I think it goes without saying that Greece, like many places steeped with historical significance, traditional values like art and art appreciation will always remain a part of the culture. There’s something so cathartic and connective about honoring a past that dates back thousands and thousands of years; and, while many would like to stick with those ancient traditions, progress and change are bound to occur.
This is the very thing that has happened in contemporary Grecian culture: the practice of art and the appreciation of creation has remained. But artists have stretched and strained against the limitations of tradition, forging new paths for the entire art world. Contemporary Greek art is generally marked by four distinctive styles, similarly to that of ancient Greece.
While modern American artists continued to push Abstract Expressionism into the realm of fine art, the same style was taking Greece by storm. Several artists formed group exhibitions throughout Europe, simultaneously embracing the waves of progress while also breaking with classical Greek representations of figures and mythology. The most notable Greek artist to embrace this style is Theodoros Stamos, who was part of the original founding group of abstract expressionists. As a teenager born to immigrant parents, he won a scholarship to the American Artists School where he studied sculpture. This background significantly influenced his painting later, which often included abstract figures reminiscent of conceptual sculptures that meld with soft, color-field backgrounds.
Many of his paintings seem similar to those of his contemporary Clyfford Still, with areas of color that drip and shift together on the canvas. However, Stamos’s paintings often form around a central shape rather than forming a sort of landscape as Still’s do.
If you were to come across a Kinetic sculpture by Greek artist Takis, you wouldn’t think of it as a sculpture, but merely a collection of discarded wires and bulbs meant to take their place in a piece that makes a little more sense. And if you look up his name, you’d see chip bags instead of minimalist art, but I digress.
Takis’ work is not about the look of the piece, but the functionality of it. Using electromagnetism, Takis crafted pieces that created different musical sounds using only industrial and technological fragments. Magnets help to animate the sculptures while also serving as an underlying theme, saying that electromagnetism runs through everything and, “binds together in space, objects, metals, roaming particles of the cosmos,” according to the artist. Therefore, instead of relying on the visual, Takis takes sculpture to a new interactive level concerned with the world around itself, rather than simply an audience interested in beauty.
The Arte Povera is most likely one of the first iterations of the found-objects movement that has taken the contemporary American art world by storm. In a financially unstable country like Greece, this was one of the ways artists could follow their craft and create things that both fascinated viewers and made statements about their surroundings. The movement also signified the shift of interest in the art world from work on flat surfaces to three-dimensional, often interactive installations.
Jannis Kounellis is often considered the voice of and representative for the Arte Povera movement, as his works embody the motivations at its heart: to investigate the intersection of contemporary society and art. In this endeavor, Kounellis uses “non-art” materials like cotton, wool, glass bottles, doors, shelves, and other found materials to juxtapose two worlds and what it means to embody them. For example, one of his paintings deals with the relationship of historical and contemporary experience. But the artist insisted a cellist play Bach’s “St. John Passion” alongside the painting, in order to “fully activate the image.” Much of his work serves as an outright criticism of the financial situation of Greece in the rest of the world and its impact on its citizens.
While studying contemporary art, it is not unusual to have your head spinning over some of the double-talk and double-standards that seem to occur between different schools of artists. When Modernism began to merge into a more contemporary age, artists continued to push the boundaries and break further away from the traditional building blocks of the art world. Yet there were some who tirelessly struggled against the change. The basic manifesto of Stuckism called for a return to “the spirit of modernism,” in which artists produced art with a spiritual motivation regardless of style, subject, matter or medium. Through Stuckism, figural and representational art returned to the scene with a more expressionist undertone — artists utilized the abstracting and color-field techniques pioneered by international artists like Picasso, Cezanne and others.
Odysseus Yakoumakis, a painter and illustrator based in Athens, latched onto the Stuckism movement and founded the first Greek Stuckist group, The Romantic Anonymous Fellowship. His vibrant paintings seem to portray a wild rendition of Dali’s surrealist worlds as they show characters on journeys or interacting with others in the format of epic poetry. Yakoumakis is one of very few contemporary artists that hearkened back to the art of his homeland, portraying scenes from both the Bible and Greek mythology.
Dimitris Mytaras is another Stuckist painter that employs the modernist use of color in his portraits of women and interiors. What seems to be a simple image of a woman lounging on a couch takes on new meaning when it is backgrounded by bright colors and abstracted shapes that seem to play off of the subject’s exaggerated features and facial expressions.
As it had been in its ancient hey-day, Greece continues to be a hub for artistic discovery and progress, as artists continue to experiment and forge their own paths. While some embrace their cultural traditions, others forcibly reject them in favor of stepping into their own creative world, just as their ancient counterparts did.
What do you think of contemporary Greek art as it relates to the advances made in the ancient civilization? How do these artists use their art to form conversations about both art and society in Europe? How will Greek art continue to evolve? Will artists continue to reject traditional representation or will there be a return to the classical themes? Let’s talk.