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Kounellis: The poetry in poor materials

Untitled 1979 by Jannis Kounellis born 1936

THE PIONEERING Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, internationally renowned for his avant-garde artistic ingenuity, and considered the father of Arte Povera, passed away in Rome, at the age of 80, on February 16. Rome had become his home since 1956, when he moved there and enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti, after not having passed the exams at the Athens School of Fine Arts. But his ties with Greece were never really severed, as evident in his work, which pays homage to archetypal human values, via the most humble materials, but also takes inspiration from ancient Greek drama. Despite his minimalist aesthetic, and use of materials often connected with heavy industries, the dramatic nature of his installations pervades. The toil and strife of the human condition often takes centre stage, while mortality also lurks somewhere in Kounellis’ scenes.  Yet life is also rejoiced, as evident especially in his famous installation with real horses – their physical presence symbolising their artistic presence in the history of art (from antiquity’s sculptures to equestrian paintings).


Kounellis was born in Piraeus, 1936. As a child in Greece he experienced the Second World War, and the destructive Greek Civil War (1946-49) that followed, had a direct impact on him. Greece in the ‘50s was in a dire state, both economically and socio-politically, leading to almost 12% of the population emigrating.  Kounellis left in 1956 for Rome, and it took him over two decades before he returned to Greece (in 1977), to exhibit at the Jean and Karen Bernier Gallery. Although he had not been admitted to the Athens School of Fine Arts, in 2009 the school bestowed him the title of honorary professor. From 1993-2001 Kounellis taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, one of Europe’s most historic (founded in 1762), yet also most progressive art schools.

It seems that destiny had it so that as a student, Kounellis would have the opportunity to study the paintings of the Italian Renaissance in the cities of Florence, Rome and Venice. The Renaissance appealed to him all the more, because in it he could see Greek art and culture – the soil from which the Renaissance had taken root. Although his first works were paintings, and he always referred to himself as a painter, it was the Italian avant-garde scene that appealed to him most, and with which he developed close ties. The influence of Italian artists Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana would have a lasting effect on his work, making him give up traditional means of artistic expression, and instead to explore the relationship of his art in space, via the use of ‘poor materials’. He was a leading figure in the movement Arte Povera, whose main proponents were the artists  Giovanni Anselmo, Aligherio Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio.

The term ‘arte povera’  was coined by the art critic/curator Germano Celant in 1967, on the occasion of a group exhibition in which Kounellis also had participated, entitled ‘Arte Povera e IM spazio’, at Genoa’s Galleria La Bertesca.

Wood, cotton, coal, burlap sacks, ropes, iron beams and panels, black sheets, old shoes and coats, horses, fire, people, piles of reading glasses, stones, broken up plaster casts of heads from classical sculptures – these were some of his most used materials. But which were precious, in the mind’s eye of this pioneering ‘painter’, who transformed them into a poetic minimalism. The use of these ‘poor materials’, are the means via which Kounellis connected art with life, bringing out their historical, or socio-political symbolism in the process.


Needless to say, Kounellis’ work has been shown around the globe, in many solo shows, many retrospectives and of course at the most prestigious art biennales and exhibitions, museums and galleries. At the Venice biennale alone, he participated 6 times. In 1976 there, he presented his installation with the 12 live horses, which was also shown in 2015 in New York, but which had been shown firstly in Rome, 1969. He is an artist who chartered art into new territory, creating a new form of visual poetry in the process. Personally, I will never forget his exhibition in the cargo ship  ‘Ionion’, at the port of Piraeus, in 1994. I had only just moved to Athens, and his works in the ship’s hull, comprising sacks of coal and iron beams among other materials, looked so ‘at home’ there, but at the same time, profoundly transformed.  The salty smell of the ship’s hull, spoke of its past seafaring journeys, adding to its present artistic voyage.

In 2012, Kessanlis’ sombre minimalist aesthetic pervaded the once bourgeois ‘mini-palace’ of the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion, creating intriguing contrasts with its neoclassical style and decor. Kounellis’ site-specific installation here was particularly symbolic, considering the economic onslaught of the Greek crisis which had started in 2009. It was like two different worlds had collided (and were trying to coexist). But the mansion was in mourning: Dark old coats were hung from meat hooks, as if they were carcasses ready for market. By covering the grand chandelier with a black cloth in one of the rooms, Kounellis’ message was clear – the bourgeois party is over.  It is interesting that Ai Weiwei last year did totally the opposite in this same room, when he counterbalanced that grand chandelier with a chandelier-inspired work of his own fabrication, referencing the Chinese bourgeoisie in the process.

In the episode of the art series ‘I Epohi ton Eikonon’ (‘The Age of Images’), with Katerina Zacharopoulou, which covered Kounellis’ aforementioned show, Kounellis had spoken about contemporary Chinese artists, saying that they preferred ‘an art of freedom’ rather than one of doctrines, and so they hadn’t embraced minimalism. He also had stated that “The artist is a poet who has a different language”.  Kounellis also explained that all spaces are suited for art – from an old factory to a church. Last year he did in fact exhibit his work in Rome’s deconsecrated church of Sant Andrea de Scaphis. The image of the cross, either on its side, or upside down, has also recurred in this work.

Kounellis wanted to create an art that couldn’t be sold. His work of course has become part of prestigious collections worldwide – including the Tate Modern’s.  In the exhibition catalogue for the Kounellis exhibition of 2004, at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), Art historian (and current director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art) Denys Zacharopoulos wrote ‘’I learned in your work how the change of life and the greatness of art are offered, the depths of wisdom and the pain of the soul.’’ The sombre depth of Kounellis’ work has forever changed the history of art, and continues to influence and inspire younger generations of artists, especially today.



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