Her long hair draped to the viewer’s right, a woman gazes slightly upwards and appears rapt in contemplation. Circling the colossal bust, we explore her high cheekbones, wide eyes, and her fierce, feminine profile, fully visible to our left with her hair tucked behind her ear.
Sculpted from mixed media, including metals and patinas, George Petrides depicts his fiancée, while borrowing from Charles Cordier’s mid-nineteenth century bust of an African visitor to the Paris Salon of 1848. A young African woman served as the model for a companion piece in 1851. Eleftheria (derived from the Greek word for freedom and liberty) Gkoufa sat for Petrides in 2021, striking an elegant, commanding pose to represent the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), when women played vital roles to gain break from Ottoman rule.
Petrides seeks to convey “strength, resilience, defiance” by using Gkoufa, a conservator and cultural manager at the Benaki Museum in Athens, to serve as a present-day warrior-heroine. Gkoufa breathes new life into the legend of Kapetanissa (Captain) Laskarina Bouboulina, who devoted herself, her ships, and fortune to the civil wars, only to be killed in a family dispute in 1825, as well as aristocratic Manto Mavrogenous, who financed ships and equipment for men battling Ottoman forces in the Peloponnese, and Domna Visvizi, who captained the Kalomoira warship.
“I find that whether in the past or in the present, female nature has the same core values. Women are ready to be inspired by great ideas and ideals, they are fighting for their freedom, their survival, their spiritual awakening. They struggle and fight alongside their men and their families and are gifted by their very nature with the most powerful ‘weapons’,” Gkoufa said. “Across history, these ‘weapons’ vary depending on the time and social stratification, but the female core is strong and capable of causing daily revolutions regardless of the era.”
My 12-year-old son Michael Alexander observed the “mossy texture and color” of the bust. Unintentionally, yet aptly, Heroines of 1821 evokes the Statue of Liberty, which slowly turned green when its outer surface covered in hundreds of thin copper sheets reacted with the air to form a patina or verdigris.
Heroines of 1821 is among six more-than-double-life-size busts, including four women, on view at The Muses in Southampton, New York, through September 5. Hellenic Heads: George Petrides opened at the Embassy of Greece in the U.S. in Washington, D.C., between May 9 and June 10. The traveling exhibition, which will next go to Los Angeles, showcases Petrides’ hybrid of innovative and formal techniques that begins by sculpting in clay from a live model or historical photographs. He then scans and prints the clay objects in 3-D, and embellishes them by hand, using an array of power tools and construction materials. He casts each work in bronze, using the ancient Greek lost-wax process of pouring molten metal into a wax model mold. Attributed to the Hittites, an ancient group of Indo-Europeans who moved into Asia Minor and formed an empire at Hattusa in Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 1600 BCE, Greek sculptors perfected lost-wax casting into the method used today.
“I was interested in anti-monumentality, because when this was showing in Washington, there were all the statues of the generals saying, ‘you go left, you do this,’ and I was interested in the anti-monument of the civilian,” said Petrides, during a private tour of the exhibition. “I want people to look at them and see the Greek civilian, the Ukrainian civilian, the Jewish civilian.”
The Athens-born, Greek-American artist conveys deeply personal narratives that provoke universal dialogues around key historical events that impact Greek culture and history. Traversing 2,500 years of Greek history, Petrides reveals trauma that is excruciatingly relevant today, inflamed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloodthirsty invasion of Ukraine. The escalation of the bitter, simmering eight-year Russo-Ukrainian War, which suddenly erupted in the global media, impacts all Slavic people and underscores the pain of Orthodox Christians everywhere. Ninety-eight percent of the Greek population identifies as Orthodox, along with 78 percent of people in Ukraine, and 71 percent of people in Russia, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.
Petrides’ visceral yet graceful sculptures simultaneously look back and push forward, the darkness of our past serving to guide toward future humanity. Acknowledging the pain of others, recognizing the atrocities perpetrated against the oppressed, we can embrace the brave leaders and survivors who strive to lead us toward a peaceful existence.
A student of Classical Greek literature, philosophy and history, at Harvard College, Petrides visited Mount Athos four times to immerse himself in Byzantine art and culture. For this project, he dug into research of the Classical Greek Period (510 BC to 323 BC), the Byzantine Period (330 AD to 1453 AD), the Greek War of Independence (1821 to 1829), the Destruction of Smyrna (1922), the Nazi occupation and Greek Civil War (1941 to 1949), and present-day Greece.
