IN THE work of acclaimed painter Panayiotis Tetsis, light and colour are enemies and allies because without the one, the other cannot exist. But it is darkness that is colour’s real enemy. In this amazing contemporary colourist’s last show of 27 large-scale works at the Theocharakis Foundation (May 6-October 25 2015), Tetsis, who used to call himself ‘the painter with the paintbrushes and the colours’, had now embraced darkness, as evident in the predominant use of black and grey. Maybe this inspirational painter, teacher and Academician, was also coming to terms with his own darkness – his battle with cancer, which finally ended on Saturday, March 5, at Evangelismos Hospital, where he passed away, aged 91.
What was so special about Tetsis’ painting? For most, it was his ability to capture the vibrant colour and light of Greece on canvas, rendering it in such a manner that was altogether scintillating and euphoric. His landscapes are like contemporary painted hymns to nature. But his oeuvre is like a prism with many sides: yes it’s about catching Greek light and colour, but also about the process of painting, and about the experience, and about translating reality into colour and form, but also about extracting the essence – of Greece. And… so much more…
In the Fifties in Greece, when many painters got experimental with other mediums, or felt it was passé to stick to painting from real life (opting instead for the modern path of Abstract Art), Tetsis stuck to his guns. He followed his instinct and continued his own painterly adventures, far from the trodden path, translating the real world into his painterly language, working also en plein air, at one with nature. He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, whatever the cost. That’s why it’s hard to ‘pigeonhole’ Tetsis, because in essence, he was in a league of his own.
Although he has been hailed as a post-impressionist, a colourist, and an expressionist, the abstract expressionist, gestural nature of Tetsis’ painting is also evident. Furthermore, there’s that romantic spirit, which harks back to Turner, even to German Romanticism – his awe of nature is evident and passionate in his art. And then, there’s also the incredible order of his compositional form – something that comes out especially in his engravings (another chapter of his work). But as the director of the National Gallery of Greece, Marina Lambraki-Plaka has pointed out, it was also the poetic nature of his art that appealed: the ability to translate into paint on canvas the essence of Greece as described by writers such as Alexandros Papadiamantis, or poets such as Andreas Kalvos, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.
The frail 91-year old artist was the first to receive the State’s ‘Yannis Moralis’ Award recently on February 29. Sadly, Tetsis was too ill to go to the award-ceremony that took place at the Megaron Mousikis Concert Hall. The President of Greece, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, handed the award to Tetsis’ son instead. In his speech, President Pavlopoulos praised the artist of colours, who ”composes feasts of colours, organises symposiums of colours”. He also stated that ”Panayiotis Tetsis was to painting what Odysseus Elytis was to poetry.”
This charismatic, green-eyed gentleman of an artist, was born on Hydra (1925) – the island, together with that of Syfnos that he would paint incessantly throughout his life. He studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts, with further studies in Paris. Tetsis taught at the Athens School of Fine Arts from 1976-91. He also became Dean of the school in 1989, and was also one of the founding members of the Vakalo School of Art (in 1958), where he taught for 20 years. Tetsis became a member of the Athens Academy in 1993. In 1999, the Academy awarded him with the ‘Grand Commander of the Order of the Phoenix’ medal. And that’s just a fraction of his teaching and Academic career in focus. Just speaking to some of his former pupils, or looking at their work, you can detect his inspiration and influence – a real mentor – although he liked to tell his students to ‘shake off’ their teacher.
With around 90 solo shows to his name, Tetsis had also participated in many group shows and also two Biennales (of Alexandreia, and Sao Paulo), but refused to represent Greece at the Venice Biennale in 1970, for political reasons, seeing as this was the time of the Greek Junta dictatorship. In 1999, the grand retrospective of his work at Greece’s National Gallery was another highpoint in his career. A generous man, he had donated many of his works, including 210 paintings to the National Gallery. The expanded, new National Gallery will name its central hall after Tetsis, where his monumental work ‘Public Market’ will also be exhibited. Tetsis also had stipulated that 20% of the works he had donated to the gallery could be sold in order to buy works of other artists if necessary.
National Gallery director Marina Lambraki-Plaka said of Tetsis, at the recent Yannis Moralis Award ceremony: ”In truth, who can imagine the history of new Greek painting without the presence of Tetsis? The overall image of contemporary Greek painting would be lost in an instant – as would its highest merits and especially that catchy rhythm, that unbeatable rush, that therapeutic feeling of vital euphoria and spiritual health which the works of this Hydran creator emanate”.
Tetsis’ funeral took place at the Aghios Dionysios Church in Kolonaki, Monday March 7, 2.30pm. He was buried the following day, on his beloved island of Hydra. At the funeral, politicians, artists, intellectuals and other VIPs came to pay their respects, and many felt that with his passing away, another chapter in Greek art history had closed – the end of an era. We leave it up to his pupils therefore to hold up high the ‘torch’ of Greek painting in the 21st century and hopefully pass it on to another generation, whatever the cost… Farewell Greece’s unique master of light and colour.