By Stella Sevastopoulos
RECENTLY I came across the work of Takis Parlavantzas (1930-2014), who passed away in Athens, Glyfada, July 28, penniless and dismayed with the inability of the Greek public to appreciate abstract art. He was an artist who despite his copious studies, his attempts to develop further the oblique machinations of the non-figurative (creating even five-dimensional works), never got the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Maybe because he wasn’t active in the private gallery sector? Something which for his generation seemed to play a crucial role, while today, many artists have chosen to be more independent. For this reason, I felt that it was about time that the case of Parlavantzas was once again brought to light, as well as the whole situation with abstract art in Greece. Hence this little hommage to an artist whose colourful, dynamic abstractions in particular, remain a testament to his unique aesthetic vision. These days, plans were being made by art collector Dimitris Papageorgopoulos to organize an auction, would have included one of Parlavantzas’ most accomplished works, ‘Composition’ of 1971, in order to raise money for sanitary masks and other hospital equipment, in order to fight the coronavirus in Greece. However, sadly not enough interest was shown in this endeavour for it to be realised.
Former art hub owner Maria Drossou, who knew Parlavantzas, and also owns some of his works, spoke to ‘Art Scene Athens’ about him: “He was an artist with a unique visual perspective, a multi-faceted and charismatic personality but at the same time progressive in his approach to art, yet without ignoring the importance of his times. He had a sharp, cool mind, yet also a soft humane side too. Meek, gentle but commanding. Tireless and a multi-tasker. Whatever material he touched he transformed, but without force, bringing out its best qualities. My association with him was a profound stage in my life. Small, separate art stories which led me to undertstand the art of living. He was one of those spirits that was peaceful yet restless, with a gentle sobriety which really inspired. Somewhere on his distant horizon, he had discovered abstraction. His forms, and the relation between his shapes and colours, plus his harmonious compositions led him to another dimension, and to the freedom of dreaming with eyes wide open. When someone closed a door for him, he would take the stairs and reach new heights with his work, because that’s what he did best – to take art to a higher level.”
From the ’60s onwards, Parlavantzas had been developing his own form of abstract art, trying to imbue it with movement, to probe its colouristic syntheses further, and develop its almost futuristic aesthetic into a more contemporary raison d’etre. But abstract art in Greece was not (and still isn’t) the most popular of art forms. Hence, his diversification into other creative activities and projects in order to make ends meet: Working as a teacher in the Greek education system, in ceramics workshops, plus as an illustrator of educational and literary editions. He had also worked as a restorer and had taken on commissions for both public and private institutions (eg for the Rotary Club). His designs for tapestries and carpets were another aspect of his oeuvre, as were his public works.
Parlavantzas also wrote a book, entitled ‘The Aesthetic Categories of Contemporary Art’ (in Greek), which was awarded by the Athens Academy in 1973. His monumental works plus busts and sculptures can still be found situated both in Greece and abroad (Sicilly and Bordeaux) – examples of the perplexing multi-tasking necessity of many an artist, even to this day, which nurtures a dichotomy: between serving a higher artistic ideal, and catering to other more lucrative, commercial creative activities in order to make ends meet. But there are many artists who have travelled those two parallel paths effectively (Moralis and Mytaras are two that come to mind immediately).
Parlavantzas was born in Piraeus in 1930, and studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts under Yannis Moralis (1948-55), but also attended lessons by Pavlos Mathiopoulos and Umberto Argyros. Undoubtedly Moralis must have been the initial igniter of Parlavantzas’ abstract sensibility, although it was in later years that Parlavantzas decisively dedicated himself to a non-figurative aesthetic. In 1956, Parlavantzas was granted a scholarship by the Dutch Government to study at the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, where W.Clenin taught him the techniques of stained-glass, mosaic, fresco among other techniques used for public and monumental art.
In 1961-2, after gaining a scholarship from the University of Athens, he travelled to Paris to study fresco at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts, under the tutelage of J.C.Aujame. He was also taught stained-glass and beton-glass at the Ecole des Metiers d’Art under the tutelage of A.Giroux. During this period, he travelled and studied the works of contemporary art in the museums of Holland, Belgium, France and Italy. It was at this time that he came to the conclusion that nature did not embody the aesthetic ideal that fine art should represent, because “aesthetic philosophy tells us that nature is aesthetically indifferent, neither beautiful nor ugly.” And besides, after the invention of photography and film, nature could be documented in many other ways, so there was no reason for art to carry on this role.
