LIKE bees to honey, art lovers swarmed to the Felios Collection on February 13, in order to hear the acclaimed 53-year old, bespectacled painter Giorgos Rorris talk about his work (on the occasion of his current show of 33 works there). Black-dressed for the occasion, he admitted that it was the first time that he was talking about his art in public, and although it was evident that he was a tad nervous about it, the large turnout obviously warmed the cockles of his heart, giving him the confidence to speak freely and with ardour about his particular process of painting.
When asked (by ‘Art Scene Athens’) if there was a point in time in his childhood that made him decide that he wanted to become a painter, Rorris – who grew up in the Arcadian village of Kosmas – replied that yes there was: Although as a child he had very little contact with art, he did however admire the illustrations in the school books of the time – in the classic Greek alphabet book for example, or the illustrations of Alexandros Alexandrakis – but in truth there was very little artistic stimulation in his environment. Not even the local church had byzantine iconography of interest. However, he did have the talent to draw, something which he practiced, and which was later noticed by a certain language teacher/theologian at his school, who prompted him to also take the exams for art college. At the age of 16, on a visit to Athens in order to see an ophthalmologist, Rorris also visited the National Gallery, and upon seeing the classic ‘eye balm’ of a work ‘Children’s Concert’ by Jakobides, he instantly saw the light – deciding there and then to take the path less trodden, and to study art.
After Rorris finished telling us this story from his childhood, someone in the audience piped up another detail that he had forgotten to tell us. It was one of his teachers, who explained to us that after the Dictatorship in Greece, when things loosened up artistically again, they would get Rorris to paint the scenery in the school plays, because they had all cottoned on to his talent.
Here are some excerpts from Rorris’ talk at the Felios Collection (that was in Greek of course), translated into English, so that some more art lovers can get a taste of this painter’s brilliance. Would it be too much to say that he is Greece’s younger answer to Lucian Freud? Both artists share the tendency to psychologically penetrate their sitters, but in the case of Rorris, this process is not as clinical, but also emotional/sensual. I doubt Rorris would like such a comparison himself, and maybe it is unfair to make it, yet Rorris is proof that yes, there is some great figure painting going on in Greece. After all, isn’t this where it all began for the more naturalistic depiction of the naked human body in art? It’s part of our cultural heritage, so why not take it to the next level.
Speaking of the work ‘Blue Alexandra’, which Rorris was standing next to as he spoke, he said the following: ‘’The pose of this girl here in which she rests her head to one side on her arm, was not originally like this. When I started painting her, she was ‘en face’, staring at the painter/viewer, but at some point she got tired, and rested her head in this position. That’s when I decided I preferred this pose. This meant I had to destroy what I had already painted and to start again. To change the position of the head meant that the whole torso also changes, the position of the spine etc. But that’s how I work at least… and many other painters too. Because you are dealing with the rendering of a live experience – the experience of the living person who is posing for you. It’s also a live experience because your own sense of vision – or gaze – is not so specific, but instead is escapist, before the image is captured on canvas via the process of painting.’’
Rorris went on to define according to him, what painting is about:
”What you see on canvas is what I decided to keep from a certain experience. What convinces me/persuades me. When you paint a picture, it’s like telling a story. In order for that story to be viable for someone else, you have to believe in it yourself. If you don’t, then you can never convince anyone else to believe in it. Let me refer to Da Vinci’s writings, where he gives advice to the painter, telling him to make sure that he doesn’t paint any lies or mediocrities in his lifetime, because once he is dead, the work will remain and will always speak of his mediocrities (or words to that effect). Da Vinci’s advice affected me – it’s an ethical stance towards painting.”
As for the viewer, and how he/she interprets the work, Rorris had the following to say:
”The viewer has to see the work from an ‘innocent’ point of view. In other words, art doesn’t always have to have a hidden meaning, or to be symbolic. Art works don’t always have secret codes hidden behind the image via which the artist is trying to say something else. He might have just wanted to simply speak about the charm and beauty of a woman sitting in an armchair or in the corner of a room. For me, the works say nothing more than what they depict. Nothing else. But then you might say that in that case, they lack meaning/depth.”
To prove his case, Rorris spoke of the ancient Kore sculptures in the Acropolis Museum:
”Does someone believe that they are hiding a secret meaning which has been clothed in the persona of the smiling Kore? I don’t think that there is something else behind these sculptures, and that’s the whole point, because what they are, suffices.”
The artist went on to describe how in other epochs, such as the 17th, 16th, 15th centuries, painting had a more didactic role, and this was because people didn’t have so many books:
”Painting in those days wanted to teach something. But this ceased to occur in the 19th century and after. For example, a beautiful landscape by Monet doesn’t want to teach anything. It just wants to show the artist’s impression of the landscape that stands before him. I also try to extinguish any trace of symbolism or the suggestion of some other meaning in my work. Now, if some people see something else there, they have all the right to see it, because the person who paints the work is not totally in control of the work, nor can he direct the way each viewer will interpret it. Therefore I would like to believe that each painting has as many interpretations as the viewers that see it. And that’s every person’s right, whether they are newcomers to art, or well-versed in art history. Possibly, the ‘connoisseurs’ will be able to detect references to other works/trends/influences etc, because there’s no such thing as a work having been created from a ‘virgin birth’, but that’s about it. Nothing more.”
Rorris’ art stands out in its figurative nature, and its depiction of the nude. He explained how he decided to explore this genre:
”The teaching of art when I was at the Athens School of Fine Art, comprised life drawing/painting from the model from the second year of the degree course. And even before my time there, that had been the case – during the years of Moralis and Mavroidis for example. I and my fellow students painted many nudes there. So, the knowledge of painting the nude was something that I learned well. Life-drawing was also part of the lessons one had to take in order to prepare for art school’s entry exams. Depicting the nude captivated me from the beginning.”
