The Art Collections in Vareiá

Beside the pyrgos in Vareia, a turning leads in towards the Theophilos and Teriade Museums. The largest collection (86 pictures) of Greece’s most endearing and prolific folk artist are displayed in the four rooms of the *Theophilos Museum (open daily 10–4: in summer twice daily 9–2.30, 5–8; closed Mon). The building is a small low stone cottage built in 1964, perhaps in imitation of Theophilos’s house in Mytilene (see p. 44-45). The works exhibited are mostly the product of his last years; topographical views, battle scenes, tableaux of Greek traditional life, mythological scenes, and (rarer) religious images—such as the seated woman with an infant, suggesting a Madonna & Child. All have charm and humour, and yet are painted without a deliberate desire to be humorous. Alongside them is displayed a selection of writings about the artist by Le Corbusier, Teriade (his most important patron), the poet Odysseas Elytis, and others. The predominately pastel tones used throughout give the whole of his oeuvre an unexpected unity. Most of the pictures are painted in a kind of improvised gouache on a rough-weave linen or calico support. Theophilos liked to use hard brushes and he bound his mineral pigments with linseed oil or milk, thickened sometimes with the powder of ground tiles or by the admixture of soaked pomegranate leaves. Every thing about the person, his method and his production, is highly idiosyncratic.

Considered slightly wayward by most of his con temporaries, Theophilos was a solitary, short, frail man who spoke with a stutter, suffered from alopecia and took a constant—almost obsessive—pleasure in dressing up as a warrior from the Greek War of In dependence. On other occasions he would dress as Alexander the Great. A part of his personality never grew up; this was a limitation, but it also constituted his greatest appeal as an artist. He was a gifted illustrator even though his skills of draughtsmanship and sense of spatial composition were considerably challenged. Theophilos always had trouble with fore shortening, especially with bent legs—as for example in his Dionysos, who sits improbably athwart a wine barrel. He was not a self-consciously naif painter like some of his European contemporaries; he was simply a talented painter in whom passion substituted for training. This led him sometimes to work for no recompense; often he would decorate a taverna wall, a door or a table-top simply in exchange for a meal. For much of his life he led a peripatetic existence, sometimes working as janitor, sometimes as a shepherd, mostly in the Mount Pelion area of Thessaly, al though he both grew up and spent the last seven years of life in his birthplace, Mytilene. His tiny house can be seen at no. 27 Dilou Street, just below the church and cemetery of Aghios Panteleimon. (The house is reached by taking Vournazon Street to Alisidas Square, and following Aghios Panteleimon St steeply uphill to the left (southwest). The second to last street on the left before the church of Aghios Panteleimon, is Dilou Street; Theophilos’s house is on the right at no. 27. The cemetery of the church itself contains many fine monuments to the citizens of Mytilene.)
Theophilos’s paintings are like tapestries; they in habit the same imaginative world. He favours tapestry-like subjects—pastoral scenes (Harvests near Molyvos and Mytilene), battle pageants (Constantine Palaeologus in 1453), figure groups (The Revels of Eudoxia), and mythical figures (Erotokritos and Aretousa)—all seen against an un-receding back ground, woven with curious details, plants and ani mals. Reproductions, especially postcard-size images, do his works no favours; one of the revelations of this tiny museum in Vareia is that the pieces are large, clear, and beautifully coloured. This enhances their immediacy and emphasises the effect of their pure colours.
   Theophilos is a brilliant visual narrator—selective, clear, and with a knack for creating memorable compositional tableaux of figures. The dreamy innocence of the man himself comes over clearly in his works, and many of those qualities that unite the naturally fissiparous Greeks—an often unrealistic patriotism, a love of holding forth with poetically-told heroic tales (where men often behave as gods and gods as men), and a love of spectacle—are to be found at the heart of Theophilos’s artistic personality. Perhaps it is because of this that he has had such instant and wide appeal in Greece.

This entire collection was assembled and donated to the city in 1964 by a distinguished art critic, patron and publisher from Mytilene, Stratis Eleftheriades (1897–1983), who guaranteed Theophilos’s fame and the financial security of his last years on Lesbos through his personal generosity and perspicacity as a collector. He left his native island in 1915 to study law in Paris. As he began to be known and to work in the city’s vibrant art world, he adopted the simpler literary name, ‘Teriade’. It is to this remarkable figure that the second museum here (at the end of the driveway) is dedicated.
   The Teriade Collection (open daily 9–4: in summer twice daily 9–2, 5–8; closed Mon. Note the building will be closed for repairs and extension throughout 2012, and may be 2013. For information, telephone 22510 23372 ) is a concentrated display, in 16 rooms of drawings, lithographs, etchings, aquatints and woodcuts—amongst them many annotated artist’s proofs—by Chagall, Rouault, Fernand Leger, Le Corbusier, Villon, Miro, Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Giacometti, and other masters of the early 20th century. The comparisons afforded between one artist’s method and another’s are profoundly revealing. All the works on display were published by Teriade in the art and literary journal, Verve, which he founded in Paris in 1937. From this quarterly publication emerged the idea of producing a series of (literally) *Grands Livres, which are exhibited in the centre of each room, and were devoted solely to original works commissioned from the artists by Teriade.
   Although this is primarily a specialist collection, the variety of work and the extraordinary quality and beauty of the production cannot fail to impress. There is also a small collection of modern Greek paintings—further works by Theophilos, and six paintings of Giannis Tsarouchis (1910–89)—a quieter and more reflective voice in Greek art, much influenced by the clear, deep, light contrasts of Spanish art.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
The Art Collections in Vareia.

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