In the Shadow of the Parthenon
Report from … Athens
How does a modern-day artist go to work in the city dominated by the Parthenon?
‘We live with it,’ says Stefanos Daskalakis, an established Greek painter living in Athens, ‘but it’s no longer an obstacle.’
The heroic spirit of Ancient Greece, nevertheless, is still evident – whether in the subject matter of the art itself or in the way it is viewed and presented. The figurative paintings of Stefanos Daskalakis seem haunted by heroism. It’s heroism down on its luck – perhaps just a yearning memory of heroism – which gives gravitas and emotion to work based on close observation of the figure. He can be seen at Sismanoglio Megaro (the Sotiris Felios collection) in Istanbul until 12 December, an exhibition which will travel to Venice in June, and at the Kouvoutsakis Art Institute in Athens – Felios and Kouvoutsakis being two private collectors with a passion for promoting Greek art.
A weightiness pervades Daskalakis’ paintings – and it is not just that his subjects are often voluminous women painted on large canvases. It’s like the weightiness of Greek urban folk music: “You don’t need a voice,” someone tells the singer in a Greek film, “you’ve got sorrow inside you, and pain.” Daskalakis is highly trained as a painter, in Athens and Paris, but is not afraid to address the same raw feelings in his work. Ioanna, Despina, Myrto – the models he works from again and again – look as if they are going through hell, but this only emphasises their human dignity, and a kind of enduring heroism that makes life’s degradations seem more monumental.
Viewed for a moment simply as genre painting, these portraits say something about Greek society that is interestingly different from, for example, Lucian Freud’s bleak view of contemporary London. Discovering that Daskalakis prefers to paint actors because, he says, they understand what he is after, puts another light on the work. Theatricality is in the emotional poses that his models strike, in their facial expressions, and in Daskalakis’ dramatic method of lighting, where heavy pools of shadow lie behind the characters.
The women are presented like broken champions. The flesh is tired – so tired your feet feel sore just looking at the bulky older woman wearing the pointed shoes of a young fashionista. In another painting she appears perched on a stool in an uncomfortably short skirt, a tiny handbag held in plump fingers with red polished nails, but the intelligence in her level gaze challenges the artist/viewer to pity or ridicule her.
Daskalakis was assistant and sometimes model to the famous Yannis Tsarouchis for nine years until his death in 1989. Tsarouchis’ painting, he says, “synthesized the Greek tradition – Ancient, Byzantine and Primitive – along with the search for modernism”. In early 2010, Benaki – a privately funded museum in Athens – hosted the first large Tsarouchis retrospective to celebrate 100 years since his birth, and it sells a giant catalogue of his work.
Tsarouchis had a pivotal influence on the art community of Greece and on wider Greek society, both as a painter and through his charismatic ability with words. His work expresses the heroic ideal of ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Baroque movements in the form of young men, while emphasising their weaknesses. Elegant composition, vigorous lines, fresh colour, lush paint: these make the first impression on seeing a work by Tsarouchis. But it only paves the way to a little frisson, if not shock at the realisation that these muscular boys with handsome faces and gleaming chests, lounging on beds, half-naked or wearing cute sailor outfits, have vulnerable, uncertain faces, broken limbs or bandaged hand. Some are adorned with ridiculous fairy wings. Like boys in a gay body-building magazine or from a poem by Constantine Cavafy, they resemble mythical heroes. His work is on permanent exhibition at the Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation in Athens.
Another kind of heroic aspiration is felt when you enter the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art created by collector Dakis Joannou. Housed in a former sock factory in an affluent suburb of Athens, Deste is a kind of Saatchi, in that it is based on one person’s taste in art and his ability to buy it. Like Saatchi, it brings local and international art to the public eye and has a generally enabling influence on contemporary art. It offers a prize biannually to an emerging Greek artist, funds lavish art projects, and opens its art library and archive of Greek artists to the public.
Mainly though, it creates themed exhibitions drawn from Joannou’s collection, like the current Alpha Omega (open until December 29). But here – at least in the case of this exhibition – the enterprise trips itself up, perhaps by taking itself too seriously (as heroes sometimes do). Despite helpful curators, a hefty catalogue and a quantity of exhibited texts, the connection between the blown up philosophy on the wall and the playful character of most of the work is mystifying, and doesn’t do either any good. For instance, Jeff Koons’ painterlyTree, Paul McCarthy’s cynical installation White Snow, Maurizio Cattelan’s floating donkey and disembodied saluting arms, and Triple Candie’s witty ingroup Maurice Cattelan is Dead may or may not relate to multiplicity and the cyclical nature of the universe. Either way, the texts are too sonorous for the art, and end up undermining it.
A room devoted to three beautiful paintings by Chris Ofili is an exception. You can pin a lot onto Ofili without risking pretentiousness because big mystical issues really do seem to be at the heart of his work, and he has the rare ability to turn them into good art. Christiana Soulou is showcased as a new Greek artist, but her light pencil drawings based on the Tarot are subtle almost to the point of invisibility.
Continuing the heroic theme, this past summer the Benaki Museum staged an exhibition of the naïve painter Theophilos (1867-1934). A total eccentric, he saw himself as Alexander the Great. He walked around dressed up like him, complete with helmet and spear, and painted himself in the role.
With the massive support of private funders like Deste and Benaki – and there are several others, including the Contemporary Greek Art Institute (Nees Morfes), the Frissiras Museum and the stunning Onassis Cultural Center that opened on Dec.7 – Greek art itself is likely to become increasingly visible in the wider world.