Tag Archives: Vasily Polenov

Vasily Polenov and the Parthenon, Athens

Click on photos to enlarge.

It has been called the most influential architectural structure in history; it has been called the most beautiful. I can only trust that the former claim is true, while the latter, I will say can only be understood as an understatement. Beauty, as great as the concept is, is not nearly sufficient to describe the impact one feels when standing beneath the columns of the Parthenon.
My approach to the Parthenon today is by way of the Russian painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). I recently wrote about a painting Polenov did of the Erechtheion, a structure right next to the Parthenon, in the course of approximately eleven days in the spring of 1882. Now I would like to spend a few moments considering the painter’s rendition of the Parthenon itself, done at the same time. Now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is the first image above.
I am pretty sure, though not certain, that Polenov painted the Parthenon’s short western face and the longer northern facade. This is the angle that all visitors first come upon when they enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. (See photo immediately below.) If I am right about this, then the tiny fragment of a building we see in the far left of Polenov’s painting is of the Erechtheion, the other structure that interested him these days.
However, one could also argue that the painting was done from the “back” side, from the east, capturing the short eastern face and the longer southern facade. (My second photo above is taken from this angle.) These two images do fit, don’t they, because you see the damaged middle columns in the very same place in both the photo and the painting. But that can be explained away easily enough, for the major restorations undertaken by Nikolaos Balanos from 1894 to 1933 had not even yet begun when Polenov visited the Acropolis in 1882. And the middle columns had been severely damaged on both sides ever since the Venetians tossed a bomb up into Turkish ammunition reserves in the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. In fact, the structure then lay in ruins for nearly 200 years before the first minor attempts at renovation were undertaken in 1845. But it was not until the Balanos campaign that major repairs were done. (This goes beyond my topic, but I can’t help but mention it: It is considered that, for all his wonderful intentions, Balanos may have done more harm that good with his “repairs” because of the materials and methods he employed. But we’ll skip over that, now.) If, indeed, this is the angle from which Polenov worked, then the fragment of some structure in the far left of the painting would be a corner of the Propylaea.

Still, I am inclined to think that in The Parthenon. The Temple of Athena Parthenos, Polenov painted the western and northern facades. There are several reasons for this (aside from it being the most common view that all visitors see). The expanse to the left of Polenov’s Parthenon, to say nothing of that in front of it, is very much like the space that separates the structure from the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. The southern side has quite limited space, for here the Parthenon stands close to the Acropolis wall, overlooking the old Roman theater and the Greek Dionysian theater. The tiny figures of trees in the distance would correspond to several trees that still stand on that (far eastern) end today.
The loose stones we see in the foreground of the painting probably don’t tell us a lot. There are quite a few stones strewn around at both ends of the Parthenon today.
Polenov saw more of the (partially restored?) tympanum atop the Parthenon than we do today – that is the flat triangle space under what should be a roof, and over (what should be) the frieze. These are areas that once displayed beautiful sculptures and bas reliefs, many of which were cut out crudely and shipped back to England by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. These items, many of which are displayed in the British Museum in London, are known as the Elgin Marbles. There is a concerted effort now underway to get the British government to return the artworks. The possibility of this actually happening has increased thanks to Brexit, although one still assumes the chances are still slim it will happen. In any case, it has become a topic of regular diplomatic conversation nowadays.
In my previous piece about Polenov and Athens I quoted a few lines from his diaries of the time. So as not to repeat that here, but to provide as full a picture of Polenov and Athens as possible, I insert here what Polenov noted in his diary on a second trip to Athens on July 16 (July 29 Old Style), 1911:
Athens is now a large European city, with marvelous Greek buildings. We spent the mornings yesterday and today on the Acropolis. Very hot, but I work. In general, painting eases the exhaustion of traveling, and in recent days my exhaustion has increased due to the heat and everything I have seen… Tomorrow we go to Delphi…
I don’t know what “but I work” refers to. As far as I know, Polenov only did the two paintings in the Acropolis in 1882. If anyone can shine a light on my ignorance, there’s a place to do it in the comments below. Language Hat?

 

“Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids,” Vasily Polenov, Athens

Click on photos to enlarge.

Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) made his painting, Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids during his first visit to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. I have placed a reproduction of the painting at the top of the photos here. Polenov visited Greece in the spring of 1882 at the end of a journey through the ancient world that lasted from November 1881 to April 1882.  A small post on a Russian art site quotes Polenov’s own words about the visit:
We spent eleven days in Athens to April 4… The Acropolis is far from modern Athens, and you can dream of the great events that these buildings witnessed amongst the privacy of the clouds that cover the entire Acropolis. During our stay, the grass bloomed, and the scent of chamomile, which filled the air, delighted me.”
I don’t recall catching the scent of chamomile when I visited the Acropolis last week in mid-December, but the grass was even thicker than the day Polenov made his painting.
One could write a novel about this painting, what preceded it and what has followed since. It involves a marauding Brit in the early 1800s, Polenov’s delicate approach to his work in the 1880s, and even more delicate restorative work that took place in Athens in the 1970s and ’80s.
Polenov’s trip to the Acropolis came some 80 years after a disastrous visit by Lord Elgin, aka, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. At that time, under Ottoman rule, Greece’s archeological riches were vulnerable, and the authorities simply turned a blind eye to the fact that Elgin, over a period of ten years (!), systematically looted and defaced the architectural and artistic riches of the Acropolis. Let us note that Elgin hacked out a full 75 meters of the frieze atop the Parthenon and took it all back to  decorate his home in Scotland! But that is only the beginning of his barbarous activities, which are much too enormous for me to cover in this small blog. Suffice it to say that he also stole one of the famed caryatids that stood on the so-called “porch of the maidens” on the north side of the Erechtheion.  Here Elgin succeeded in chopping out a full figure (second from the left on the front row) and transporting it back to Scotland, while another, the one in the back right, proved harder to remove. His men started hacking and sawing away at it, virtually destroying it, then leaving its pieces behind when they realized it was no longer of use to them. You can see what is left of this figure in the first photo below – the caryatid in the far back exists now only in shards. I’ll explain that photo in a minute, but let’s jump to Polenov at this point.
When the famed Russian painter set up his easel to paint the caryatids of the Erechtheion, they were still missing the sister who had been hauled away by Lord Elgin. In order to cover that breach, Polenov took up an angle that allowed him to smudge over the missing sculpture. Interestingly, he also seems to have ignored the figure that was so badly damaged in the back. It simply doesn’t exist in his painting, although, if I understand correctly, the crudely repaired sculpture had been put back into place by then.
I was not able, in my photos, to replicate the exact angle from which Polenov painted his work. Guard ropes have been put up in order to keep people away from the sculptures.

Back now to the first photos in the block immediately above. These were taken in the gorgeous new Acropolis Museum that stands below the south side of the Acropolis. Here, on the second floor, now stand the original caryatids, the ones that Polenov painted. They were moved off-site from the Acropolis in the 1970s and 1980s when Greek restorers made the rather momentous and potentially controversial decision to replace the originals with copies that would be as exact as possible. The reason for this is that modern pollution was wreaking havoc on the sculptures, destroying them much more slowly, but ever as inevitably, as Lord Elgin. By moving the originals into a controlled environment, the restorers were able to stop the deterioration and even turn back the clock in some little way – by modern methods they continue to clean the caryatids little by little of the junk that has built up on them over the centuries and millennia. The reproduction work carried out by the restorers – including creating a copy of the stolen caryatid that now stands in the British Museum – was so detailed and so successful that the entire project was given the Europa Nostra award for restoration.
So it is that, while one can stand almost in the place where Polenov stood when making his painting, in order to to gaze upon the actual monuments that he painted, one must go the new Acropolis Museum.
My wife Oksana and I wandered back and forth at length in front of the original figures. We apparently were so intent in our actions that a museum guard came up to ask what we were doing. Oksana explained to her that I was planning on writing a blog about a painting of the caryatids by a famous Russian painter, and to make her point better, she googled Polenov’s painting and showed it to the guard, who was fascinated by the information. While Oksana still had a reproduction of the painting on her phone screen, I took it and held it up to the caryatids to show them how Vasily Polenov had depicted them some 135 years ago. I suspect that made little impression on the caryatids, but it did make an impression on the three of us standing beside them. Somehow 2,500 years of history all come together in that one moment.
As an epilogue let me bring in two other items.
1) First is brand new news indicating that the names “Parthenon” and “Erechtheion” – which we have used for thousands of years – may actually be incorrect. A team of Dutch scholars announced a week or so ago that the ancient Greeks used the word “Parthenon” to refer to what we know as the Erechtheion, while they would have used the word “Hekatompedon” to refer to what we have long called the Parthenon. If they are right, Polenov’s painting should actually be called Parthenon. The Portico of Caryatids, while his painting Parthenon, about which at a later date, should be called Hekatompedon.
2) Finally, sentiment in Greece supporting the return of the so-called “Elgin marbles” continues to grow. In November 2019 the Greek prime minister met with his Chinese counterpart, who agreed to support Greece’s claim to the cultural monuments. As recently as January 2019, the British Museum claimed it would “never return” the marbles, rather bizarrely describing their original removal as a “creative act.”  If you’re interested in following efforts to return the Parthenon marbles, see Jim Mellas’s Reunite The Parthenon Facebook page.

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