Book of letters offers glimpse into 50s and 60s avant-garde art scene

Book of letters offers glimpse into 50s and 60s avant-garde art scene

The history and study of modern Greek literature is being enriched with the publication, in English, of the letters exchanged by poet and art critic Nicolas Calas and avant-garde poet Nanos Valaoritis, transcribed, edited and annotated by Elena Koutrianou.

Calas left Greece at the outbreak of World War II, settling in Paris and then in New York, where he established his reputation as an art critic with a distinctive point of view, writing for pre-eminent magazines like Art International. He also organized and curated exhibitions, taught history of art at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and, together with his wife Elena, wrote the catalogue for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

book-of-letters-offers-glimpse-into-50s-and-60s-avant-garde-art-scene0Valaoritis spent the period from 1944 to 1953 in London and from 1954 to 1960 in Paris, but then decided to divide his time between the French capital and Athens. He left Greece again in 1968 for California, where he taught comparative literature and creative writing at the University of San Francisco until 1993. His poems, essays, novels and plays were influenced by surrealism, 1960s neo-surrealism and American beat poetry.

Valaoritis met Calas – 14 years his senior – in Paris in the early 1950s in Andre Breton’s circle of surrealist writers and painters and the pair embarked on a regular correspondence of mutual critiquing of each other’s work. Calas’ radical poetry of the 1930s had been dismissed by Greek literary critics and he was clearly disdainful of the collections and literary magazines circulating in Greece in the late 1950s and early 60s. In one example of his attitude toward the scene in Greece, he refused to submit any work to an anthology being put together in 1961 if it contained anything by Palamas or any other poems that rhymed. In one letter, however, he tells Valaoritis that he is no longer interested in poetry, but in writing on art.

Valaoritis’ response to what he saw as the absence of a serious literary magazine in Greece that could publish avant-garde poetry was to publish his work in the lifestyle magazine Eikones, published by Eleni Vlachou. He went a step further in 1963, publishing his own magazine on the Greek and international avant-garde scene, called Pali. It was there that he presented Calas’ poetry and introduced it to the Greek world of letters as a hyperrealist masterpiece.

The pair’s relationship with Breton is one of the most fascinating aspects of their correspondence. The French father of surrealism rejected ancient Greek rationalism and as such believed that the two Greek hyperrealists did not serve the principles and aims of global surrealism.

The letters comment on the intrigues and cliques Breton surrounded himself with and sing the praises of Marcel Duchamp and his love for Greece. The pair also write about other Greek artists working in New York at the time. They talk about Takis and Calas’ efforts to promote his work, about the famous happenings staged by Alexandre Iolas at his gallery and about the remarkable talent of Minos Argyrakis.

Their entire correspondence (1958-82), typed in English and French, is in the Nicolas and Elena Calas Archive in the Nordic Library in Athens and at the University of Princeton Library in the United States.

“The Nicolas Calas – Nanos Valaoritis Correspondence, 1958-1967” is published by Nefeli (2021).

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