One must remember however, that in Greece, the art of representing the naked human figure, goes way back, to antiquity, something that especially intrigued Rorris:
”I examined the ancient sculptures at the Archaeological Museum. There is a deification of the human body in these works, especially of the male body. It fascinated me that the nude exists in Greek culture from antiquity.”
On a more modern note, Rorris looked towards the work of Chronis Botsoglou, whose exhibition of 1984 with ”images of the human body” also inspired him. Furthermore, a show of works by Lefteris Kanakakis at the Nees Morfes Gallery was also catalytic for Rorris’ oeuvre. Both exhibitions helped him choose to explore the human figure in his final body of work which he created in order to complete his degree.
Rorris went on to continue his studies in Paris, where despite the fact that there wasn’t such an emphasis on figurative art at the school there, Rorris continued to carve his own path in the study of the nude, as did his other Greek fellow students that were also studying alongside him. A break of 10 years from painting the human form followed, only for him to return with a vengeance:
”When I returned to the nude, I had decided that I wanted to add a small piece to the mosaic that goes by the name of ‘New Greek Painting’. I won’t hide the fact that at that time, the older Greek painters’ depictions of the nude also aided me – especially the work of Nikiforos Lytras and Polychronis Lembessis to be found in the National Gallery. But also the work of Tsarouchis, Diamantopoulos, plus Moralis’ works of the 40’s and 50’s.”
At this point in his speech, Rorris asked forgiveness from his audience for his references to works of other artists, because some of the audience might not be familiar with their work. Yet he went on to explain that such is the life of an artist: The art of others becomes his/her ‘property’ in a sense, an ark of images/memories. It is via this process, that the artist can understand his/her own work too. Because the artist cannot understand his own work, unless it is through other works and through other people:
”He understands his own images when others speak to him about them. Because what you have created is the extension of you own psyche. I welcome anything that someone has to say about my work, because I can’t see my works for myself.”
It’s a bit like the way we can’t actually see our own face – one reason why Rorris doesn’t dabble in self-portraiture:
”I don’t do self-portraits because it’s a face that I will never see in the flesh myself. I will always only see the image of my face. You can see most of yourself, but not your face. I do admire the great self-portraitists though, such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Rembrandt realised around 60 self-portraits, from when he was a young boy to just before he died. There’s a double-sided self-portrait by Van Gogh at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. In this work, he has painted himself in his early style on one side, and his later style on the other side (done 2 years later). I also admire Botsoglou’s self-portraits.”
For Rorris, painting is basically the distortion of reality:
”We have experimented with the models in the studio, taking shots of their pose with their mobile phone, and then taking shots of the painting of the pose. There really is no relation between the two. Distortion exists in all images and also in art. It happens without your intention. It happens because it is part of your style/manner of painting. Many believe that Van Gogh’s works are a distortion of reality, but I believe that he was trying to paint realistically, but that was his way of depicting reality.”
The difference between painting the face of the sitter and painting the surroundings (wall/floor), is that the face is a small area that requires precise, small movements of the hand and wrist, which can be a frustrating process, while when painting the larger surfaces, Rorris feels he can ‘vent’. But in essence, the artist emphasizes that for him, painting has a physical dimension that involves the whole body:
”A painter is obliged to involve his body in the process of painting. He should also think about his feelings just before he confronts the blank canvas, because it is there that he has to enter his whole self. He has to enter the canvas and make it come to life – and bring to life the colours/paint too. The painted image is not like a photograph – you don’t just press a button in order to create an image. It is built layer by layer, very slowly.”
After describing an unfinished work by Gyzis (‘After the Destruction of Psarra’), and how if one looks at it closely one can see how it is made up of layers and the importance of that layering of paint, Rorris turned to his own work ‘Blue Alexandra’, pointing to one of her breasts:
”Why is this dab of paint the highlighted part of the breast? Because all around it there is a whole host of other colours that had to pre-exist, so that they could assign it this specific role. Painting has its own language, which is mute. But those who love it, appreciate the delicacy of this ‘refined’ language. It is a quiet language, of silence.”
The importance of using artificial light in the studio was also discussed, seeing as it gives the artist more ‘working hours’, as it supplies a steady lighting effect which daylight’s ever changing hues does not. (Rorris’ works take months to be completed). Rorris then went on to say that for the past 10 years he has tried to unburden himself from the tyrannical depiction of ”the truth”, instead preferring to change the image according to the dictates of the painting.
Another issue that was discussed was how some of Rorris’ larger canvases are actually made up of a group of canvases stuck together. He explained how this started off as a practical necessity, due to the small size of his studio which limited the size of his canvases. He would therefore create the image on more than one canvas which he would then finally assemble together outside of the studio. But this process in itself appealed to the artist in the end, and so although it was born out of necessity, it became part of his artistic process. However Rorris stipulated that these particular works were not to be understood in the same way that one would a triptych for example, but that they were actually one work, comprised of different components.
At the end of Rorris’ talk, the crowd applauded with zest, showing their appreciation and admiration. Indeed, it is a very enlightening experience to hear an artist speak about his work. Two more such talks have been planned (February 27 and March 20), so for those of you who would like to experience Rorris as a ‘live’ experience, and to meet the man behind those atmospheric nudes, then head on down to the Felios collection.
• The Felios collection is on 16 Fokionos Negri (www.felioscollection.gr)