Innovator of Greek sculpture

There are certain things about art that we now take for granted, often forgetting that that they were once radical and sometimes controversial accomplishments. Abstraction in art is one of them. It revised art’s representation of the external world, changed the notion of artistic expression and provided art with an aesthetic autonomy unmatched before it. The Zacharias Portalakis collection’s sculpture work of Christos Capralos, one of this country’s pioneers of abstraction, is a reminder of how these values were introduced to Greek sculpture. The large, bronze sculptures on display in the stark, stylish venue that Zacharias Portalakis inaugurated last year to exhibit his collection through temporary exhibitions are impressive, though imbued with an aura of the past that some may feel as a throwback. But was it not for this past, the development of contemporary art would not have been the same. And had it not been for Capralos and several of his contemporaries, the course of abstraction in Greek art would not have been very different. In a country where the longing to catch up with the trends of international art has conditioned the contemporary audience, often by cultivating false expectations, this sense of the past, though vital, is something we often forget. This is where such an exhibition proves useful; it challenges the Greek audience to better understand its own history but also to position contemporary art within the context of art history. The works in the exhibition, 14 large sculptures in all, belong to Capralos’s «abstract» period, which began in the mid 1950s and persisted until his death in the early 1990s. From a poor farmer’s family, Capralos was raised in a small village close to Agrinion and, as a child, became apprenticed to a local sculptor. Thanks to his talent and perseverance, he managed to study painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts under Oumvertos Argyros. With the financial backing of the tobacco industrialist Evangelos Pappastratos, he left for Paris in the early 1930s to further pursue his studies and remained there until the declaration of World War II forced him to return. Despite his luck at having met important people who became his benefactors (Antonis Benakis was one of them), Capralos’s life in Paris was one of poverty, as were the years following his return to Greece. Until the end of the war, Capralos stayed in his village where he designed the relief sculpture of the «Monument to the Battle of Pindos,» a tribute to the Resistance and to man’s struggle for subsistence. In the early ’50s, he transferred this design onto limestone from the island of Aegina, the island where Capralos and his wife spent most of the year from the mid 1950s until the end of his life and where the Capralos Museum is now located. Capralos experimented with all sorts of different materials, from ceramics to stone and, later in his career, wood. But it is perhaps to his bronze works (the ones on display in the exhibition) that he owes his greatest reputation – at least internationally. It is with a selection of bronze, abstract works that Capralos represented Greece at the 1962 Venice Biennale. Its success was immense: The Greek pavilion came first in sales, Capralos’s work was positively reviewed and the artist was invited to participate in exhibitions worldwide. The famed New York gallerist Martha Jackson entered into contract with him and bought many of his works, as did several other international collectors. (According to Portalakis, when Capralos was able to live off his work later in his career, he tried to buy back many of those works, wishing to repatriate them). A distinctive aspect of those works is that they are made in the so-called «cire perdue» technique which, apparently, Capralos borrowed from ancient Greek sculpture, perhaps his greatest source of inspiration. Indeed, Capralos’s autobiography (published about a year ago) is filled with praise of ancient Greek art. Apart from the cire perdue technique, Capralos’s adherence to anthropomorphic art is also partly traced to the great influence of ancient Greek art on him. But modern European interwar and postwar art were also major influences on Capralos’s work, especially in respect to the monumental, commemorative character and allegorical content of his sculpture. There is also the feel of postwar existential angst captured in the fragmented bodies and sense of tragic fate with which some of his works resonate. In certain cases, similarities with works by Henry Moore, Marino Marini and Lynn Chadwich are also noticeable. All of this is wonderfully set out in the exhibition, which has provided a rare opportunity for bringing the large works of the sculptor together. It is also unusual that a single, private collection includes so many works by one artist. Portalakis is the biggest collector of Capralos. The works by him that Portalakis holds are a tribute to one of this country’s most pioneering artists but also show Portalakis’s distinctive taste for representing in his collection as fully as possible each artist’s work rather than buying fragmentarily. This comprehensive representation of each artist’s work, coupled with the fact that Portalakis owns works by some of the most established Greek artists (in sculpture, they include Takis, Koulentianos, Zongolopoulos, Apartis, Theodoros, Filolaos, Chryssa, Vlavianos and Tzobanakis), could greatly contribute to the documentation, study and appraisal of Greek art. This seems particularly important now that many Greek art collectors are increasingly turning toward international, contemporary artists (many of whose works Portalakis also owns). The exhibition on Capralos, like the previous one on Theodoros Stamos – also from the Zacharias Portalakis collection – helps place Greek art in the context of art history, making the Greek public more aware of the art of the past but also more sensitive to the art of the present. «Christos Capralos: Portalakis Collection» (8 Pezmazoglou, tel 210.331.8933) is on display until late July.