Chatzimichail, Theofilos

1. Introduction

Theofilos Chatzimichail is one of the most important representatives of Greek naïve painting. He was born at Varia of Lesvos but the exact year of birth is unknown. Many of his biographers place it between1868-1870. His family was very poor. Of all the rest family members, only his grandfather (his mother’s father) painted, and specifically religious paintings. Yet he did not teach nor influence his grandson regarding his style of painting.

His stuttering, sickliness, but mostly his being left-handed, were considered serious drawbacks by family and society, causing malign remarks, especially by children at his age. This behavior made Theofilos prefer being secluded at the basement of his house, where he devoted himself to painting.

2. The painter and his world

A dreamer and castaway, Theofilos created an imaginary world full of heroes and mythical creatures, which were his favorite subjects. His appearance was unusual, since from an early age he insisted on wearing the traditional foustanela, which for him was a symbol of heroism and manhood. At Halloween, he dressed as "Alexander the Great" with a crest, a golden spear or sword, and flamboyant paper clothes while his followed by gamins dressed up as "Macedonians". To the world, he was the “lunatic”, the “moonstruck”, who painted naïve paintings on walls of grocery shops and coffee shops.

From a young age, and for thirty years, Theofilos wandered and worked at Smyrna (Asia Minor) and the villages on Mount Pilio (Thessaly), painting frescoes at houses and shops to earn his daily bread. Before the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922), Greek economic and cultural presence was quite strong at Smyrna, a city that inspired and defined his painting style and subjects. Greece throughout the Antiquity, Byzantium and the 1821 War of Inependence dominated his paintings.

Volos, a port near Mount Pilio, was the second most important point in Theofilos’s life and work. During the first years, he painted walls of shops at villages on Pilio just for a meal. Things got a little better when refugees from Asia Minor arrived at the port and asked Theofilos to paint the walls of their shanties, where they kept their little shops. He was the right person to express the grief over their lost homes. Based on folk copper engravings and press clippings, scenes from the Greek history, along with images from Constantinople, Smyrna and the villages of Asia Minor, came to life on these walls.

The world in Theofilos’s paintings is full of colorful landscapes from Lesvos and Pilio, picturesque scenes of folk life, gods and goddesses of Olympus, saints of the Byzantine era and heroes of the War of Independence. Imaginary beasts, animals, birds and faraway cities are some of Theofilos’s most characteristic subjects. His figures, although lacking perspective, are very vivid. The quaint misspelled explanations following all of his paintings are particular to his art.

3. Recognition of his work

Mentally and physically tired, and unknown still, the painter returned to his island in 1927. There, he met the famous art critic Stratis Eleftheriadis-Teriade, who was also from Lesvos and had seen pictures of his in the past. Distinguishing his great talent, Teriade decided to exhibit Theofilos’s work in Paris. Although this meant a lot to Theofilos, his health had already began to fail. In March 1934, neighbours found him dead in his house.

General recognition of Theofilos’s work in Greece took a long time, in contrast to dithyrambic reviews it received abroad. In one of his articles, the great architect Le Corbusier called him a painter born from the Greek landscape and its customs, bringing people and their works much closer to the law of nature than they seem to be.

His art in Greece had some very warm votaries and some very severe critics. Amongst the first to recognize his value, was the poet Giorgos Seferis, whereas the painter Giannis Tsarouchis spoke fervently of his work. The folklorist Kitsos Makris wrote the first complete study on Theofilos in 1939, presenting aspects of the great painter’s work, but also causing sharp reactions from conservative intellectuals that generally denounced the value of naive art. After World War II, things gradually changed. In 1947, a big exhibition of his works was held at the British Council of Athens, where important people of the arts had the chance to talk about the value of Theofilos’s art. Amongst them were the poet Angelos Sikelianos, the writer Ilias Venezis, the painter Spyros Vasileiou, the teacher and philosopher Evangelos Papanoutsos, the writer I.M. Panagiotopoulos and Giorgos Seferis, who spoke of him enthusiastically once again. In August 1965, the Theofilos Museum was inaugurated at his homeland Varia with a donation of Stratis Eleftheriadis-Teriade.

He is now considered as great painter with sheer inspiration, who has depicted the truth of the reality surrounding him in an inclusive way. According to the poet Odysseas Elytis, tin his painting there is a “truth discovered for the first time” .

Apart from the Theofilos Museum at Varia, his works are housed at the Museum of Greek Folk Art in Athens, the City Hall of Volos, whereas others belong to private collectors.