THE YANNIS MORALIS retrospective exhibition at the Benaki Pireos, pays hommage to this great Greek artist’s oeuvre by presenting the many sides of his creative magnificence. It traces Moralis’ mastery of many mediums, styles and forms of art: his early realistic works, his sombre portraits, still-lifes that hark back to De Chirico, works inspired by ancient Greek reliefs and sculptures, the late minimalist abstract works, plus designs for theatre, costume designs, a giant mural made of ceramic tiles, a giant tapiserie, small bronze works, large metal sculptures (the latter placed in the open atrium), book designs, record cover designs, plus his designs for the Hilton’s facade, and for other buildings. Having seen this exhibition, you leave realising how trully versatile Moralis was, and how inextricably tied he was to the whole Athenian cultural scene of his times.
Moralis’ life-span (1916-2009) ecompasses the Second World War (at the outbreak of which he left Paris and returned to Athens), but also the formative years for modern Greek art, of which he was a pioneer. He came back to Greece full of new ideas, which he incorporated into his art, blending abstraction with Greek elements in an altogether unique fashion. It is his late abstract work that most people think of when they think of Moralis, however the novelty of this show, is the focus on his other facets, especially his probing portraiture.
Moralis’s portraits are a category of their own, in which the artist attempts to investigate the psyche of his sitters in order to extract that extra bit of information that he will then translate into paint on canvas. There is a mystery in these works, but also a cool, collected documentation of detail and form. Some symbolism also creeps into some of them, such as the naked young girl in her mother’s arms, holding a pommegranate, and wearing a large gold cross around her neck,hanging from a black ribbon. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ comes to mind, but also those cherub-like sweet girls in Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’.
Moralis’s self-portraits present his own stern gaze and gaunt face, reminiscent of those portraits of saints in Byzantine art. In one of them, his friend, artist Nikolaou, stands behind him, as if he were his shadow, as does his first wife in another work. Moralis’s fascination with the female form, and with female nature, is evident in all his portraits of women.
Moralis was born in 1916 in Arta, and passed away in 2009, a year after his retrospective exhibition at the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros. He studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts under Konstantinos Parthenis and Umbertos Argyros before continuing his art studies in Rome and Paris. However he had to return to Greece when WW2 broke out. From 1948 to 1983 he taught at the Athens School of Fine Arts. In 1958 Moralis represented Greece at the Venice Biennale, together with artist Yannis Tsarouchis and sculptor Antonis Sochos. His relief design on the Athens Hilton, continues its dialogue with sculptor Kostas Varotsos’ giant glass ‘Runner’ situated opposite the hotel.
At the centre of Moralis’s work, is woman… even when she is camouflaged by modernism’s cool and ordered abstraction. If you look closely, you can decipher her female curves in most of his abstract paintings, or even poses of men and women intertwined – and more, in terms of eroticism. But it’s all done very subtly. At first glance, you only see the perfectly composed picture, its curves and lines in perfect harmony. His colour combinations – simply immaculate. But behind the calm reserve and the aesthetic preoccupations, there is primordial passion – and a Greek temperament veiled in abstract clothing. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest Greek modern masters.
For 45 years, Moralis was represented by the Zoumboulakis gallery. His relationship with its owner Peggy Zoumboulakis was more than just business – they were more than friends even, more like family. Among the portraits in the current show, you will also find Peggy’s children. Peggy mentioned in an interview of 2010 published in ‘To Vima’, that Moralis had entrusted her with his 200 taped interviews. It would be lovely to see this material published in a book one day, maybe even in English, so that Moralis’ genius can speak to more people. Peggy also said the following about Moralis, in the aforementioned interview:
“He ate frugally, he was a simple man, and money or fame didn’t affect him. He charmed women and he loved them essentially. After all, his whole oeuvre was erotic. He would fall in love with them, he would look after them, but he also deeply respected every woman who didn’t have a relationship with him. His whole work is an ode to womankind and to love. His great love was his son Konstantinos. He talks often about him in his interviews which he entrusted to me and my children.”
- The Moralis retrospective at the Benaki Pireos runs till February 10.