Tribute to Nikos Kessanlis, a pioneer and great teacher of Greek art

Armed with a forceful nature and an intrepid spirit, Nikos Kessanlis was a pioneer who changed the course of art in Greece, both as an artists himself but also as rector of the Athens School of Fine Arts, influencing the generations that came after him. Now, 11 years after his death, the venue is preparing a special tribute to the artists, the first of which will be inaugurated on February 10.

Titled “The Walls of the City,” the opening part of the exhibition shows how Kessanlis discovered the poetic quality of walls as a subtext for life itself. Building layers upon layers of materials to produce a form of automatic writing and impulsive gestures, these were the works that signalled his new narrative, starting in the late 1950s.

The second part of the exhibition will be titled “Friends” and dedicated to the period in the artist’s life described by French critic Pierre Restany as mec-art, an abbreviation of mechanical art that refers to a movement which emerged in the 1960s. In Kessanlis’s work this expressed in images of shadows depicting his friends.

Modern viewers may ask themselves why we still bother with Kessanlis’s work. The answer is that the pioneering character of his work made it not just timeless but also a necessary point of reference. He is admired, if for no other reason, for the fact that he never shied from exploring new ground.

As Giorgos Tzirzilakis wrote in the catalog of an exhibition he curated in 1997 at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Kessanlis challenged conformism, which in the post-World War II era, “reproduced the mythologies of the Thirties Generation and particularly the tired aetheticism of ‘Greekness’ and that mortal enemy of creativity, ‘good taste.’”

Born in Thessaloniki in 1930, Kessanlis was influenced by the work of Yiannis Spyropoulos and studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts under, among other great teachers of that time, Yiannis Moralis and Umberto Argyros. His experience of living in Rome and Paris allowed him to take in international movements and trends and make them his own. Together with Vlassis Kaniaris and Daniil, he was one of the Greek artists who matured in the 1960s and whose work has left an indelible imprint on Greek art.

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