Director of the Municipal Gallery of Athens
"The landscape as testimony
The landscape as a reflection of the inner world" *
"And why should it be so embarrassing to engage in frank conversation,
These remarks by the painter, engraver and scene designer Spyros
Vassiliou, made to Andreas Karantonis in the form of a postscript in 1961 and contained in the catalogue for an exhibition of his works at the "Zygos" gallery, epitomize the artist's abiding principles and values based on a long-formed perception of the world, pointing, at the same time, to the role the visual arts should play for their natural address, man. "A painting should, above all else, be a feast for the eyes", Delacroix declared somewhat aphoristically, and this tenet maintained, according to Hauser, its gospel-like status well into the period of the impressionists. It is an aphorism fully exemplified in Vassiliou's oeuvre, and goes a long way towards explaining the stature he gained among specialists and art enthousiasts alike, both ardent admirers of his art.
run a caressing hand over the down of things or gaze in reverie at the
sunset. This delectable portion of life I would not trade for anything in the world,
be it for the unearned privilege of wrapping the globe with wallpaper".
Spyros Vassiliou, born in Galaxidi and tutored at the School of Fine Arts by Nikolaos Lytras, was quick to discern, during his peregrinations along the labyrinthine passageways of Art, the connecting cord between his art and the public, a personal idiom accessible, vibrant and poetically powerful which he created by drawing on his indisputable grasp of technique, a discerning use of colours and a rigorous utilization of pictorial space.
A self-taught engraver, he went on, during the lean years of 1940-47, when paints were scarce because of the war, to illustrate with his wood engravings various texts of poetry and prose, displaying a suprisingly confident hand and incubating an artist well versed in the genre.
Scene designer to a host of stage productions since he embarked on his career in art, hagiographer at the church of St. Denis in Athens from 1936 to 1939, he also channeled his vigour into writing and publishing such valuable books as "The Ships of Galaxidi", "The Greek Merchant Ships" and "Drawings for Children".
Vassiliou living as he did through the seminal years between the two World Wars, took an active part in the endeavours of his fellow artists to redefine Greek art and graft in it the foreign art movements. A loyal exponent of the generation of the Thirties, he retained from this quest for things Greek a life-long passion for his country; little wonder then that this devotion was to express itself through a bulky oeuvre of landscapes on which his eyes feasted and by which his palette was inspired.
His oeuvre of Athenian landscapes, in particular, on which the painter was to focus all his artistic vigour, beyond its indisputable aesthetic values, inherent anyway in all of his works whatever their theme or technique, bear an emphatic testimony to the transmogrifying urbanization of the city-capital and centre of Greece; an enterprise that under the guise of "an advantageous utilization of space" ushered in the inconsiderate invasion of the cement and saw to the emergence of the modern apartment blocks. Looked at from this perspective, the paintings in question also register through his own medium the visual artist's protest against the deteriorating aspect of Athens, the city where Vassiliou lived and worked.
He began his "Athens" paintings in the middle of the Twenties, an undertaking that was only to come to an end with his death in 1985. This consistency in his career confronts the researching scholar with a necessarily bulky output which spans sixty years in the arts and contains a full display of his form - creating resources, his chromatic choice and, eventually, his own code of communication. At the same time, however, the scholar finds himself in an uncomfortable position, duty-bound as he is to enact the role of the intermediary between the artist and the public. In the case of Vassiliou, he sees his role, that of interpreting an artistic discourse and suggesting approach to it for the benefit of the wider public, reduced to a simple accounting of the paintings and to one and only reading of these works. For Vassiliou, has, in full awareness, rid his paintings of any element that would invite multiple readings and remained fully committed to his original aim, that of endowing his work with the power to strike a chord in the spectator -even during the hard decades that followed, a time when the critic had to resort, in an attempt to detect an artist's intentions, to a more complex and cerebral process fully attuned to the demands of the age. The views that follow are but an attempt to briefly survey those works whose theme is the city of Athens. The particular focus of the present exhibition is on those paintings that have Athens as their theme and aspires to provide as far as possible, given the affinity between content and venue, a retrospective over-view of an oeuvre by a resourceful, prolific and happy man, who refused to let existential angst and agonies filter through to his works.
