Yiannis Moralis, artist of his time

Yiannis Moralis is an artist known for avoiding publicity. He never gives interviews and does not like to speak of his work. This reticence may partly explain the myth that surrounds him: that of a cool, witty and dignified artist who brings to our days the aura of the old Greek Athenian bourgeoisie. But it is mostly because Moralis, like other artists of his generation, has become associated with an epoch of intellectual and artistic vivacity in this country that he is so famous. He is one of the so-called Thirties Generation painters who are credited with giving a new direction of supposed Greekness to the visual arts. Tsarouchis, Ghikas and Nikolaou were among them, and all together they were part of a much broader artistic milieu which involved Manos Hadjidakis, the then young Dionysis Fotopoulos, the choreographer Rallou Manou and the director Karolos Koun. Seen in retrospect as something like the Golden Age of Greek intellectual life, it summons up today a mood of nostalgia for the past, enveloped in the melancholy but sweet musical tones composed by Manos Hadjidakis and the folk-like paintings of Yiannis Tsarouchis. This spirit is evoked inYiannis Moralis: Angels, Music, Poetry, an exhibit that opened a few days ago at the Benaki Museum through an idea by set designer Dionysis Fotopoulos. Organized on the occasion of Moralis’s donation to the Benaki Museum of the drawings that he made for theater set design throughout his career, the exhibit highlights the versatility of Moralis as an artist, but even more ties his work to the broader artistic climate of his time. The exhibit unravels like a story, weaving together friendships and collaborations between Moralis and other artists of his time and capturing an entire mood. The supplemental catalog, in which the artist himself provides an extensive narration of his life’s incidents, is also structured in much the same way.This is an exhibit that strives to be as vivid as possible. The music of Hadjidakis and the scores of the various theater performances that Moralis worked on serve as an effective acoustic background, and the way that the exhibit itself is designed (by set designer Lilli Pezanou) helps to animate the space. Blown-up photographs taken from the theater performances that Moralis worked on, either as a costume or set designer, are juxtaposed by the artist’s respective drawings, while enlarged photo-portraits of Moralis, Seferis and Elytis, for whom Moralis illustrated many of their poems, sets the art of the time in a human and historical context. As the title itself suggests, this is an exhibit of cross-associations between different disciplines and the artists behind them. Besides the sets that Moralis made for the theater – among them for the Rallou Manou dance company, the Greek National Theater and Karolos Koun’s staging of ancient drama, – there are also the books and the music records (of Manos Hadjidakis and Manolis Kalomiris among others) that he illustrated, ceramics (Moralis collaborated with well-known ceramist Eleni Vernadaki) engravings and a piece of textile, but only a few paintings. Today, the abstract design that Moralis made to decorate one side of the Hilton Hotel in the early 1960s is a visual reminder of an artist who worked across many disciplines and in the spirit of his time. By today’s standards it is an outmoded spirit, but, for this reason, perhaps wistful to the contemporary viewer. Angels, Music, Poetry has something of this melancholy tone to it but its compact structure pulls it together into a brief and pleasant musing on the past. The Concert Hall found its way gradually. Don’t you find this a normal outcome in a country which prior to 1990 didn’t have a single hall with satisfactory acoustics? The truth is that the initial concept was based solely round the concert halls. But there was also a need to educate a public which was largely ignorant of the great landmarks of international music, whether contemporary or classical. This dictated broadening the programming to include other stage productions, exhibitions, dance productions and other events.

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