SITTING in collector Vlassis Frissiras’ office, I explain to him that I had interviewed him once before, about 12 or so years ago – and that although I have taken a break from covering the art scene in Greece for a decade (!!!!!! due to a ‘change of profession’ after becoming a full-time mum), my love of art has drawn me back into its world once again… Surprisingly, he smiles understandingly, and looks towards the wall to the right of him, pointing to three photographs he has stuck there, of his young grandchildren. He then starts telling me of their attributes, gushing grandfatherly admiration and love. And then, we start the ball rolling on matters of art…
We discuss the current show at the Frissiras Museum, entitled ‘Elles’, which presents around 400 works by 67 female artists from his collection (of around 3,500 works). He tells me of how the idea for the show came about, after he read Waris Dirie’s book ‘Desert Flower’ – and how he believes that the abuse of women should not be tolerated in the slightest. We talk about how the position of woman has changed in society, and also in the art world. We make comparisons to woman’s place in literature, and in music, discussing how in the former, women writers were revered from much earlier on in history, while in the latter, you still find it hard to find women composers for example. Frissiras then goes on to state the case of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan:
“Consider that there was not one woman in the Berlin Philharmonic, in the days of Karajan, but now there are many. You still don’t find many women conductors though. However Karajan had a reason why he didn’t want to employ women, because when they got pregnant and couldn’t turn up to auditions, they disrupted the orchestra in this way.” However for Frissiras, that’s not enough of a reason to not employ women – because after all, they also have the “sacred role” of motherhood to undertake. For Frissiras, that is something to be revered, rather than to be considered a problem.
“Some people couldn’t believe that I would celebrate the museum’s 15th anniversary with a show dedicated to women” the collector and now-retired lawyer says with a grin. He then goes on to state that for him, art today is genderless and that the current show proves it. But is this really so? Is there no difference between the work of a male artist and that of a female? Surely they are attracted to different subject-matter? Surely a female would paint the female body very differently to how a male would? Take Picasso for example… Frissiras argues against such notions:
“Today, both men and women have the same experiences. I could say that women might have a certain heightened sensitivity, but not always. There are plenty of tough women out there too! Similarly, there are some sensitive men out there. They’re not all animals!!!” Frissiras laughs and continues “One man might paint a woman as an object of desire, but another might paint her as a mother… so this again varies too. Each artist will paint his theme differently, one hundred artists will paint in one hundred different ways. It depends on the character of the artist, and not the gender.”
For Frissiras, the rise of women in the art world in the last 50-60 years or so, boils down to two fundamental things: time and education: “Today, women have more time and this means they can therefore paint more. We see this phenomenon today of successful women artists playing their role on the ‘global chessboard of art’. Painting, beyond talent, needs time and thought. When you are confronted with a blank canvas you have to fill it in such a way that has meaning, so that you can stand out. You need to get deeply involved in the art making process; if you don’t have time, you can’t. In the past, women had the house, the kids to look after. Being an artist in this situation isn’t easy. But it’s men that are now called upon to balance the scales, by lending a helping hand. This will enable women to develop their own talents and their own worth.”
By no means could anyone call Frissiras a misogynist: “I love women, I work with them and I respect them. I don’t differentiate them from men” he explains. He also believes that they have always been the silent power of society, pulling the strings in many circumstances, while men were the ‘front men’. “A strong female mind cannot but influence a man” he argues, siting situations where women reign supreme, in the shadow of men’s limelight and not only – queens, politicians, wives of politicians are a few examples in history. But most important of all, are mothers: “You can’t take the ‘mother’ out of the picture. You can’t erase her importance”. And indeed, our whole personality begins with this relationship between mother and child, which can make (or break) you.
Collecting art in the Greek recession is a bit of an oxymoron, but Frissiras explains that this has always been his passion, something that he has been doing since he was a young lawyer, because once upon a time, he too wanted to become an artist. When asked if there are any similarities between being a lawyer and a collector, he replies with a firm negative, believing however that it was his occupation that gave him the monetary means by which he could support his passion for collecting art. But his general view of collectors, is that you can put them into three main categories. (He places himself in the first):
“Firstly there are the collectors who are the utopian Don Quixotes of art, who believe in the idea, who see an art work and fall in love with it. They are the thoroughbreds and also the romantics. Secondly there are the collectors who invest in art, who want the money they spend on art to be well spent. Then there is a third category which is a combination of the other two – they want to be romantic about art, but they don’t want to lose their money either.”
