Due to its geographical position, Greece has been a land of passage, linking Europe to Asia, the Aegean Sea to the Mediterranean, the south of Europe to the Holy Land and from there to the north of Africa. Influences from all these parts have converged in our country and have left cultural marks in all the areas inhabited by Greeks. These influences, however, have always been successfully adapted and reshaped to fit the Greek vision of the world and life, and have been the seeds for the Greek cultural identity.
Apart from Greece’s renowned ancient cultural heritage, Modern Greek culture has developed new ways of expression that have also drawn international attention.
During the War of Independence of 1821 and after the liberation of the country, the leading figures in poetry were Dionyssios Solomos (1798-1857) and Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869). The choice of the city of Athens as the capital of the country drew the literary forces from the periphery to this new centre. An “Athenian literary school” was formed which promoted a late romanticism and quarrelled about the language to be used in literature: a language close to ancient Greek or a language based on the spoken language? The so called “language problem”, which would be solved more than 150 years later due to a government decision, marked the evolution of modern Greek literature. Costis Palamas (1859-1943), an extremely prolific poet and critic, is the founder of a real national literary environment, away from a sterile and complacent romanticism, which was closed to the development of moral values and believed that the writer's mission within the society was to help it improve.
The same high value attributed to literature is visible in Emmanuel Roidis’ (1836-1904) prose work as well in Georgios Vizyinos (1849-1896) and in the literary work of the most important prose-writer Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), an author who Milan Kundera and many other European authors put in the tradition of the great European novelists. An outstanding example of brilliant prose is the work of Yannis Makriyannis (1797-1864), a general of the War of Independence, who learned how to write at the age of 32. The publication of his Memoirs in 1907 influenced many prose writers and poets of the next generation, like George Seferis.
Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933) is the most famous poet of Modern Literature. The work of Kavafis includes only 154 poems composed in the course of more than 35 years. Kavafis belongs to a particular literary category that emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century and had no continuation: this is a stand alone category in which one could put Kafka and Joyce, Kavafis and Pessoa.
Kavafis’ poetry is in full contrast with that of Angelos Sikelianos (1884-1951), a visionary poet, who brought back to life the Delphic celebrations (1927) and wrote excellent poems, long poetic compositions, theatrical plays and literary essays. Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is the most famous and translated Greek author, after Kavafis. His literary work includes many plays, travel books, many translations (Dante’s Divina Comedia, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in collaboration with the most important philologist of the 20th century J.Th. Kakridis) and the huge epic work Odyssey, with its 33,333 verses. Kazantzakis won international acclaim with his nine novels, from which Zorba the Greek (1946) is the most widely known. Kostas Karyotakis (1896-1928) is the link between the declining romanticism and modernism. A genuine representative of inwardness and decadence, a follower of Jules Laforgue, he created a trend, and his suicide, the ultimate expression of his pessimism, turned him into a legendary figure.
Greek literature enters modernism with the so-called “generation of 1930”. George Seferis (1900-1971), who won the Nobel Prize in 1963, is the leading figure of this generation. A career diplomat, an admirer and translator of T.S. Eliot, Pound and Valery, he adapted and incorporated the new literary trends into his poetry while keeping his promise “to write simply”. The literary essays and the diaries are also very important and many of his poems were put in music by leading composers like Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis and others.
Andreas Embirikos (1901-1975) is the emblematic figure of surrealism in Greece. Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996) is the second Greek Nobel Prize laureate in 1979 who is close to the French poetic innovations of the 20th century. His poetic composition Axion Esti (1959) gave him international fame and has been widely known thanks to the music of Mikis Theodorakis. Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), a gifted songwriter, is the most prolific poet of Modern Greek Literature. Stratis Tsirkas (1911-1980), with his trilogy Akyvernites Polities, has been awarded the Best Foreign Book Prize. Today, a new group of authors is trying to talk about the present, showing in their works clear signs of a literary search of the self, an analysis of the decadence of the bourgeois world and a critique of the establishment.
The promotion of contemporary Greek Literature abroad is part of a complete book policy. The National Book Centre plans and carries out this policy. Its presence in the international stage was recently confirmed by the Frankfurt International Book Fair (October 10-14, 2001), where Greece was the guest of honour.
