Representation and Subtraction: Selective Affinities
Review by Paris Capralos
The subject of the exhibition is the detection of the influence of the European abstraction movements after the Second World War in painting, as originally close to contemporary Greek Art, against the radical collective embarkation in the chariot of abstract expressionism.
Representation and Subtraction: Selective Affinities
Greece’s difficult history through dictatorships, Balkan Wars and two World Wars has halted the ability of the visual arts to evolve alongside the international art scene until recently. Today, the younger generation of Greek visual artists is seeking a present and future within and beyond the borders, responding to Greek stakes and the demand for social change.
The subject of the exhibition is the detection of the influence of the European abstraction movements after the Second World War in painting, as originally close to contemporary Greek Art, against the radical collective embarkation in the chariot of abstract expressionism. Representation with subtraction, abstract, minimalist or integrated in any other genre, the new Greek art scene presents elements of autonomy and specificity. As Goethe does in “Selective Affinities”, in this exhibition we seek to highlight through the works of young artists the mechanisms and relationships that connect and separate people in modernity and the today’s visual arts at stake.
During the interwar period, scientists and artists from Europe fled to the United States. The American art scene was rather conservative until then, especially with regard to the visual arts. However, the democratic convictions of the upper educated classes of American society brought little resistance to the European avant-garde. Visual artists from Europe, inspired by new ideas and often initiators of movements – such as cubists, expressionists, surrealists – moved the cultural scene of Europe to New York. The first mass contribution and impact on the American public came in 1913, when everyone was surprised to see the works of the European avant-garde at the International Modern Art Exhibition in New York, at “The Armory Show”, which took place in the supply depot of the 69th Infantry Regiment and included about 1600 works by the Fauvists, Cubists and Futurists, the avant-garde trends in Europe. In 1929 the Museum of Modern Art was founded in New York. The most important exhibitions were held in 1936 and they brought the American public into contact with the European avant-garde: one on “Cubism and Abstract Art” and the other on “Fantastic Art, Dadaism and Surrealism”. In 1937, the Solomon P. Guggenheim Museum was founded, which featured only European artists. Abstraction was readily adopted in America, as a counterpoint, at a time when in the Soviet Union Socialist Realism was becoming the main tool of propaganda, with offspring trends such as Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Gestural Art.
From the beginning of the previous century until the 1960s, groups, movements and trends were created that defined the art of the period in painting, sculpture and engraving: Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Metaphysical Painting, Russian avant-garde, Abstraction, Neo-Plasticism, New Objectivity, Surrealism. From the end of World War II on, Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Tachism, Neo-Dadaism, Pop Art, Visual and Kinetic Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction, environments, installations, performances and happenings, Land Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Photo-Realism.
Representation and Abstraction: the Greek a- continuum
In 1950, many of the defenders and opponents of abstract art in Greece were not concerned with the works at all. They saw extreme modernism as negative or positive, not what it produced. Of course, abstract art was considered as extreme modernism only in Greece, since for the rest of Europe it was an implanted bouquet of movements. From a purely artistic point of view, the refusal of representation would have meant a liberation of the work towards speculative. Modern Greek art of the time seemed to be moving towards modernization with a delay on the one hand, but looking towards Europe – according to the dictates of modern European art – on the other. For its proponents, abstraction in Greece meant that the country was following European developments, albeit belatedly. The fact that it provoked extreme opposition from conservatives was seen as the best proof of this. The post-civil war era, together with the uncertain economic miracle of development after World War II, constituted a suitable environment for the development of art in Greece, as well. Many Greek artists had lived in Paris since the War or even the Civil War and their role could only be modernizing. The proposals of some seemed extreme, and largely detached from the modernization of Greek Art, which was moving at a slow pace. Foreign developments did not integrate smoothly as movements, or points of inspiration for Greek artists, and, if some Greek artists embraced them, the same was not true of the friendlier public, the academic milieu, or even the general body of Greek artists themselves of the period. In Greece at that time, most visual artists remained “uneducated”, while those who were studying were modernized in haste, copying developments rather than imitating them. The war against Abstraction in Greece at the time did not prevent the country from sending artists to Biennales, giving the illusion that Greece was progressing like the rest of Europe. In fact, in Greece at that time there was an open war between a supposed Greekness and modernism. Despite the anti-academicism of the inter-war generation and the imperative for renewal in Greek art as well, in the post-war period most of the public sought a return to tradition. The resulting conflict largely shaped the real new Greek art as experienced within Greece, rather than from the few brilliant export stars to international exhibitions. Three trends that shaped the terms of the conflict in art in the late 1950s in Greece. The first trend was – what could be called – defenders of classical naturalism and the evolution of Academism and the Munich School. The second was favoring the figurative art of the uncultured, where evolutionary elements borrowed from Byzantine art were obvious. Finally come the Left Intellectuals, who were advocates of the adoption of new forms in art as expressed in central Europe.
The 1960s saw the rise of mostly figurative abstraction in Greece in painting, a genre that could have been a derivative of the Greek past, along of course with extremes adopted mainly on ideological rather than artistic grounds. Yannis Spyropoulos, Lazaros Lameras, Gerasimos Slavos, Chryssa (Chrysa Vardea), Takis (Takis Vassilakis), Alex Mylona, Dimitris Kontos, Klearchos Loukopoulos, Kostas Kulentianos, George Zongolopoulos, Nikos Kesanlis, Loukas Samaras, Yannis Spyropoulos, Yannis Gaitis, Vlassis Kaniaris, Dimitris Mytaras, Kostas Tsoklis and many others who do not fit in this brief reference are the descendants of this strange and very Greek process in every form of art and in every means of expression.
The process of education and integration is still an ongoing process. Although the younger generation of artists has been filling the gap, the rate of penetration of contemporary art forms among the art-loving public is not the same. The contribution of the Schools of Fine Arts that complemented the work of the Athens School of Fine Arts (indicatively the School of Fine Arts of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the School of Fine Arts of the University of Western Macedonia, based in Florina), together with the developments in the media of artists and their contact with the rest of the world (internet, Social Media, etc.) has increased the number of young artists who come into contact with the international scene. The visual arts in Greece have not sufficiently spread among the general public, who often judge visual arts through distorting lenses and criteria of objective validity drawn from our National Narrative, or even indulge in aphorisms regarding what “is” and what “is not” art. If the connection between contemporary concerns and the artistic production of the visual artists in Greece is at stake today, so is the visual education of the general public.
Visual Arts Curator