“Landscape is not a genre of art but a medium.
Landscape is a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other. As such, it is like money: good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value.
Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package.”
‘PANAYIOTIS Tetsis: The Deification of the Landscape’ at the Theocharakis Foundation, is a show that presents an artist’s spiritual exploration of the Greek landscape (as the title suggests), loaded with symbolism, expression and passion. The 27 mostly large-scale works flood the art space with Tetsis’ colour, but also with plenty of moody black-and-white, accompanied by more than 50 shades of grey… Is the 90-year old master trying to tell us something?
In his book ‘Landscape and Western Art’, Malcolm Andrews discusses W.J.T. Mitchell’s concept of the landscape, and among other things, the notion of the landscape as a man-made construct. Not any piece of land can qualify to become a landscape, the artist will choose and frame a particular piece of land from the entire landscape that he sees before him, or he will create a particular landscape in his mind which he will then try and copy onto the canvas in order to deliver the meaning and composition he is after. The landscape can become a symbol – it can represent the power of nature, the power of life, or even of human imperialism among other things. From this point of view, one wonders what is the meaning behind Tetsis’ darker landscapes in the current show.
Tetsis’ art in the past has spoiled us in terms of colour, texture and expression. Hailed as a colourist (although he didn’t like this ‘pigeonhole’), this artist has pioneered Greek landscape painting in the modern and postmodern age via such a unique and unrivalled manner. In fact I can’t think of any other Greek artist who has explored the Greek landscape with such expressive (dare I say even abstract expressive) means to such an extent, employing bold and dynamic brushstrokes in order to seek out the sheer, raw energy and drama in nature. His portrayal of Greece’s seas, boats and landscapes is exciting and ‘loud’. If his paintings were music, they would combine both Rock and Beethoven, because behind all that colourful noise and apparent spontaneity, one can also discern a very thorough structuring and calculated understanding of the picture plane and of perspective.
Tetsis’ seas are usually full of motion, he often enjoys rendering menacing waves curled and ready to crash with a crescendo. We have some of those in the current show, but this time, what seems to prevail, is the black and white – instead of the colour – especially in his portrayal of massive rock formations. Tetsis has said of his black and white works that in a sense they are more colourful than the others, because they give the viewer the opportunity to imagine them with colour, a process that one also undergoes when viewing a black and white photograph or film. Yet why so much black and grey, and this fascination with rocks?
One argument could be the following: When people have reached this point in their lives, (in this case Tetsis’ 9th decade of creating art), there are certain things they want to come to terms with, and certain things they need to confront. Maybe this is what Tetsis is doing here. The huge grey monumental rocks he has presented us with this time, for me, symbolize the ‘rock of ages’ – unaltered, timeless. We will leave this world, but these rocks, will remain. Everything else changes in nature – the light, the colours, the plants, trees and seasons, but the rocks… they stay the same. They are the closest to being ‘immortal’ that material life can offer. Tetsis’ present painterly fascination with them seems to speak of the unchanging in nature, rather than the ephemeral. Of what remains.
Yet there’s also a rainbow. In one of the works – with a particularly dark and gloomy sky – there’s a rainbow, a ray of hope. It’s almost like a vision, because let’s face it, you don’t see many rainbows in such dire weather conditions! What comes to mind is Jacob Van Ruisdael’s work ‘The Jewish Cemetery’ (1655-60), an allegorical work that has been interpreted as telling the story of man, the ruins in the work representing old age, while the rainbow in the dark sky has been called the ‘Mild arch of promise’ by Constable*. Similarly Tetsis’ rainbow seems to symbolize here the promise of something else, of the possible existence of another world – of eternity.
Tetsis was born on Hydra (1925), and moved to Piraeus in 1937 with his family. He would return to the island to paint every summer, where he would meet Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and Pikionis – both of whom he considers mentors. In 1940 he was taught painting by the German artist Klaus Frieslander, and later he went on to study at the Athens School of Fine Arts (1943-49). He later went on to study art in Paris, before returning to Greece to teach at the Vakalo school of art (1958-1976), which he cofounded together with Eleni Vakalo, Asandour Baharian and Frantzis Frantzeskakis . Afterwards, Tetsis taught at the Athens School of Fine Arts, where he also was appointed Dean of the school (in 1989). With over 90 solo shows to his name, and many more group exhibitions, this is an artist that has never stopped being profoundly productive.
Tetsis is also a generous man, having donated many of his works to various people (including his carpenter in Sifnos), plus 70 paintings and 50 prints to the National Gallery. According to Marina Lambraki-Plaka (art history professor and director of the National Gallery), Tetsis is one of the last advocates of the painting of ‘the Gaze’. Although he matured in 1950s Greece, where the European movement of Abstract art had already begun to influence Greek artists, Tetsis continued to paint en plein air, out in nature, translating Greek light into colourful expression on his canvas. For Lambraki-Plaka, the current show brings to mind the literature of Papadiamantis, or the poetry of Kalvos, Seferis and Elytis.
For Takis Mavrotas, the curator of the show, these works display the artist’s focus on “the unchanging reality of Hydra’s nature, his birthplace”. Hydra – Tetsis’ beloved island, charged with nostalgic childhood memories, where it all began for the artist, even in terms of his creative course – acts here as the medium through which Tetsis gives us his soul.
(‘Panayiotis Tetsis: The Deification of the Landscape’, runs till October 25, at the Theocharakis Foundation).
*Referred to in Malcolm Andrews’ ‘Landscape and Western Art, p. 186