For Frissiras, art is not about business, but about pleasure: “I didn’t create this art collection as an investment, neither did I create the museum for such reasons. I never saw the works for their art market value. They were for my pleasure and the pleasure of the public who come to see them in the museum. I like the fact that people, students and school children can come to the museum and see the works. I enjoy speaking to them about what they see here when they visit. So because I didn’t have an economic interest in art, if someone were to ask me what art to collect, I would have to figure out what kind of person they are, to see in what category of ‘collector’ they would fit. If they are like me, I would tell them to collect whatever they like.”
Yet it’s not just a matter of what you like. Frissiras goes on to emphasize the importance of being well-informed, to have done your reading. Instinct is not enough to go on: “You have to be well-read on a subject and then you can rely on your instinct.” And that piece of advice, one could say, applies to a lot of things, besides art. Frissiras, being a romantic at heart, lightheartedly compares the process to choosing a work, to how someone might choose their partner: “No man will choose the same woman and no woman will choose the same man.”
But if you’re out to make money, then it’s a lot simpler: you just go by the value of a work and which artist is a more valuable asset on the art market. “Whether you like it or not is another matter. You look at the signature and not the work. I don’t know how good this is”, Frissiras says with a chuckle at the end of his sentence.
And what about great art? What makes one artist soar and another hit the ground?: “The success of an artist is based on 3 things – on the artist’s work, on the museum or gallery presenting this work and on the art historian/critic defending it. This combination can help an artist gain importance.”
In this case, is it important for an artist to also be a good businessman and to do his PR properly? Frissiras frowns, and after a pause replies: “If he follows the logic of promoting his work as much as possible, then yes, he is a good businessman. That’s why we see some ‘shooting stars’ out there appearing on the scene. But this ruins the quality of art and behind them there are other invested interests.”
So, how should we rate the big names of contemporary art that get all the promotion?: “Some of them might be great artists, but not all of them. The problem here is that some art that gets on the art market is worthless, because certain people promote it in order to make money. That’s why I believe artists should not be involved in the art market. But it’s inevitable that they do get involved, seeing as it’s a matter of their survival! Some manage to resist however. Van Gogh didn’t sell even one work and there are even artists today who remain uninterested in making money out of their art. Artist Rustin told me for example that he hadn’t sold a work until he turned 60!”
It’s tough for artists to survive if they can’t make a living out of their art, but then again, the interest of making money out of art can ruin its quality. There’s obviously a catch here, so how can one get out of it? “You have to find another means to survive in order to dedicate yourself to art. That’s when the results are good” explains Frissiras, and continues:
“If an artist can survive and not betray his ideals and ideas, that’s when the outcome is good. Look at Bacon, he is such an example. It took a while before he made a name for himself.”
Decorative art sells more?: “Yes indeed, that’s why it’s harder for those creating non-decorative art to survive. Not many people want it hanging in their living room! But that’s why museums exist. For example, you would like to see a work of Hieronymous Bosch in a museum, but you wouldn’t want it hanging on your wall at home.”
Speaking of the strength of non-decorative art, I get a flashback of when I interviewed Frissiras for the first time. Back then, he had the works of Rustin hanging on the walls of his office. I remember getting distracted by the pain and sorrow emanating from them. Frissiras on the other hand, finds them cathartic: “For me, the human pain that Rustin expresses in his works touches me and I want to see it so that I can become a better person, but not everyone can stand looking at such art.”
Frissiras used to dabble in painting himself, painting people in particular. Yet he decided there was no meaning in continuing this hobby, seeing as he comes in contact with so much fine art in his museum (the building itself being a gem of neo-classical architecture). His passion for painting has led him to create one of the most impressive collections of (mainly European) anthropocentric art, and the only one of its kind in Greece. But painting is itself in danger of becoming extinct these days, seeing as many artists are moving on to more contemporary mediums. It is also playing a less important role in the curriculum of some art schools, including the Athens School of Fine Arts, despite the strong painting tradition of this country. Frissiras however, believes that there’s no danger of painting ever ceasing to exist: “Painting will never die. It’s a human need, as is every art form”. Instead, he believes it will evolve.
• The Frissiras museum is on 3 Monis Asteriou St, Plaka, Athens. Tel: 210-323-4678. Open Wed-Fri 10am-5pm.
• For more info on the museum, check out the website: http://www.frissirasmuseum.com
• For more info on the ‘Elles’ show, check out my review in Insider Athens: http://www.insider-publications.com/elles-reviewed/
(Featured below, works by Filopoulou, Katsoulidi, Gonou, Ragou and Kapezanou, all in the show ‘Elles’, running till June 30)