Paintings about folk culture

In the midst of a universalized language that sweeps across contemporary art production, an unusual exhibition at the Metamorphosis gallery in Thessaloniki reminds us of both the freshness and timeless quality of folk tradition. Curated by arts writer Nikos Stathoulis, the exhibition presents paintings by Evgenios Spatharis, perhaps the most prestigious as well as one of the few remaining puppeteers of the legendary Karaghiozis shadow theater – a genre tied with Greek history, folk tradition and collective unconscious. The son of Sotiris Spatharis, an artist of Asia Minor origins and one of the pioneers of the Karaghiozis theater in Greece, Evgenios Spatharis, now in his early 80s, has been painting themes on Karaghiozis since 1947 but has rarely exhibited his art. Thus he has remained known to the broader public mostly as a puppeteer and creator of the Karaghiozis theater repertoire. Karaghiozis, the beloved hero of Greek folk tradition whose warm-hearted, cunning and ingenious character is said to symbolize aspects of the country’s resistance against the Turks, is featured in several of the paintings and illustrated in 29 cut-out figures. So are other protagonists of the Karaghiozis theater, among them Megalexandros, Kyr-Nionios and Hatziavatis. These are a few out of a stock of characters that transformed what was originally an imported form of theater to one of pure Greek artistic expression. According to one of numerous legends, the figure of Karaghiozis himself is said to originate from the East (China, Java, India and Persia) from where it crossed into the Ottoman Empire («kara,» which means black, and «ghioz,» which means eye, are Turkish words) and, in the middle of the 19th century, to Greece. Karaghiozis soon bred what became one of the most popular forms of entertainment, which, needless to say, also helped preserve and spread among the uneducated Greek population of the time the history and tradition of the country. Events from Greek history are actually referred to in many of the stories in the Karaghiozis theater. They are also the subject matter in a large number of Spatharis’s paintings exhibited in his show. Naif in style, the paintings are, according to the exhibition’s curator, in the line of a tradition set by Theophilos, the greatest naif Greek painter. Like Theophilos before him, Spatharis uses a simplified, naif visual language typified by a lack of perspective and depth and an unusual palette to narrate instances taken out of Greek history. In another set of the exhibition’s paintings, Spatharis tests Karaghiozis’s pertinence to our times by placing him in a contemporary setting. As much as a tribute to the cultural role played by Karaghiozis and this distinct genre of Greek shadow theater, the exhibition of Evgenios Spatharis is also an occasion to consider the ways in which folk culture can be kept alive by adapting itself to changing times. Needless to say, it is also an opportunity to view a largely unknown body of works by one of the country’s most legendary artists of the Karaghiozis Greek shadow theater. Paintings by Evgenios Spatharis, at the Metamorphosis gallery in Thessaloniki (12 Chrysostomou Smyrnis, 2310.264.365) through Saturday. Sponsored by Malamatina Retsina.