The history of the visual arts in Greece is similar to that of the modern state itself. No sooner had Greece become independent (in 1830) than it began to function under the influence mainly of the European trends: during the 19th century under the German influence and during the following century under the French one and the movement of modernism. The so called Munich School is the most important group of artists; Nikolaos Ghizis (1842-1901) and Nikiphoros Lytras (1832-1904) became the twin centres of this group who combined academic tendencies with advanced technical accomplishments (Constantinos Volonakis, Polychronis Lembesis, Symeon Savvidis, Georgios Iakovidis, and others).
Sculpture evolved in parallel, with Yannoulis Halepas (1851-1938) and Dimitrios Philipotis (1839-1920) as its principal representatives.
Greece's success during the two Balkan Wars and the First World War created an atmosphere of elevation and optimism. During the inter-war period, Georgios Bouzianis (1885-1959), the Greek artist who lived and worked in Berlin, was part of the Expressionist movement. Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965), Konstantinos Parthenis (1878-1967) or Theofilos (1867-1934), very important painters with an individual style, inspired the quest for “Greekness- the Hellenic element”. That was the most cohesive group ever to appear in Greek Art and among its members were: Nikos Ghikas (1906-1995), Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989), Diamantis Diamantopoulos (1914-1996), Nikos Engonopoulos (1910-1985), Yorgos Mavroidis (b.1913), Nikos Nikolaou (1909-1986) and Yannis Moralis (b.1914).
The Sixties marked a definite turn to abstract art, with Yannis Spyropoylos (1912-1990) its main representative in painting.
The fall of the junta in 1974 established an atmosphere of communication and international interaction, which influenced the visual arts. Panagiotis Tetsis, Vlasis Kaniaris, Nikos Kessanlis, Costas Tsoklis, Yannis Kounellis, Pavlos, Takis and Chryssa are some of the most famous names of contemporary Greek art.
The best-known museums of contemporary art are situated in Athens and Thessaloniki, while smaller ones can be found throughout the country, the most prominent of which are the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art in Andros and the Theofilos Museum in Lesbos.
Greek music has developed over many centuries and has been subject to various historical and geographical influences: Ancient Greek music, Byzantine and church music, for example, provide a whole series of distinctive musical traditions. Today, music is taught in the 213 recognized music conservatories of which only one is state-founded. There are also 146 music schools. Of all these conservatories and schools, 44.8% are located in provincial towns. Music is perhaps the most popular cultural activity of the Greeks. It is connected with the historical importance of the songs and with the popularity of musical expression through dancing. There is a long tradition of rural traditional music connected with the 1821 War of Independence. A form of urban traditional music with strong links to the refugees from the Asia Minor disaster (1922) is the rembetiko.
The global reputation of Modern Greek Music rests largely on the works of Manos Hadjidakis (Oscar for Best Song in 1960) and Mikis Theodorakis (British Academy Award for Best Music in 1969). Since the Second World War, many of the younger composers have sought inspiration in both rural and urban traditional music. Among them are the internationally known Stavros Xarhakos and Thanos Mikroutsikos. Yannis Markopoulos, (1976, BBC-TV Series award for Best Music for the play “Who Pays the Ferryman?”), the inspiration behind the “Return to Roots” movement, combines in his music the sounds of an orchestra with symphonic and traditional instruments. One of the most prominent figures is Dionyssis Savopoulos, who has made an original synthesis using elements from rembetiko, rural music and western rock music.
In the tradition of the classical music there are certain internationally famous composers, whose main work belongs to the 20th century. The most prominent of these composers are Nikos Skalkotas, Yannis Christou and Iannis Xenakis. Finally, the two figures that constitute landmarks in the international classical music scene are Maria Callas (soprano) and the conductor, pianist and composer Dimitris Mitropoulos.
Throughout the centuries, the theatre never ceased to exist and to influence the way of life and thought of the Greeks. Today, within the framework of summer festivals, Greek dramas are staged in the ancient theatres where they were originally performed. In the 20th century, a new generation of actors and directors introduced more advanced concepts for the presentation of certain texts and theatrical concepts such as Realism, Naturalism, Classicism and Romanticism. To be mentioned in this context are the directors K. Christomanos (creator of the New Stage), Th. Oikonomou (founder of the Royal Theatre), Fotos Politis (founder of the National Theatre) and his successor D. Rondiris. The legendary theatre actors of the 20th century M. Kotopouli, Kyveli, K. Paxinou, A. Minotis, E. Veakis, M. Aroni, D. Horn, Elli Lambeti, Th. Kotsopoulos, G. Pappas, Chr. Nezer, K. Moussouris, D. Myrat left their indelible traces on the stage.
