The Nikos Sofialakis Center of Neoclassical Sculpture
An interview with Vice Admiral Georgios Chraniotis, Founder, President
Nikos Sofialakis was born in Erfous, Rethymnon, Crete, Greece in 1914 and passed away in Athens, Greece in 2002. While still a young child in Crete, he was considered an artistic prodigy by his schoolteachers who arranged for him to travel to Athens, at the age of ten, where he would have greater opportunities to nurture his talents. And so began a lifetime of artistic and historic contribution…
Nicole Chraniotis, MA, is the granddaughter of the artist, named after and baptized by the artist. She serves as the Cultural Projects Administrator and Director of Research at the Nikos Sofialakis Center of Neoclassical Sculpture.
Q.When and how was the Gallery opened?
In 2004 our family inaugurated the Nikos Sofialakis Center of Neoclassical Sculpture, built on the exact location of the original atelier at 21 Taxilou Street, Athens, Greece. The new Center is a private, not-for-profit research center and exhibition hall dedicated to the life and works of Nikos Sofialakis, and is open to the public without charge.
The main focus of our Center is on the life and works of the artist, and we also offer lectures, presentations, seminars and discussions on the Fine Arts with an emphasis on Sculpture. The Center hosts organized educational visits for students in primary, secondary and tertiary education, and participates in cultural initiatives that showcase the arts in Athens, like the Open House international project and lecture collaborations with the University of Athens. Our Center also hosts visiting exhibits, and produces in-house publications on the life and works of Nikos Sofialakis.
Q.What would you say your grandfather believed to be his greatest accomplishment?
Nicole: I feel that my grandfather believed his greatest accomplishment was his role as a teacher. From a young age, he had been blessed with great teachers – especially during his formative years, essentially raised in the Atelier method, where he apprenticed at the side of a great master, and this experience truly left its mark on him because he insisted on carrying on the tradition to the end of his days.
His workshop was always open, always welcoming to the passer-by, the curious student, the tourist, the local, the young, the old, anyone and everyone who cared to know anything about art. He would teach his students anatomy and geometry, teach them to recognize and understand the peculiarities of clay, plaster, marble, stone, wood, and would teach his students to draw, to make molds and casts, to sculpt on a variety of mediums.
As a child, he always reminded me to call him “Daskalos” (Teacher) instead of “pappou” (grandfather) because to him that was the most sacred word in the world. He drew immense joy in the fact that many of his students kept in touch with him over the years, having become artists in their own right. I would like to think that when he passed on, his greatest satisfaction was that he had imparted his knowledge to his students freely, without charge, as he had been taught early on, and that he had welcomed and nurtured students from all over the world, from Korea to the United States, and Greece to Australia.
Q.What do you think the greatest accomplishment of the Gallery has been?
Vice Admiral Chraniotis: I feel that our most significant accomplishment has been our longevity. The Nikos Sofialakis Center of Neoclassical Sculpture began as a family promise to honor the legacy of my late father-in-law, and we have managed to do that on our own strengths and by financing the endeavor on our own. That we have been able to withstand the economic crisis and remain true to the artist’s wish, that his work be accessible to all people and all ages, free of charge, is a great success in difficult and challenging times.
This is why we feel that any contribution we can offer to the cultural pursuits of our city and country, at a time when politismos is the first to suffer when economic hardships strain a nation, is an accomplishment worth being proud of. And it is the reason we network with other institutions, and participate in cultural activities that are not all exclusively geared to sculpture, but are more oriented towards art in the main, to encourage people of all ages to be involved in the arts and to support artistic endeavors.
Q.Share with us a little bit about the Nikos Sofialakis Scholarship Award.
Vice Admiral Chraniotis: In 2010, the family privately established the Nikos Sofialakis Scholarship Award in honor of the principles of Apprenticeship and Scholarship that so profoundly influenced the Artist’s life and his contribution to his craft. To date, the Scholarship has been awarded by the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in the United Kingdom, through the Liturgical Arts Program, to outstanding scholars in Wall Painting and Byzantine Iconography. We hope to continue the practice with the Athens School of Fine Arts, as established in our Center’s mission statement, and in general to assist researchers and doctoral candidates in the arts to explore the works of Nikos Sofialakis in an academic setting.
Q.Do you have a favorite memory of your grandfather?
Nicole: There are so many memories to choose from, as my grandfather was an inspired man with a true Cretan spirit! Though if I had to single one out, it would be a warm sunny day at his workshop, which had a central open courtyard that was lined with trees from Crete which he had planted himself, and a beautiful grapevine overhead. We would spend hours in the warm sun, in the shade of those trees, playing with clay while he would tell me my favorite stories from Greek mythology.
Between 1925–1937, Nikos Sofialakis apprenticed under the neoclassical sculptor Georgios Bonanos and in 1938 he entered the Athens School of Fine Arts on a scholarship from the Athina Stathatou Legacy Foundation, which made his studies possible during the WWII German occupation of Greece, where he was taught by the sculptor and Professor Michalis Tombros.
Sofialakis consistently won distinctions and awards during his studies, and in his final year at the Athens School of Fine Arts, he won the 1944 First Prize in Sculpture with his diploma presentation Maternity, a terracotta study of a mother nursing her child in miniature size. The monetary award came at a crucial time and enabled him to purchase his own atelier in the post-WWII period.