The year 1971 was pivotal for Parlavantzas: His art was awarded at the 11th Panhellenic Exhibition at Zappeion plus he also exhibited at the Alexandria Biennale. But maybe more people know him for his grand public works, such as the stained-glass designs at the Athens Town Hall, the 100m2 mural that adorns the facade of the Nea Smyrni Estia, and the 1000m2 mosaic which used to be situated at the Floisvos Marina in Paleo Faliro, (but was sadly demolished when the marina was rebuilt).
The National Gallery’s collection comprises works by the artist, as do many private collections in Greece and abroad. However, the largest collection of Parlavantzas’ works (which includes the artist’s archives, 1550 maquettes, plus 12 portraits, abstract works and more) is part of the Archive of Neohellenic Art, owned by Dimitris Papageorgopoulos, who for many years was in charge of STOart – the art space of the insurance company Ethniki Asphalistiki.
Among the works in his collection, Papageorgopoulos owns the 4 works by Parlavantzas that were exhibited at the Alexandria Biennale, plus the work that was awarded by the Athens Academy, which was to go on auction to raise money for sanitary masks and other products needed in hospitals. “I want to keep the archives and the portraits by Parlavantzas, because I am in the process of creating a portrait gallery. I have already exchanged many of his maquettes for portraits. I’m interested primarily in collecting portraits of artists at the moment”, Papageorgopoulos explains. In the past, he had created a ‘secret exhibition’ of Parlavantzas’ work at STOart, but now he is primarily concerned with finding a sponsor and a suitable space for his ever-growing collection of portraits. His plan is to create a Portrait Gallery in Greece.
Papageorgopoulos says of Parlavantzas: “He did a bit of everything to survive. Although I hadn’t met Parlavantzas in person, I got to know about him through his friends (artists Petros Zoumboulakis and Rena Anousi), who said about him that although he considered himself a proponent of non-figurative art, they would argue with him that what he was doing wasn’t all non-figurative. In order to survive he was doing all sorts: sculptures for the Rotary club, stained-glass designs, beton-glass, scraffito, and even forms of more popular art.”
Maybe Parlavantzas’ most ingenious invention however, was his machine that created moving non-figurative art, or what he termed as 5-dimensional abstract art: “Basically this was a machine he had created, which could create a series of non-figurative images in motion. I have this machine in my collection” explains Papageorgopoulos.
Aspects of abstract art’s legacy in Greece and abroad
In the 1920s, modernist works, and anything that basically veered away from representational art, (such as abstract art) was considered ‘degenerate art’, by the Nazis. This led to the creation of the ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ in Munich, 1937, where 650 confiscated works were presented. Similarly in Stalinist Russia, abstract artists such as Kazimir Malevich, were forced to abandon their avant-garde ways, and to paint in a representational style instead.
Parlavantzas was perplexed by the fact that the Greek public didn’t like abstract art. Papageorgopoulos agrees: “This is true, even today. Not many Greeks like abstract art, because they don’t have an art education in order to understand it. Even today, the art that sells is usually representational. There might be a few collectors such as Joannou and Daskalopoulos who buy more avant-garde art, conceptual etc, but it’s a small Greek public that is actually attracted to this kind of art.” However one should add that the Portalakis Collection, also has a special interest in Greek abstract art, especially that of Greek-American artist Theodoros Stamos. Furthermore, more research on Greek abstract artists needs to be undertaken, especially on the female ones, such as Bia Davou, whose work moved from the abstract to the conceptual, and was focused on in a retrospective in 2008-9, also included in documenta14 (in 2016), and features today in EMST’s permanent exhibition (closed to the public however due to the current lockdown).