Moreover, the focus on empowered women informs our perspective on history. While no known societies are unambiguously matriarchal, Greek history continues to confound scholars examining the possibilities which can be traced to the earliest recorded histories. Mediterranean matriarchal religion and the patriarchal system wed in Classical Greece, giving birth to the foundation of Greek culture. Cecrops (Kekrops), a mythical half-man half-serpent and the first king of Athens, along with the other early ancient kings, were all believed to have been born from Gaia (Gaea), the Greek goddess of Earth, mother of all life, much like the Roman Terra Mater (Mother Earth). Moreover, ancient Athenians self-identified as autochthones (original or indigenous inhabitants of a place), intrinsically rooting themselves to Gaia.
“I believe that the role of women in modern Greek society, a society that, in my opinion, has always been matriarchal, does not differ much from the past,” said Gkoufa. “It is always about the same female ‘heroic’ nature that struggles daily through many and demanding roles (personal and professional), to maintain her position, to achieve her dreams and to take care of her loved ones, with militancy but also with nurturing inherent in the female nature.
The artist’s 12-year-old daughter, Sofia Petrides, posed this year for Kore, a contemporary interpretation of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Louise Brongniart (1779, after a portrait of 1777), one of which is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 552. Houdon displayed several busts, including a pair of Louise Brongniart and her brother Alexandre, the children of Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, at the Salon of 1777. The example at The Met features a ruffled fichu fastened around the girl’s bare chest.
Evoking optimism and innocence, Kore offers hope for future generations of Greeks and Greek-Americans. While Hellenic Heads explores the complexities of generational trauma, Kore looks forward to overcoming the strife that continues to plague humanity. Glowing with a bluish hue and her long hair parted in the center and flowing freely, Kore connects with heritage and draws us back to the past as her placement at The Muses faces her paternal grandmother, Panayota Papaioannou, whose likeness stands in for Thalia, and who nurtures Sophia to this day.
Petrides relied on black and white photographs taken in Greece when his mother was around 20 years old to sculpt the contemporary re-imaging of the goddess who presided over comedy and idyllic poetry. From the ancient Greek meaning “the joyous, the flourishing”, Petrides was inspired specifically by a 2nd century AD Roman statue of Thalia, with a tympanum and a comic mask, copied from a 4th century BC Hellenistic statue, at the Vatican Museums in Rome.
Her eyes and slightly-agape mouth hollow welcomes us into a conversation. In this context, we imagine the wisdom and stories she passes down to Sophia.
Imbued with the deepest trauma, The Refugee, crafted as a re-imagining of Petrides’ maternal grandmother, Maria Blizioti, as she may have been in 1923 (age 20), draws us into the circle of four matrilineal generations. Blizioti escaped the Burning of Smyrna in 1922, when as many as 125,000 Greek and Armenian Christians reportedly died when the port city was destroyed after flames raged for up to nine days. Most scholars attribute the blaze, which leveled the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city while sparing any damage to the Muslim and Jewish quarters, to Turkish soldiers who set fire to Greek and Armenian homes and businesses in what is now Izmir, Turkey. As many as 400,000 Greek and Armenian refugees rushed the waterfront, where they languished under brutal conditions for nearly two weeks.
Borrowing from Michelangelo’s The Deposition (1547 and 1555), housed at Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, where it is often called the Florentine Pietà, The Refugee references the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The shrouded figure with hollow eyes pulls us into her story, revealing what it was like to witness her homeland destroyed.
The Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations (the Lausanne Convention), was an agreement between the Greek and Turkish governments signed in Lausanne, Switzerland, on January 30, 1923, following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922. Some 1.5 million Anatolian Orthodox Christians were involuntarily expelled from Turkey to Greece, while about 500,000 Muslims from Greece (particularly from the north) were simultaneously involuntarily transferred to Turkey.
“I have always been interested in my Greek heritage, absorbing it through my family members: a grandmother who escaped the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 and parents who lived through the 1940s Nazi occupation and ensuing Greek civil war,” Petrides said.
Petrides rounds out his familial exhibition with a self-portrait and a likeness of his late father. The current installation at The Muses’ Library is adjacent to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. Check for future exhibition dates.
“I think it’ll go to LA and then to Europe, and then very likely Izmir, and maybe Constantinople, where there’s a cultural center, maybe Beijing, maybe Abu Dhabi,” said Petrides, who aims to spread awareness of all facets of Greek history with art that transcends time and geography through themes that remain relatable and relevant to all of us.