Color as medium for an artist to construct space

The art of George Mavroides, one of the most prominent figures of the so-called Thirties Generation, who passed away last month, is often discussed in terms of its unusual, vehement use of color. Mavroides, a colorist to his fingertips, admired German expressionism and in his paintings applied the same agitated brushstroke of the early expressionists. He also held Picasso in high regard, just as he appreciated all the avant-garde movements of the first part of the 20th century. His art drew elements from all of them. But color, the use of a strong, varied pallette was what pulled everything together into a very distinctive style of painting also singled out for its focus on portraiture or the human figure. Both of these aspects, the colorist and figurative, are evident in «George Mavroides, ‘a process of thunderstruck affirmation’,» the large exhibition on the artist’s work currently on at the Benaki Museum. (The phrase in the title is from a piece that the poet Andreas Embiricos, a friend of Mavroides, wrote on the occasion of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Merlin Gallery in 1964). The exhibition, which is curated by Natasha Karagelou, had been planned in collaboration with the artist, who unfortunately did not live to see it. Eighty paintings, drawings, a selection of personal items, photographs, letters that Mavroides exchanged with artists and friends, as well as the costumes that he designed for the «The Gypsy,» staged by Greek Chorodrama in the late 1950s, are brought together to highlight the broad interest and creativity of this artist. But the idea was also to evoke some of the intellectual flavor of the Thirties Generation period, which was considered as important to the shaping of a Greek cultural identity as so-called «ellinikotita» (Greekness). Born in Piraeus in 1912, Mavroides spent his childhood in Cyprus (his father was Cypriot) but experienced the cultural life of Athens in the mid-1930s when he moved to Athens to study law and political science. He became a close friend of the painter Yiannis Tsarouchis and part of the postwar cultural milieu formed by artists and intellectuals such as Embiricos, Engonopoulos, Callas, Diamantopoulos, Nikolaou, Hadzinikolaou-Ghika, Moralis and Vakalos. Mavroides became one of the three pioneers of the avant-garde Tetradio publication in the mid-1940s. Well-versed in writing and highly interested in literature, Mavroides published – in the second issue of Tetradio – his prose piece «Points of Escape,» a piece of free-association writing that he prefaced with a text by Breton. He also translated Alfred Jarry’s controversial «Ubu Roi» and wrote essays on art. Among them, his vehement praise of the art of Picasso shows Mavroides’s appreciation for the avant-garde. Mavroides continued writing until old age and his poetry collection published in the ’90s is an example of this incessant literary output. Considering his deep and continuous involvement with art, it is perhaps unusual that for a long time, Mavroides’s professional career followed a completely different route, that of the diplomatic corps, which he entered in 1946 and remained in for more than a decade. He was appointed vice-consul in Vlore, where he served a year, spent two years to Paris in the early ’50s, a city which he enjoyed for its artistic vivacity, and was later appointed Greek consul in Trieste. As an artist Mavroides was self-taught. Although following his departure from the diplomatic corps he became a professor and later rector of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Mavroides learned to paint through his own talent and curiosity. He started painting right after the war and began exhibiting his work more systematically from the mid-1950s. At the time, his work was shown at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York, at the Zygos Gallery in Athens and the Sao Paolo Biennale of 1956 (the other participants were Lili Arlioti, Alekos Kontopoulos, Nikos Nikolaou, Panayiotis Tetsis, Achilleas Apergis and Giorgos Zongolopoulos). One of the most important acknowledgements for his work came in 1966 when he was selected together with four other artists (Nikos Georgiadis, Kleanthis Loukopoulos, Vasso Katraki and K. Andreou) to represent Greece at the Venice Biennale of the same year. Landscapes, portraiture and the human figure remained Mavroides’s favorite themes throughout his career. Of all three, the human figure seems the most predominant. This is perhaps because artistically, Mavroides was bred in the postwar period, a period of «existentialism» when man became the focus and figuration pervaded art. From the mid-1940s and for more than 50 years after that, Mavroides sensed the world through images of the human figure. What varied was the degree of abstraction he applied to the paintings of each period. Contrasts achieved through color also remained prominent. Mavroides used to say that color is the medium through which the artist constructs space. Color was the artist’s major tool; when painting, he never made an outline of a drawing first but applied color straight onto the canvas. But he also made multiple, autonomous drawings, some with ink, felt-tip pen, tempera or pencil. A selection of them are displayed at the Benaki exhibition. Visually interesting, they reveal the artist’s skill not only with color but also with line, and assist in a more comprehensive appreciation of this artist’s work. A film that Stavros Stratigakos directed on the life of the artist is part of the exhibition at the Benaki. Also available is the extensive catalog published by the Benaki Museum in collaboration with Adam editions-Pergamos. The museum has organized special educational programs for secondary school students. The exhibition will run at the Benaki Museum (1 Koubari, Kolonaki, tel 210.367.1000) to January 11.