Yiannis Moralis?s bold rationalist abstraction

Dimosthenes Kokkinidis, former rector of the Athens School of Fine Arts, is one of those men who, even in their 80s, have lost none of their charm. The former student, associate and friend of the late artists Yiannis Moralis took me on a tour of the exhibition ?Architectural Compositions,? which opened recently at the Benaki Museum in Kolonaki, and which highlights the work Moralis did with other associates for large internal and outdoor spaces. The exhibition begins with his most famous work, the enormous mural that adorns the facade of the Athens Hilton Hotel from 1959.

?First he drew the design, then etched it into plaster on scale and then carved it onto the marble slabs,? explained Kokkinidis. ?I used to go and watch him work, watch how he and his team chiselled the design onto the marble and then fitted all the pieces together.?

I asked Kokkinidis how different the design looked on marble compared to paper. ?First of all, he did a test run on plaster in order to see, on scale, how the shadows worked, because the piece basically works with the sunlight. This is why he etched the negative onto the marble, like the ancient Egyptians did, and played with the width of the lines. In parts, the lines are even and run from top to bottom; in others their width tapers off. The curves, for example, taper off completely at their ends. Moralis played with the semantics of form. Beside them, in the style of classic modernism, he placed curves.?

Though Moralis?s work is very classical in one sense, he also incorporated motifs and forms from Greek art. ?This is clear in his paintings, especially,? said Kokkinidis. ?But this is what the entire 1930s generation was after. They struggled to create an identity for themselves; an admirable effort if you will. But, Moralis?s classical period was in the 1960s and, unlike other abstract artist, Moralis applied a kind of rationalist abstraction.?

Abstraction began making its way into Moralis?s work when the artist became involved in architectural decoration and larger projects. Did the materials he was working with play a role in this shift?

Kokkinidis explained: ?The things he did on walls did not appear in his painting, at least initially. There were, of course, some hints. You can see them in the large mural with the three figures that he submitted to the Venice Biennale [in 1958], as in the nudes he did in the late 1950s. But, on a wall, on a surface as large as that, you can?t create those kinds of plastic compositions. By force you will tend to a composition that is decorative.?

Some of Moralis?s critics have labelled his ?decorative? work as being ?cheap.? Others have said it lacks in intellect and spirituality. Kokkinidis simply smiled. ?It depends on the kind of decor and on the kind of scenes one is depicting. There is nothing cheap about anything we see here,? said the art professor of the exhibition. ?The term has been sullied by its commercial intonation. All painters have done decor. What was the entire Russian avant-garde about if not decor? All decor means is applying the medium of art to achieve a decorative result.?

We stopped in front of a massive wooden composition Moralis created for the Kolonaki branch of Citibank. ?See here, for example,? said Kokkinidis, ?it begins at a tiny point and grows to become massive and within this there are lines carved into the wood: horizontal and vertical lines, like doors and windows. This wealth of images reveals a compositional concept. And Moralis was a rationalist. He tried his best to keep his emotions in check. And that is very difficult indeed.?

Benaki Museum,17 Vas. Sofias Thursday 9 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. To April 30.

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