Early on in his career, Sofialakis was privileged to meet the great Cretan author, Nikos Kazantzakis, at the 1945 Parnassos Exhibition. Kazantzakis was so impressed with the artist that he visited his atelier twice. “I entrust to you my two ideas, that you might write them out in marble – the ‘Enslaved Greek Child’ and the ‘Execution Pole of Agia’”, Kazantzakis had told Sofialakis upon his second visit to his atelier, during which he commissioned Sofialakis for the monumental works Child of the Occupation and Defender. Kazantzakis had just returned from his fact-finding mission in Crete, recording German atrocities during WWII, and was emotionally charged from this trip, relaying to the artist, “[…] The pole of Agia was a large oak where the Germans tied their hostages and executed them one by one. Most of the shots are at heart level, so the wood is close to snapping there. […] This second one [idea] is my Christ and my God; 480 Cretans perished on it, taken as hostages from the fields. Can you make it so that freedom breaks free from this pole? Do it, and I will set the work at my own expense.” The sculptor ‘penned in marble’ both works, which would become two of his greatest compositions and emblematic visions of the Greek post-war era.
Sofialakis soon began to emerge as one of the most prominent Greek artists, and perhaps, as art critic G. Marmarides noted, the most “authentic Greek artist of his time”. In 1947 he participated in the Grekisk Konst Exhibition which was organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Greek diaspora, to support the rebuilding effort in post-war Greece. He presented his work in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and his marble high-relief Mother and Child earned him the first prize in Oslo, Norway.
In 1952, at the Pan-Hellenic Artists’ Exhibition at the Zappeion in 1952, Sofialakis presented his natural scale Maternity in black granite, where it attracted the attention of the sovereigns Paul and Frederica. They requested a private viewing at his atelier. As a result, Sofialakis saw his Maternity purchased by the Bank of Greece and donated to the Alexandras Maternity Hospital of Athens at the behest of Queen Frederica. She requested he sculpt her marble portrait, for which she posed in person at his atelier. At just 40 years old, Sofialakis had established himself as the preferred artist of the archons and important personas of the country – Prime Ministers Eleftherios Venizelos, Nicholaos Plastiras (1950) and Sophocles Venizelos (1964), Princess Alexandra (1954), and Dr. George Papanikolaou (1962).
By the 1960s, Sofialakis had entered his most productive period, with his participation in the 1960 Pan-Hellenic Artists Exhibition at the Zappeion with his statue Kore with Grapes, hailed by many critics as the artist’s grand opus; this is also the period of his monumental work.
In 1967, Sofialakis was invited to the United States to participate in the Fine Arts Festival of Mediterranean Countries in New York where he presented his exhibition, entitled, The Gods of Greece, a theme consisting of 70 marble pieces featuring Ancient Greek mythological motifs. His work was publicized at great length, such that the Metropolitan Museum of Art requested his assistance with the restoration of antiquities on exhibit at the museum.
In 1968, the leader of the National Resistance in Crete during World War II, General “Kapetan” Manolis Badouvas, commissioned Sofialakis to memorialize the epic Battle of Crete. Sofialakis researched the subject for six months before unveiling his Battle of Crete in June 1969, an 18m long x 0,90m high marble depiction of the famous battle. The press and public alike applauded his monumental composition, which was set at the Monument Memorial of Cretan National Resistance Fighters in Heraklion, Crete, founded by General Badouvas.
Sofialakis participated in every Pan-Hellenic Artists Exhibition from 1940–1975, earning acclaim for his work in Greece and abroad, and produced vigorously until, and throughout, the 1980s. His creative impetus spanned five decades, during which time he negotiated the full range of artistic subjects and themes. Though many of his works were commissioned portrait pieces, Sofialakis’ love for children, who frequently figured as his subject matter, as is apparent in the works Babe With Bonnet (1943), Mother and Child (1947), The Twins (1947), and Maternity (1952), rendered him a master of the infant form in marble. His greatest devotion, however, was to Greek mythology, and it is here that the most prolific output of his work lies.
His Odysseus, a high-relief in Pendelic marble was presented by the University of Athens to Queen Sophia of Spain (then Princess of Greece) in 1962 on the occasion of her wedding, while his characteristic micro-sculpture in marble featuring Greek mythological motifs attracted collectors from all over the world, with many of his works now found in museums and private collections in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Cairo, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, London, Sydney, Korea, and the United States.
Sofialakis would continue to honor the tradition of the Atelier method by which he had been trained, in receiving students and apprentices without charge throughout the course of his lifetime.
Nikos Sofialakis is considered one of the last genuine proponents of the Ancient Greek tradition in sculpture. The basic premise of his craft is unquestionably humanistic, and the human form, which dominates in all of his artistic explorations, is, without question, the focal point of his art.
Sofialakis synthesized two very distinct modes in his art, bearing the influence of his great teacher, Bonanos, and his professor at the School of Fine Arts, Tombros. From the former, he gleaned the sculpting techniques characteristic of the Canova School, in which Bonanos had received his training; from the latter, he discovered the modernist impulse in the manner of Maillol, who had influenced Tombros during his studies in Paris. The resulting style of classical realism was wholly unique to Sofialakis, who used his erudition and creativity to bridge the gaping divide between rationality and pathos in his work. Today it may be said that the uniqueness of his style expresses itself in all of his compositions with unwavering dedication to the notion that the classical ideal can still be contemporary in the 21st century, capable of stimulating and provoking across generations and cultures.
Where to see the works of Nikos Sofialakis:
Sofialakis’ works can be found in museum and private collections around the world. In Greece, his works can be found in Athens, in Northern Greece, all throughout Crete and in the Dodecanese and the Ionian islands, as well as in Cyprus. Some notable examples include the Maternity at the Alexandras Maternity Hospital, and the Battle of Crete frieze at the Monument Memorial of Cretan Resistance Fighters in Heraklion, Crete, and his busts of Professor George Papanikolaou at the Aghios Savvas Cancer Hospital in Athens.n
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