Ancient Hellenic spirit revived in Melbourne

Launched on Thursday, the Hellenic Museum's latest exhibition pays tribute to one of Greece's most famous and controversial artists. Curator Aliki Tsirgialou explains why Nelly's photography is a must see

Despite our arguably increasing tolerance to different forms of artistic expression, a nude photoshoot in an ancient temple is probably not the kind of art you would expect to be met without criticism today, let alone 90 years ago.

Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari – known as Nelly’s – did exactly that, taking a series of photos depicting acclaimed ballerina Mona Paiva dancing naked on the Acropolis.

For her, the visual result was a reminder that the naked body was lauded by ancient Greeks and thus embodied the Hellenic spirit. Indeed, the publication of these photographs caused a wave of admiration among global audiences, but it also sparked a negative reaction within the conservative Athenian society of the time.

In any case, Nelly’s work won her the title of one of Greece’s most famous and controversial artists.

Now for the first time, her photographs are being exhibited in Australia, at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum as part of a collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Greece.

Against the Ruins features a selection of Nelly’s pictures taken during the 1920s and 30s divided in three spaces: ‘Dancing on the Acropolis’, ‘The Delphic Festivals’ and ‘La Mode Grecque’.

Acclaimed photographer Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari, known as Nelly’s.

ANCIENT GREECE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
Curator Aliki Tsirgialou explains the rationale behind the common theme explored throughout the exhibition: the use of ancient sites as a visual background, but also as the artist’s main source of inspiration.

“When Nelly’s arrived in Athens for the first time, she tried to project her admiration for ancient Greece, passed on to her by her father, to the images she would create,” Ms Tsirgialou tells Neos Kosmos.

As the artist writes in her autobiographical account, she “went straight to the Acropolis” to find herself within the surroundings that would prompt a deeper acquaintance with her ancestral roots.

Nelly’s was born in Aydin of Asia Minor in 1899 and moved to Greece at the age of 25, upon completing her studies in Dresden, Germany.

“She was mentored by two renowned German photographers, Hugo Erfurth and Franz Fiedler, who are counted among the representatives of pictorialism, a movement loosely defined by the manipulation of the photograph in order to make it look more like a painting,” says Ms Tsirgialou.

“This sort of classical education had a direct effect on her work when she opened her photographic studio on Ermou Street in Athens in 1925.”

One of the pictorialist techniques used by Nelly’s is called the Bromoil process, and involves applying ink to the image by hand, using a special brush.

Launched on Thursday, Melburnians now have the opportunity to see a selection of these original prints at the Hellenic Museum.

“No two images can be the same, each of these prints are unique, and this is one of the elements that make the exhibition special,” says the curator.

“They are dated back to the 1920s and as a matter of fact many of them were created for the very purpose of decorating the welcoming hall of her studio. We can see in photos of that era, the exact same pictures exhibited at the gallery hanging on the interior walls of her studio.”

‘DANCING ON THE ACROPOLIS’
Located in the first exhibition space is Nelly’s most iconic Parthenon nude, capturing Russian dancer Elizaveta Nikolska performing a leap among the ancient columns in 1930.

But Ms Tsirgialou explains the idea for the controversial shot was in fact born a few years earlier, on the occasion of prima ballerina Mona Paiva’s visit to Athens.

“Nelly’s proposed to photograph her and along with distinguished archaeologist and director of the Acropolis at the time, Alexander Philadelpheus, made their way to the ancient site. Paiva was asked to remove her clothes and pose nude dancing amongst the sanctuary buildings,” she reveals.

Interestingly, there are two conflicting versions of the story, with Philadelpheus having publicly stated he came up with the concept of Nikolska’s nude photo shoot, while in Nelly’s writing years later in her autobiography she claims that the idea was hers.

The Russian dancer Elizaveta ‘Lila’ Nikolska, member of Prague National Ballet, on the Acropolis. Athens, November 1930.

FROM THE DELPHIC FESTIVALS TO … LA MODE GRECQUE
Moving on to the next gallery room, the viewer encounters photographs taken during a series of events at the archaeological site of Delphi. Consisting of theatre and dance performances, athletic games and lectures among others, the Delphic Festival was first organised in 1927 by Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and his wife Eva Palmer.

“When Nelly’s was hired by Sikelianos and Palmer as the exclusive photographer of the second Delphic Festival [held in 1930] she rented a small house close to the site, in order to attend all the rehearsals. She was inspired by the costumes and choreography and took portraits of the actors and athletes participating in the events in poses resembling figures found in ancient Greek vases and other works of art, using Delphi as the background setting,” says Ms Tsirgialou.

Similarly, the historical site serves as a background setting in the work exhibited in the third and last section, yet “within a completely distinct approach,” the curator points out.

The pictures depict models posing in places such as the temple of Olympian Zeus and the Byzantine Museum, dressed in clothes inspired by ancient and traditional Greek folk costumes.

Nelly’s work was commissioned by the secretariat of press and tourism, following a fashion contest that took place in Athens, with the aim of promoting Greek fashion abroad, and featured in a special magazine entitled La Mode Grecque, which circulated in three languages.

“Back then in Greece, the photographic image was considered the most suitable means for use in promotional material to boost tourism,” explains Ms Tsirgialou.

The dancer Mona Paiva on the Acropolis. Athens, October 1925.

AN ICONIC ARTIST
A total of 65 photographs are presented in Against the Ruins, which were selected specifically for this exhibition out of thousands kept in the Benaki Museum’s photographic archives, with Nelly’s having donated her complete photographic work, along with her rights, to the museum in 1985.

While just a small segment of her prolific career, according to the curator it is precisely this body of work on display that defined Nelly’s artistic identity and became a stepping stone for the next generation of Greek photographers.

As the curator of the Benaki Photographic Archive with years of expertise in the field under her belt, and a natural appreciation for the depth of Nelly’s photography, Ms Tsirgialou is the ideal candidate to curate such an exhibition. Though she admits that her aim is not necessarily to appeal to experts, but rather to make the work accessible to a wider audience.

“We strive to make photography and especially archive photography – which tends to be less known – public knowledge, to foster awareness about the legacy of great photographers like Nelly’s, whose work forms part of our cultural heritage,” she says.

For those yet to be convinced that Nelly’s exhibition is worth seeing, Ms Tsirgialou presents a rather hard-to-refute argument, referencing acclaimed art historian and curator Beaumont Newhall, whose seminal book The History of Photography is hailed as the ultimate study on the subject.

“Considering the person who documented the history of photography worldwide […] included Nelly’s in his chronicle, we might as well assume he saw something special in her work, don’t you think?” she laughs.

‘Against the Ruins – Photographs by Nelly’s’ is currently being exhibited at The Hellenic Museum (280 William St, Melbourne, VIC) until 3 February, 2019. For further details, visit hellenic.org.au/nellys