The figure of a young boy pulls a cart filled with cubes. As you get closer you realize that the cubes are marked with the word “will” in various languages. The installation, “Paichnidi” (1973), is by Vlassis Caniaris (1928-2011) and is part of the artist’s “Immigrants” series. Throughout his career the acclaimed Greek artist was known for using symbols to convey his thoughts on the world, while even after his death his work has found itself caught up in politics, as the introduction of capital controls and Greece’s referendum last year ended up delaying the organization of “Vlassis Caniaris: Bound for Tinos III,” a retrospective at the Cultural Foundation of Tinos. The show, which eventually opened in June this year, runs through October 31 and is the institution’s first contemporary art exhibition. It is curated by Christoforos Marinos.
Going up the staircase at the foundation (housed in a beautiful neoclassical building dating to 1925 whose demolition plans Caniaris fiercely opposed), two singular “Boites personnelles” (1965) await visitors. In the first, Caniaris placed a picture of his then pregnant wife, Mary, and in the second, a family picture with newborn Alexis.
“Instead of bringing cake, he brought me the boxes as a gift,” Mary Caniaris, visibly moved, told Kathimerini.
It was her own family ties to the island that led the artist to connect to Tinos in the first place – starting in 1951, he visited the Cycladic island every summer except during the seven-year military dictatorship.
“My husband observed places in an entirely different way. He observed things from a sociopolitical point of view. He loved the landscape – I had to force him to leave the terrace and go to bed,” she added.
A restless and methodical man, Caniaris gave up medical studies to go to the Athens School of Fine Arts. He was heavily influenced by international developments when he lived outside Greece, first in Rome, then Paris, and then Berlin. He was afraid of planes but not of voicing his own opinion and taking a political stance through his works, maintaining, however, a distance from so-called “militant art.” While his atelier was “inaccessible” and he was something of an introvert, his initial inspiration for the creation for his well-known figures were his two children. The young boy in “Paichnidi” and the girlish figure welcoming visitors at the exhibition are abstract portraits of Alexis and Jeanne-Irene Caniaris.
“I became accustomed to seeing myself through his works,” noted Alexis Caniaris, adding that his father’s art pieces are part of the island’s culture. “My father loved Tinos deeply and the show gives those visiting the island the opportunity to get a glimpse of contemporary art.”
The retrospective showcases 29 works by the acclaimed visual artist which Marinos brought together from a variety of sources: the Caniaris family’s private collection, other private collections as well as galleries. Without adhering to a strict chronological order, the exhibition features representative works by the artist, starting from “Skyros” in 1952 to “Angelos” in 2009.
The themes among the works on display include the victims of the 1956 mining accident in Marcinelle, Belgium, racism (a subject that Caniaris delved into during the time of the Greek dictatorship), immigration (the lives of Greek migrants in Germany), as well as Europe’s North-South divide.
“Is there anything interesting about this work?” is a question the artist often asked himself. In a previously unpublished 2008 interview which is now part of the Tinos exhibition catalog, Caniaris reversed the roles and asked Marinos the same question. Somewhat embarrassed, but nevertheless in a most natural manner, Marinos replied: “Of course. It’s very timely.” This is still true today.