The year 1957 is an important date in the history of Modern Greek Theatre: it is the year that Iakovos Kampanelis “the father of Modern Greek Theatre”, presented his play The courtyard of miracles at the Art Theatre of Karolos Koun. A new, talented breed of play writers emerged to change the atmosphere and to introduce new ideas to the Greek Theatre. Vassilis Ziogas, Dimitris Kehaidis, Pavlos Matessis, Giorgos Maniotis, Loula Anagnostaki, Kostas Mourselas, Giorgos Dialegmenos are some writers of this new era.
Among the most eminent contemporary directors figure S. Karandinos (creator of the State Theatre of Northern Greece), T. Mouzenidis, P. Katselis, K. Michailidis, A. Solomos, S. Evangelatos, M. Volanakis and G. Michailidis.
What is impressive in Athens today is the superabundance of theatrical groups and buildings. In Athens alone there are more than 100 theatrical groups and the number increases, if one adds the amateurs, the school or the University theatrical groups that make their presence more powerful and prominent into the theatrical world. After 1981, in almost every town outside Athens, Municipal Theatres were set up with talented directors and actors, some of them protagonists of the main Athenian stages. The new theatrical currents are now more “arty” and sophisticated, and some groups present their work to appeal to the special and experimental views that seem to respond to current audience taste. Finally, one should mention that many years ago (and to a larger extent today) many theatrical groups in Greece started cooperating with theatrical groups abroad.
The first full-length Greek film was produced in 1914. The country’s major studio (Finos Film) was founded in 1943. The Greek film industry produced films that attracted growing audiences despite strict censorship, civil war unrest and the acute poverty of the post-war years. The first two films that attracted international attention were Stella (1955), directed by Michael Kakoyannis, and The Ogre of Athens (1956), directed by Nikos Koundouros. Between 1955 and 1970 Greece was making the highest number of films per capita in the world. For several years it produced around 100 feature films a year, peaking at 117 films in 1966.
During the military dictatorship (1967-1974) the New Greek Cinema was formed, which, thematically, focused on Greek social issues and the aesthetic shaping of the Greek society whereas it favoured forms influenced by experimental cinemas. The most famous Greek director is Theodoros Angelopoulos (b. 1935). According to David Thomson (a leading film critic), he is one of the four greatest living film makers. His latest film An Eternity and a Day won the Palm d’ Or prize, at the Cannes Festival in 1998, and his film Ulysses’ Gaze was, according to the Time magazine, one of the best films of 1995. His second film The Travelling Players (1975) is considered to be the best Greek film ever made. He has also won many awards in the three most important international film festivals (1971 and 1973 in Berlin, 1975, 1984 and 1995 in Cannes, 1980 and 1988 in Venice).
Angelopoulos has continued the tradition of important directors of the recent past: Michael Kakoyannis (two Oscars for Zorba the Greek in 1964), Alexis Damianos (Best Direction Award for To the ship in 1967). Some of the directors who belong to the New Greek Cinema, which emerged during the military dictatorship (1967-1974), are: Kostas Ferris (Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Festival for Rembetiko in 1984), Tonia Marketaki (First Award at the Festival in Bastia, Corsica for The Price of Love 1984) and Nikos Panayotopoulos (awards for The Idlers of the Fertile Valley, in 1978). In recent years a new cinematic style of fast-paced, wittily scripted films that address contemporary issues has emerged. Among the directors of this kind to be mentioned are N. Perakis, P. Hoursoglou, S. Goritsas, A. Kokkinos, O. Malea,
and K. Yannaris.
The Greek Film Centre was set up in 1970 as a profit-making subsidiary of the Greek Industrial and Development Bank. In 1986 a special department called Hellas Film was created to promote Greek films abroad. Up to 1988, the GFC was the only existing Greek film production company. Almost all new Greek filmmakers received funds from its co-production programme, and it remains today the main Greek producer of new films. Funds are raised under the administration of the Ministry of Culture through a percentage on cinema receipts. Another area of state involvement has been the awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival —the main annual cinematic event in Greece, which in 1992 became an international event— and the annual State Cinema Awards.