ART / athens / exhibitions / review

Papagiannis’s mythical quest in a dystopian world

WHAT CAN one say about the work of Theodoros Papagiannis, an Emeritus Professor of the Athens School of Fine Arts, when so much has been said already? If only one word were allowed to describe his oeuvre, then ‘Wow’ would be it. This is one of Greece’s most prolific and active of artists, who has created armies of ‘soldiers of good’ as I would like to call them, in order to cast out all that this country has suffered. To me, his human forms stand nobly, like kings and queens of an ancient era.  However, the artist prefers to call them ‘ghosts’. They are made of the waste materials that others have discarded. The first such works that Papagiannis had made, were created out of the debris he found at the Athens Polytechnic School (or National Technological University of Athens), after it had become a place of bloodshed on November 17, 1973.

In the special album entitled Myths and Symbols that accompanies his current exhibition at Sianti Gallery (entitled Minima Moralia: People Staring History in the Eye), Papagiannis says of his work: “Eighteen years have already passed since the burning of the Polytechnic School, when I had gathered, with a pain in my soul, the debris, and created scarecrows out of them in order to exorcise the bad which is growing around me. […] With these materials as a base, together with other recycled materials, discarded, second hand, loaded with memories and history, that I had gathered, I slowly built the forms that you see before you. It was my reaction to an act which had shocked me. This was the reason that these ‘ghosts’ sprouted from within me.”

In a world that is growing all the more dystopian, many artists feel they have to choose which side they are on: will they be presenting that dystopia in their work, or will they be looking for something else, better, a ray of hope, a remedy, or an escape route even? Papagiannis says that he is in search of “the myth in an epoch in which most people try to ‘de-mythicize’ art”. For him his artistic process is an escape route from a world he cannot bare.

Papagiannis was born in Ioannina, in 1942. He studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts under Yiannis Pappas, and then embarked on a journey (after completing his military service), to study Ancient Greek art around Greece, but also travelling to Egypt, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Italy and Sicilly as well as to regions of Europe in his quest. And one can see the influence of Ancient Greece on his work immediately.

Papagiannis’s accomplishments as an artist are many, and have been awarded often, including being awarded by the Greek President Papoulias with the Οrder of the Phoenix, in 2015. Perhaps one of the most noble of Papagiannis’s deeds, was to create the “Theodoros Papagiannis” Museum of Contemporary Art in the village of Elliniko, in Ioannina. Housed in an old school, this museum has brought a wealth of culture to the people of this region.

The current exhibition is curated by Manos Stephanides, an Emeritus Professor of the National and Kapodistrian University, who says the following about Papagiannis’s work:

During the last few years, besides his monumental sculptures and his gigantic xoana, Theodoros Papagianis has been working with great dedication and passion on a series of small sculptures made out of terracotta. The overall impression is that of a game between adults who have forsaken their youth or that of crystallized images springing out of the deepest corners of the unconscious, the purest form of collective memory. The holiest form of naïveté. In this case, Papagianis’ conscious primitivism becomes the stuff of miracles as he molds earth, color and light into supplicants, mothers of Kouroi, idols in the shape of Φ or Ψ, ancient, yet surviving circular dances, fierce heroes of an ongoing struggle which begun in 1821, human types or pastoral scenes derived from his childhood memories of the village Elliniko near Ioannina, funerals, marriages, joys, as well as the bitterness of parting.

Insisting on this minimalistic form, Papagianis managed to compose a kind of sculptural performance, a form of ceramic ‘puppet show’. By grouping together hundreds of sculptures, he creates progressions, exits, litanies, parades, presented in a very imaginative and deeply evocative way. Reaching a point where the small becomes great. ‘Performances’ presented with great success in a number of important museums, an artistic intervention honoring the 200 years of our National Liberation, as well as the constant drama of our national history. Because the drama of nature or time is a projection of the drama of existence. When the senses take the form of aesthetics and nature takes the form of metaphysics.

A similar kind of ‘performance’ is presented through small sculptures, warriors and idols at Sianti Gallery, along with other versions of his multidimensional work. I would call this particular minimalistic version a kind of ‘minima moralia’ in connection with Adorno’s famous, confessionary essay on the essence which is hidden in everyday little things, as opposed to grand theories and gestures. An essay on the constant, symbolic and natural loneliness of all intellectuals, written between 1944 and 1947 and dedicated to his companion, Max Horkheimer, under the title ‘Reflections on a damaged life’. And I choose to connect Papagianis with this particular text, because he also is a defender of this special kind of ethos which is hidden in simple gestures, in the art of simplicity and instinct and the search for authenticity in a world all the more alienated.”

At Sianti Gallery, Papagiannis’s monumental figures, contrast with his more intimate, terracotta pieces, and his army of figurines, that bring to mind China’s famous terracotta army. In this exhibition, themes such as ‘sacrifice’, ‘motherhood’, ‘the couple’ are also explored by the artist with great tenderness, as is the relationship between man and beast.

All in all, this wonderful exhibition, which is like a mini retrospective of Papagiannis’s work, reminds us that there are many layers in art, and many influences. However, what counts is how they are fused to create something new, and what discourse this fusion propagates. Papagiannis’s fusion of the ancient and the modern, and his quest to exorcise the evil in this world via his totemic works, is heroic, intriguing and cathartic – the latter especially for the artist, but also for the viewer.

  • Minima Moralia: People Staring History in the Eye, an exhibition with works by Theodoros Papagiannis, runs till Tuesday, February 28, 2023.
  • Ikastikos Kiklos Sianti Gallery is open Tue – Thu – Fr 10.00 – 20.00;  Wed 10.00 – 15.00; Sat 10.00 – 16.00. Address: Vas. Alexandrou 2 & Niridon 18 (Hilton Area, closest Metro station is Evangelismos). Tel: 210- 7245432
  • You can visit the gallery website for more info here
  • Art Scene Athens’ is written/run by artist/journalist Stella Sevastopoulos. For more on her art, you can visit her website here


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