Delacroix's 'Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi' as a rallying cry

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
Review: Delacroix's "Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi" is part of incisive show at LACMA

They don't make paintings like "Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi" anymore.

The slow, ruminative medium of oil paint on canvas has pretty much had it as the sharpest system for the memorable delivery of effective, politically minded propaganda. Painting has long since been replaced by the relentless, 24/7 information cycle repeated nonstop on cable television and the Internet.

Painter Eugène Delacroix, born in a small Parisian suburb in 1798, was a principal artistic pivot on which the total transformation began. It's as if the pressures of unstoppable change pushed him to raise the propaganda bar to extravagant painterly heights.

"Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi," painted in 1826, was among his first bravura masterpieces in the genre.

The allegorical painting is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux, France, for a small but incisive exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (L.A. and Bordeaux have been sister cities for 50 years.) The image is keyed to a tragic episode in the long war for Greek independence from Turkish rule.

Curator Leah Lehmbeck shows it with a Delacroix copy of an oil sketch by Peter Paul Rubens, one of his idols, plus the lovely little version of the "Grande Odalisque" by his chief rival, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, that LACMA acquired last year. There are also lithographs by Théodore Géricault, whose topical paintings Delacroix admired, and by Antoine-Jean Baron Gros, whose Neoclassical work he didn't. (Gros famously dismissed Delacroix's war painting "Massacre of Chios" as a "massacre of art.")

Finally, a bronze medallion by British artist Alfred Joseph Stothard portrays Romantic poet Lord Byron, who died in Missolonghi just a year before the dramatic event Delacroix's canvas commemorates. The poet gets cast in the style of an ancient Greek or Roman hero.

All these provide fractional context for Delacroix's big, melodramatic canvas. A complex story — what has been called Greece's Alamo, a site of heroic resistance fought to the death in the face of a superior military foe — is stripped to representative elements. The painter conjures a personified image of a society badly broken but not destroyed — down but not out. And he inflects the scene with a sly if subtle glimmer of ultimate redemption and deliverance.

The picture, nearly 7 by 5 feet, was painted quickly — in about two months. It is dominated by a life-size female figure whose blue cloak and white tunic employ the colors of the Greek flag to identify her as a personification of the beleaguered nation. Visually she's a cousin to Marianne, the ample-breasted symbol of the French Republic and ancestor of America's Statue of Liberty.

The rubble of a ruined city lies all around her, blood spattered on the stone block below her slipper-clad right foot. She has dropped to her knee, bent on a teetering slab.

Delacroix rendered Greece as strong and powerful, dynamic brushwork describing her garments. The vivid paint bolsters an energetic figure implied by strong limbs articulated beneath her clothing.

He learned the technique from close study of Rubens, who knew the seductive clout of tangible color. Baroque painting had largely been conceived to advance the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, beleaguered by Protestant assaults. Delacroix revived propagandistic elements of earlier Baroque style, but now he put them at the service of nationalist politics.

Delacroix's brilliance was to subsume religious imagery within this secular composition. Drawing on its memory, worldly miracles are invoked.

The white-robed figure of Greece, wrapped in blue, is part Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Spreading her arms wide, she's also part Mary lamenting the death of her son.

The stone slab on which she kneels invokes a tomb. Next to this sepulcher, the grim inclusion of a slain Greek fighter's severed arm quietly suggests the bodies of Lazarus and Christ, soon to be resurrected.

Even the splendidly arrayed Ottoman soldier posed in triumph over the city at the upper right thrums with religious and political contradictions. He is given an imperial Roman pose, seated with a regal golden standard held high in one hand.

The pose recalls Ingres' bombastic 1806 portrait of Napoleon enthroned. The little emperor, of course, is the one who had stirred the Ottoman hornet's nest in his failed attempt at Middle East incursion.

In turn, Ingres' Napoleon portrait looked back to depictions of God the Father seated on the throne of heaven, like the one at the center of Jan van Eyck's famous Ghent Altarpiece. However, unlike God (or Napoleon), Delacroix shows the Ottoman soldier in profile, looking to the side, not straight ahead. He's different — a Muslim, not a Christian, and he is literally on the lookout.

The juxtaposition of a victorious man and a victimized woman is also typical of Delacroix's paternalism — itself common in conservative French society. The picture was painted for a public exhibition meant to rouse the French government to action, so Delacroix filled it with signs of provisional stability and potential change. It's as if Greece, arms opened wide, is imploring viewers in the capital to come to her aid.

Parisian newspapers had closely followed the Missolonghi story, and one even published a lengthy Victor Hugo poem inspired by it. The tragic tale was epic: The Greeks were thwarted in their attempts to escape an essential port city cordoned off and being starved by the Ottomans, who were led by a tactically brilliant Egyptian general. Captured Greeks were killed or sent into slavery; the rest blew themselves up in a mass suicide.

The dead hand Delacroix shows emerging from a tomb might even be an oblique reference to one tossed by the sea in Lord Byron's "The Death of Selim," a tempestuous poem of love and revenge in the so-called Orient. Delacroix eulogized Byron's poem in an 1824 entry in his journal: "That hand, whose motion is not life, yet feebly seems to menace strife."

"Missolonghi" was Delacroix's second painting on the theme of Greek independence. The first is a massive canvas, now in the Louvre, showing the gruesome aftermath of a massacre on the island of Chios just off the coast of Turkey. (It's the painting Baron Gros disdained.) A confluence of transformative historical events set the stage for Delacroix's brilliant artistic achievements.

A tumultuous age of revolution and counterrevolution had raised the political stakes. The birth of the modern newspaper industry began the mass production of information. The consolidation of artistic authority in the French capital created a powerful cultural pedestal.

Painting, in short, was at a critical crossroads. It could catapult the propaganda.

And Delacroix? He was not yet 27 when the bloody siege at the port city of Missolonghi began. (It went on for a year.) Greece, ancient cradle of the democratic ideal, held a special place in the imagination of revolutionary Europe, and it gave Delacroix an indelible subject.

But Europe was also saddled with a growing legacy of colonial foreign adventuring, including in North Africa and the Middle East. The young French artist possessed the natural skill, cultivated intellect and sheer, naked ambition to make the most of a social reality riven with contradictions. So Delacroix made his sympathies clear, nowhere more than in this iconic work.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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