Mary Cox on the other hand is a contemporary artist based in Athens, whose work combines the figurative and the abstract in some works, while in others transcends to pure abstraction, especially in her collages. Yet the inspiration behind her work begins in aspects of Greek reality: from bicycle rides to Greek nature. Another contemporary abstract artist working in Greece at the moment is Irini Diadou, whose opinion is that “Abstract painting in Greece certainly doesn’t belong to the more popular forms of contemporary art. There are however some fans of it, who you will find mostly within the art world. Maybe the problem is the lack of education on the subject and the fear that people have in experiencing art simply via their emotions.”
Although the Greek public doesn’t like abstract art in general, due to this society’s more ‘conservative tastes’ in art, it is interesting however to see that it still adores abstract artist Yannis Moralis, whose blockbuster show at the Benaki Museum (20/09/2018-10/02/2019), was followed up by a second show, this time presenting Moralis’s role as a teacher (focusing on the work of some of his most well-known students, and ran February-May, 2019).
Those that have knowledge of 20th century art history, can appreciate where abstract art is coming from, and why it is of importance. It is a form of art that is liberated from the constraints of traditional perspective and the representation of reality. It can have a more esoteric or even spiritual quest, and can also have a great emotional impact on the viewer. Take for instance Rothko’s works, and their colour therapeutic ways, an artist who was also a major influence on Stamos. Here in Greece, lack of modernist and contemporary western art knowledge plus lack of focus on developing creative thought processes, or even creative learning processes within the Greek education system, leads many to not understand, or appreciate abstract art.
Meanwhile, outside of Greece, abstract art is very popular, especially in the West. One glance at the Saatchi’s online gallery, and you’ll see how abstract art sells there, and it has developed in so many directions taking the abstract geometric, and the abstract expressionistic into new territory, where it joins forces with other mediums, such as photography, video, graphics, graffiti, digital technology. In the East, however, there is still a preference towards more traditional, realistic and naturalistic art. This again has to do with art education, or lack of it.
Abstract art has often had a connection with music, as explored in the works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), for example. Contemporary abstract artist Sef Berkers, who recently had a show of his more figurative works at the Gallery 104, situated in Manhattan’s New York Art Center (but managed to return safe and sound to Holland, just before the coronavirus pandemic overtook the Big Apple), has also explored the connections of abstract art, especially with contemporary music (from Metallica to Amy Winehouse). He explains the following to ‘Art Scene Athens’, about abstract art: “Everywhere we find good art and bad art. This is also the case with abstract painting. I think good abstract paintings have a content. They come from somewhere, they come from a process that might even have started from figurative painting. Abstract painting without content is just decorative wall paper. People throwing paint and colors on canvas without a deeper intention is worth nothing. It is only pleasing for the eyes. So, content and reason is most important in abstract painting. I painted for example on music, concentrated on the voices of singers, used colors and movements that belonged to the music and the voice.”
Berkers goes on to explain the logic of abstract creativity: “Our education makes us who we are. So, you could say, that our culture makes us who we are. We ‘see’ with the eyes of our culture. We are educated individuals and the idea of ‘free’ individuals is partly an illusion. So, if people cannot deal with abstract art this means that the culture in which they live hasn’t accepted this artform, or just doesn’t need this artform. But artists want to discover new fields, to explore and move the frontiers. Of course this is strange for other people to see. They believe the world is okay as it is, so leave it like that. But artists show us new things from which society will benefit. Freedom of spirit always encounters opposition. So abstract painting presents fields which people are not used to, they don’t feel at home with it. Still they have to remember it is a gift from the artist to see life from a different point of view. It is never meant to be as an insult or as an attack.”
Maybe it’s time for a reappraisal of abstract art in Greece, and to give artists such as Parlavantzas the recognition they deserve, seeing as they were artists who went against the populist grain, independent spirits who strove towards developing abstract art in Greece. An exhibition of Greek abstract art, plus further research on the subject, would certainly be interesting, therefore it was great to see that the a.antonopoulou.art gallery in Athens organized the show ‘Abstract form. Art and Design in Greece of the 1950s and 1960s’, which ran till February 1, with an interesting mix of artists. I leave you with a few words about this art form, from the aforementioned gallery’s website : “Abstraction is not an artist’s incapability to represent the world naturistically but is a conscious choice to change the perception of space, time as a field of energy and rendering the invisible as imperceptibly visible.”