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A National Treasure: Antonis Benakis Shares Folk Costume Collection Through Art

A member of one of the Greek diaspora’s most prominent families, and the son of politician and magnate Emmanuel Benakis (1843 –1929), Antonis Benakis (1873 - 1954) was a career art and cultural artifact collector from Alexandria. After settling permanently in Athens in 1926, he founded the Benaki Museum and donated his collection to the Greek State, making it available for the public to enjoy. Benaki further supported his museum’s mission of disseminating the knowledge of Greece’s rich cultural treasures to more people through publications he commissioned, one of which was dedicated to documenting the country’s unique traditional folkwear.

Benaki Museum Department of Modern Greek Culture Curator Xenia Politou shares insight on Benaki’s creative undertaking.

It is important to note that the execution of the album Hellenic National Costumes is not exclusively the work of Nicholas Sperling (1881 - 1940). The album is accompanied, in the second volume, by extensive texts, both introductory and descriptive of each costume, which are signed by the important Greek folklorist and collaborator of Antonis Benakis, Angeliki Hatzimichali (1895 – 1956). We must understand the importance of, and the role this collection played as the first complete publication of such a large collection of traditional folk costumes from all over Greece.

At the time, Antonis Benakis’ goal was to present to the public - not only the Greek, but also the international - a part of the Benaki Museum's collection. For this reason, he published the collection in Greek, English and French. Hellenic National Costumes is not the first such collection Benaki published. A collection of icons, ancient jewelry and Chinese ceramics of the Benaki Museum were already published. Around the same time Hellenic National Costumes was released, a volume with the ecclesiastical embroidery of the Benaki Museum was also published.

This publishing activity supports the museum’s mission to transmit knowledge beyond the walls of the museum, and shows the museum founder’s dedication to acquaint the scientific, but also general public communities, with the Benaki’s rich collections. Beyond this purpose, Benakis’ ultimate goal is expressed in his own words in the preface of the album: "η εις τους ευρυτέρους κύκλους γνωριμία των θησαυρών του κλάδου αυτού της Ελληνικής Λαϊκής τέχνης." In English, translated to "...unto the broader population, the introduction of the treasures of this branch of Greek Folk art."

From the foreword by Benakis in Hellenic National Costumes, we can infer that preparation for this publication commenced around the early 1930s, along with the founding of the museum. It was then that the collaboration between Benakis and Sperling must have begun, one that ceased abruptly with the death of the painter, as we are informed again by the prologue, from which we are also informed that Benakis intended the effort to include additional costumes, but was not possible following Sperling’s death.

Benakis did not collect the costumes to publish the album. He published the album because he had collected the costumes. The album was a kind of catalog of the Benaki Museum's traditional folk collection. To better fulfill the museum’s mission and share a more complete history of local Greek attire, however, Benakis did not hesitate to borrow, specifically for the occasion, some 20 costumes from his friends, so that costumes from all regions of Greece were included in this dedicated publication. Of the costumes presented in the album, 25 to 30 costumes are exhibited in the permanent collection of the Benaki Museum, while another one is on long term loan at the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne.

Today, the album Hellenic National Costumes serves as a reference book for the researcher and scholar of traditional Greek costumes. The accompanying text of Angeliki Hatzimichalis laid the foundation for the subsequent study of Greek costumes. Of undeniable significance, of course, is the album’s illustrations. At a time when photography was already widespread, Benakis chose painting as the means of imagery for the album, and selected Nicholas Sperling specifically for this purpose. On the one hand, Benaki wanted to add color to the images that would accompany the texts, an element missing from the black and white photographs of the time, but one necessary to translate the true uniqueness of the costumes. On the other hand, selecting Sperling, Benaki knew he had chosen the artist who could document, with absolute fidelity, the tiniest detail of the embroidery and texture of each fabric.

_____________________________ WORDS: Xenia Politou

PHOTOS: Benaki Museum ILLUSTRATIONS: Nicolas Sperling

Xenia Politou is Curator at the Benaki Museum Department of Modern Greek Culture in Athens.


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