CULTURE

‘I’m looking for other storms’

«As a child, I admired a painting of a stormy sea and a rowboat. The horizon was obscured by mist. The sea was green, the waves enormous. At the time, the work seemed huge to me. It was in a red wooden frame and hung in the cafe which my father had on Hydra,» said painter Panayiotis Tetsis in «Aquarelles 1991-5» (Athens, 1995). The painter whom art critic Eleni Vakalo described as «building paintings with megaliths of color» is hale and hearty at 76, lucid, approachable and was as courteous as always as he received us in his studio in Xenocratous Street to talk about his latest work, a huge painting of the sea, 8 x 2.5 meters in size, which will be exhibited in the National Gallery until the end of January. Later, it will adorn Kathimerini’s offices, a present from the newspaper’s owner, Aristides Alafouzos, to the paper. Apart from the artist-collector relationship, the two men also have a personal one – they were students together at the same junior high school in Piraeus. Tetsis’s relationship with the newspaper is also longstanding. An early work by the painter, who is also a faithful reader, greeted visitors for many years at the newspaper’s former premises on Socratous Street. Why have you done a painting of the sea? The sea was very much present in my last exhibition. But you know, most people expect to see a calm sea, while I remember it as being almost always rough. The image of a stormy sea is one I grew up with as a child on Hydra. In the winter, when the north wind blew and bad weather struck, and I happened to be slightly sick, I didn’t go to school. In the house we lived in at the time, we could see the sea. I sat in front of the window and watched the storm, and at some point the Ydraki – the ferry of the time – emerged, pitching and rolling but still coming, a small, old vessel but well-made. They didn’t know about the Beaufort scale or forbidding sailing in those days… The sea was dark, not just blue; it changed color, it turned black. And the waves would turn white… I have painted this sea ever since, the sea of Hydra and childhood memory. How did you come to paint this work? This summer, I was on Sifnos. I had two large frames but no canvas. I had been studying the sea in this state since the year before, but the winter had not helped me at all… It was the mildest of winters, extremely sunny; you even wanted to go swimming… On Sifnos, then, I decided one day to go to a shop and find some cloth because, as I said, I had no canvas at all. I found a nice calico, 2.5 meters in width. I bought eight meters. I prepared it straightaway and fell to work, in case the subject in my mind’s eye disappeared… If you don’t act on inspiration, it will vanish… Of course, I didn’t finish the work on Sifnos; I continued it in Athens. Have you satisfied your initial inspiration with this work? Oh, no, I’m going to continue… I’m looking for other storms… Don’t take this to mean I plan to be an assembly line churning out repeats. But I want to continue on this theme, and not with the thought of having the works placed somewhere for good. What is the underlying concept of the work? Light… the light that disappears behind lowering clouds or shines a ray through them. The intensity of the colors; the sea is black. I’ll tell you an experience of mine with my students at the school: I instructed them to paint me a sea. They took some blue cobalt and painted the sea. They didn’t look at the sea, and yet they painted it blue. But, I told them, the sea is yellow and green and pink… not only blue! The students continued mentally equating blue with the sea. They didn’t paint what they saw; they didn’t believe their own eyes. Of course, step by step, they changed. You have painted a very large picture with this sea… The large size was an additional challenge. On a canvas this size, you paint with your entire body, you are led into a painting of gesture… I spread the paints with my fingers, with the brush, with a spatula; in places I laid it on in a thick paste, in others I left it thin. The sea is never still, especially this stormy sea, and the whole painting had to render this movement. What period in your painting would you say this canvas is closest to? They’re all related! They all follow a line, the one brings on the other… And each one serves a purpose, a mood. This sea, from the point of view of mood and movement, is closer to a series of works on Sifnos I painted some time ago. Then, in order to render the sharp, absolute light of the Cyclades, I ended up using black and white while I painted Sifnos in ink, in a broad brushstroke, like a gesture. In his own words «I want to give people a sense of my country – I was born here, I grew up here. I don’t belong to any genre, to none of the currents that come and go over the passage of the years…»(Interview in the Greek daily Ta Nea, 1972) Where do you find inspiration? From what I see. My eyes feed me. A chance glance can open the door to a whole series of paintings. To draw something, I have to live it, for it to enter under my skin. Hydra is my birthplace; I have been living on Sifnos for 30 years. I’m not just talking about landscapes; «Street Market» was something that fermented inside me for 10-20 years before being born. Are you discovering new things? But of course, constantly. I would like to have the time to look around more, to paint more. But I have many distractions: writing something, going to an exhibition, telephone calls, being asked to look at somebody else’s work…(Interview in Kathimerini, 1998)