Quest for Mediterranean calm

He is perhaps the most broadly recognized living Greek artist: Alekos Fassianos is not just a name known in the art world but an artist whose work is familiar even to those ignorant in matters of art. It is likely that this is because, in certain ways, his art is populist and intentionally made accessible to the public. It appears on stamps, on buses and is made in copies and posters. But broad recognition also comes from the fact that Fassianos has painted more or less in the same style for decades now. His images are now prototypes. They have become synonymous with a certain «Greekness,» a blend of ancient Greek, Byzantine and folk art with a modern twist and a quest for the «eternal» Mediterranean calm. A «classic modernist,» Fassianos speaks to the Greek soul. The more trendy art crowd may look down on his art for having grown too commercial and repetitive but the fact is that Fassianos enjoys unwaning popularity, not to mention a high reputation in the art establishment. Going through his retrospective exhibit, currently held at the National Gallery, one feels that the calm happiness that exudes from his paintings could not have earned Fassianos a lesser following. «Mythologies of the Everyday,» which is the title of this survey exhibition, also points to another distinctive quality in Fassianos’s work, that of infusing ordinary people and everyday scenes with non-ephemeral status. Alekos Fassianos is the painter of eternal youth. He will turn 70 this year but he is as prolific and dynamic as few young artists are. He is always present on the art scene and holds several international shows; one of the most recent was held in Japan, where apparently Fassianos has a large following. He also enjoys a reputation in France, where he lived for a large part of his life, having settled permanently back in Greece only about three years ago. In his early 30s, Fassianos moved to Paris. He had studied at the School of Fine Arts in Athens under Yiannis Moralis, one of the youngest artists of the so-called ’30s generation of artists and a figure who, like Yiannis Tsarouchis, had a great influence on Fassianos’s work. In many ways, the art of Fassianos continues the quest for «Greekness» of the ’30s generation. Like his elders, Fassianos combined the precepts of modern art with elements drawn from Greek folk, ancient Greek and Byzantine traditions. As a young artist, he actually spent much time at the National Archaeological Museum observing ancient Greek vases, particularly Attic lekythi. The outlined figures against a monochromatic background that appear in many of his works are an obvious influence from Attic vase painting. Byzantine art was another source of inspiration to which Fassianos was exposed at an early age (his grandfather was a priest). The flat rendering of his figures and the gold-painted backgrounds of his later paintings show his fascination with Byzantine art. But it is the artist’s invention of a host of distinctive human characters to which his art mostly owes its singular feeling. Among his most preferred figures are those of the cyclists with their waving hair, the men smoking a cigarette, the male figures with long scarves or the nude female figures often shown with their male lovers. Fassianos places those figures in an indeterminate time frame: there are references to modern life but there are also plenty of elements that point to the past, to Greek antiquity or folk traditions. In a way, Fassianos turns everyday human characters to something archetypal. This is perhaps why his art is so moving: it is a comforting reminder of continuity, of daily life as something that goes beyond the ephemeral. Fassianos pays tribute to the past and the collective unconscious but also celebrates the present. The voluptuousness of his figures and the luminosity of the color he uses show the sensuality and pleasure of everyday life. This is probably less true of his early works. Compared to paintings that followed, his works from the 1960s were made in the expressionist style, show figures that are more grotesque and, in one sense, are more disturbing. These works are lesser known and, perhaps for that reason, more appreciated than the trademark and broadly circulated style of his later works. But the calm, Mediterranean feel that resonates out of his later paintings has a distinctive quality that cannot be easily rejected as cliche. For while it is true that Fassianos’s commercial success may have made his art seem to many like a tiring repetition of a style, this hardly does justice to the uniqueness of his work nor to the poetic message it carries. A retrospective exhibition is an occasion to reappraise an artist’s work and to view it without prejudices. Alekos Fassianos has a large following but there are also those who see his art as too commercial or recycled. Both will benefit from this retrospective exhibition on the work of this artist who holds a crucial position in the history of modern Greek painting. Alekos Fassianos, «Mythologies of the Everyday,» at the National Gallery (50 Vas. Constantinou, tel 210.723.5937) until February 28.