precious collection to the city on the sole condition that a municipal gallery be founded. And though a legal entity was set up by 1984 under the supervision of the Larissa City Council, it was to take another 19 years for the building to reach completion. Following a nationwide architectural competition in 1985, studies for the Municipal Gallery's building was finalized in 1989 and the foundation stone, was laid the following year. Construction works which were preceded by a museological study, did not start until 1999 and were completed earlier this year.

Inaugurated by President Costis Stephanopoulos on November 23, the 10,000m2 building meets international standards with regard to the collection's display and storage parameters, lighting, humidity and temperature. Capital expenditure was 5.2 million euros and operating costs are estimated at 600,000 euros per year, according to Constantinos Tzanakoulis, current Larissa mayor and municipal gallery president.

The quality and scale of the endeavour is certainly impressive. The museum's ground floor, where the administration offices are located, houses the reception area, a 250-seat amphitheatre, a workshop, a library and a gift shop. The museum's own preservation and photograph labs are in the basement.

Adhering to the concept of cultural decentralization, the gallery is set to operate as an autonomous institution. There will be future collaborations with other museums in Greece (the National Gallery, Averoff Gallery, Tsarouchis Museum) and abroad. The current display, celebrating the museum's launch and taking up all of its four halls, will be in place for the next six months. After this, two of the halls will be reserved for temporary exhibitions which will involve the removal of about 60 or 70 works. The entire Katsigras Collection will, though, be available for researchers.

A precious collection

One of few individuals to collect art in post-war Greece, Katsigras built up his collection between 1950 and 1965. He couldn't pursue his passion free of practical difficulties. "There were very few exhibitions at that time, with the exception of the Panhellenic art exhibitions, held at Zappeion every two years," Katsigras' daughter and general secretary of the Larissa Municipal Art Gallery Irene G. Katsigras told the Athens News. "Another way of acquiring paintings was through antiquarians, who had rescued them from houses which were being sold or demolished. Later on, he'd visit exhibitions in Athens, Thessaloniki, Volos and Larissa."

Comprising oils, watercolours, etchings and drawings, Katsigras' collection, part of which had previously been exhibited at the Athens Municipal Gallery and the National Gallery, grew to include 781 works. About one-third of them are currently on show, arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way. "We wanted to create a modern art gallery that would have the character of a museum and not a space with paintings lined up, one after the other," said curator Irene Orati.

Of particular interest among the exhibits is Heinrich Schliemann's furniture from the Iliou Melathron Mansion (his residence) that was incorporated into the GI Katsigras Surgical Clinic, from where the Medical School of the University of Thessaly now operates. The heavy curved handles in the shape of owls and a desk and library bookshelves with the motif of a mythical animal - a winged lion with ram's horns - carved at their base.

"The items were sold by Schliemann's heirs to the Athens antiquarian Kyrloglou who sold them to my father in 1955," said Katsigra. "The Palace was also interested in buying them on behalf of Frederiki. My father's initial wish was for the furnishings to be donated should there be a Schliemann Museum at the Iliou Melathron. In his will he bequeathed them to Larissa's Municipal Gallery, along with 1,170 art books." He also left 4,500 books to a future Larissa Municipal Library. This has not yet been built.

The paintings

Also in the first exhibition hall is a selection of 19th-century paintings, both portraits and landscapes. One prominent oil on canvas is the portrait of Constantinos M. Melas as a child by Nikiforos Lytras.

The other three halls display works from the 20th century. Most conspicuous are mountain and valley landscapes, painted between 1920 and 1960, which effectively document the development of Greek landscape painting during that period. They also point to the collector's own bent. Other recurrent subjects are urban and rural scenes, still lifes and portraits.

Nikos Nikolaou captures the Attica countryside and a plane tree in Kifissia. Alexis Barkoff paints the Anafiotika district and the Monument of Lysicrates in Plaka. Larissa's outskirts and Thessaly's views take center stage in Dimitris Yoldassis' paintings. Thessalian painter Agenor Asteriadis is drawn by the blossoming fields of 60s Patissia and Chios' olive trees.

Apart from still lifes, Theophratos Triantafyllidis comes up with an urban commentary, while Apostolos Geralis' painting of a baking scene and Vassilis Germenis' portrait of a woman carrying a barrel offer glimpses of agricultural life.

Other works include an early oil on canvas nude by Yannis Moralis, two female portraits by Dimitris Galanis, Constantinos Parthenis' religiously-inspired works The Adoration of the Magi and Deposition, as well as Yannis Psychopedis' politically-coloured etchings of a demonstration and a partisan. One of Katsigras' favourite painters, Constantinos Maleas, has a sub-section to himself with 14 paintings covering the Acropolis, Sparta and Delphi as well as Santorini, Mytilene and Egypt.

The city of Larissa is captured in both Yoldassis' oil on canvas Bridge over the Pinios River and Asteriadis' The City, a 1969 egg tempera on board depicting Larissa's river, train station, houses and horses. Horses were the city's emblem often pictured on 4th century BC silver coins.

But Katsigras' interest went beyond those artists devoted to the search for 'Greekness' during the interwar years. His collection includes a watercolour of Paris houses by Yiorgos Bouzianis as well as the river Seine's barges as seen by Giorgos Gounaropoulos. The Thracian artist is represented by another four works from his Paris period (1919-1924), charcoal and pencil nudes, a painting of girls embroidering and a self-portrait dating back to 1913, just after he graduated from the School of Fine Arts and enlisted to fight in the Second Balkan War. One of Katsigras' favourite works, Gounaropoulos' self-portrait, was hung behind his desk and never moved.

The collection will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue to come out in the summer of 2004. The municipal gallery library and a workshop of fine and applied arts (mosaic, ceramics, religious painting) are set to be fully operational by then.

The Larissa Municipal Art Gallery GI Katsigras Museum is situated at 2 Georgiou Papendreou St in Neapoli, Larissa, tel 2410-61204-5. Admission is 3 euros. Open: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 10am-2pm and 6-9pm, Thursday 1-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-2pm. Monday closed.

(Posted originally February 2005; reformatted February 2007)

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