His first landscapes of Athens, created before and during the Thirties, i.e. "Patission Street" (1929), "Athens" (1930), "Exarchia", "Tourkovounia", display a dark gamut of colors and clearly evince a vein of anti-academicism. Vassiliou, after all, had been a pupil of Nikolaos Lytras, the man who rallied, together with a group of artists called "Art", the outspoken voices of all those grown weary of the academic complacency and the certainty of the ready-made solutions proposed at the time by Munich to an increasing backlog of aesthetic problems. And here one could point out, without any exaggeration, that through their explorations the group paved the way for the imminent generation of the Thirties, a generation that was to launch the quest for a Modern Greek discours in art.
The brownish yellow landscapes of Athens during this period depict an idyllic town with tree-lined streets and hillocks unencumbered by buildings against a background of unbroken serenity punctuated by the joyous voices of children who are celebrating with maypoles Carnival Day, or by a cloud of dust raised by an antique car just gone by.
Then came World War II, the German Occupation and the struggle for survival. The artist added his voice to that of other fighting artists in Greece by putting into clandestine circulation his wood engravings.
The 1950s saw the return of the colour paints, and Vassiliou set out to mould his own idiom. Now the colors brighten up to intermingle with the limpidity of the Greek light, a potent fusion turned to the best possible advantage. In an era, still resonant with the quest for "Greekness", his palette focuses on the depiction of those elements that can add brightness to the dim images of the memory and lend to his compositions a glowing intimacy. This is also the time that saw abstract art make its first tentative steps in Greece. Its alluring precepts failed to have any impact on Vassiliou. To him expressing his visions and aspirations as an artist by banishing the object was unthinkable. What was of main interest to Vassiliou was palpable reality and its reconstruction on the canvas-and it is this truth that underlies his entire oeuvre. Realism is, therefore, that mode of self-expression most amenable to the artist in order to map out his favorite city and keep track of its gradual transformation from a violet -hued town into a characterless conurbation of cement. The constantly changing view, marred by the scaffold skeleton of a building in the midst of bleeding chunks, the geometric rendering of apartment blocks clapped onto neoclassical edifices with gryphons and sphinxes in the foreground - all enduring vestiges of bygone times-busts of female statues in the place of figure-heads on ships, the Acropolis behind television antennae, Parthenis 's ruined house against the white walls of apartment
blocks, the mangled writings on the wall, the variations on the same landscape as it changes with the times but seen from the same angle, human figures constantly shrinking or barely identifiable: all these are details that the artist utilizes for the creation of a vast collage-which is also a vehicle of social criticism. For the painter knows full well that in this city it is not only the urban environment that has been affected.
Yet Vassiliou devises his own ways to banish ugliness. With his easel now installed in a domestic interior, he knows how to capture the beauty of a mirror with cherubs or the long-cherished pictures on the walls, and to run a caressing hand over the down of objects, ever anxious to warm the cockles of our heart by superimposing these intimate imprints of our vision onto the cold space out there, often in an illusionistic vein that effects a masterly amalgamation of the real with the non-real. A depicted landscape is an extension of one seen outside, in bands and parallel planes but devoid of any symbolical overtones or, for that matter, of any ambition to supplant human presence. In the painting that depicts the city slumbering in the transcendental light of an old oil-lamp, the precision in the detailed rendering of the theme, along with the virtuosity and the skill required by realism, lend a dream-like atmosphere to the paintings, where one often sees a place reserved by the artist for himself, his beloved ones or even for his own paintings created on the roof of his house.
It was this attachment to the objects, by dint of which, according to M. Kalligas, the petty acquire a value all of their own and the long-forgotten their aura, that he was given the title of the first Greek pop artist. Pop Art, of course, which was grounded in an ideology highly critical of things, especially in America, and focused on the ordinariness of the reproduced object, is more than at one remove from Vassiliou's love for the tender aura of the things that punctuate the landscapes of his inner world, and even further away from those visual elegies of his for whatever is an adventure for our vision, for whatever is eye-worthy.
*From the album Athens by Spyros Vassiliou, Municipal Gallery of Athens, Athens 1998.