Kounellis in a solo show at UK museum

On a small Oxford road, Pembroke Street, is the esteemed Modern Art Oxford museum. One of the most significant art spaces in Britain, it has been the boast of this English city of 40 colleges since the 1960s. Now, at both levels of this small museum, Jannis Kounellis is displaying works dating from 1956, when he was still a student in Rome, to the present. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by seven heavy metal slabs, each about the size of a double bed and each balanced on two frail wooden chairs. On these slabs, the artist has symmetrically placed pieces of coal, forming what looks like a strange sort of abc book. This is a work from 1991. The exhibition occupies almost the entire three halls of the Upper Gallery, while in the largest of these is a piece by Kounellis made especially for Modern Art Oxford. Huge iron crosses, placed at an angle in a row, rest in a sea of colorful Muslim prayer rugs. Symbolizing the encounter and clash between two civilizations, this work is both monumental and emotive. In another hall, Kounellis has set up a stage of cheap wooden tables, filling the room to capacity. The focus here is time and the works on display have been chosen mainly from the 1960s. Among them are his wonderful paintings with letters and numbers, which he made for three years only, until 1963, but stopped because they became too popular commercially. Success can soon become a trap that hinders progress. But Kounellis did progress to become one of the main figures in the Italian Arte Povera (literally Poor Art) movement, in which the artists use cheap materials such as coal sacks, wood and seeds, daily materials that aim at freeing painting from the confines of the easel. As Kounellis says, the materials are not important; what matters is how you place them to create an image. The exhibition was inaugurated by Sir Nicholas Serota, former director of Modern Art Oxford who is currently at the helm of the famed Tate Museums in London. A few days before the opening, Kathimerini had the opportunity to speak with the acclaimed artist. Below are extracts from the interview: Why did you leave Greece and what did you find in Italy that Greece could not give you? I was very young when I left. I didn’t leave to go to Italy and then return to Greece. I left to go to Italy because it was not as dogmatic a country as Greece. It didn’t have that superficial quality, that so-called popular art. What do you mean by those terms? What they used to call popular art at the time. It was a concept produced by the bourgeoisie. Instead of talking about identity, they spoke of popular art. All painting is popular art, even Modrian. That is not the issue. Italy had more mature things to offer. Was Italy a conscious choice? Why didn’t you choose France, or Germany, which suits your artistic style? I wanted to go to Italy because it had so much to offer. It had Renaissance values, something which, of course, Greece does not have because of its past. But you need these values to understand Germany. To understand Germany, England, even America. That is the missing step, anti-dogmatism… Who were your teachers and who played a defining role in your own development? When I moved to Italy, I enrolled at the Academy [of Fine Arts], where [Franco] Gentilini was teaching at the time, among other artists. I am very proud of the professors I met there. They may not have been great painters, but I am very proud that they were in the art world. They were the people who survived a war, were destroyed. They were the ones who told me things and I remember. What do you remember most from the lessons you were taught? These people, who were not great artists, made me appreciate the value of space. You have to understand the space you live in, the people around them, to have a dialectic relationship with them. And then they go on to become something new and that becomes something new again. But first, you have to have a relationship with them. You often refer to Jackson Pollock, Caravaggio and Kazimir Malevich. What makes these three artists stand out for you? I find that Caravaggio is a man of the Counter-Reformation and he epitomizes an ideological principle. Pollock is a man of the epic. He creates American space with everything he finds from the Indians, Picasso, the Mexicans. You can see all this. You can even see the surrealism. This concept of his, to change space and discover a new space, is based on ideological principle. Malevich is the future. In Stalinism, they wanted an outdated style of painting, rhetoric. Malevich is the man who to create something new said no to something pseudo-new. How can I not love him? Which other artists do you admire? You love one from every age. Who do you admire at present? Now that the years have gone by, I understand the value of the Counter-Reformation, because it gave us the concept of criticism. Everything new begins with the Counter-Reformation. How do you view art now? I don’t think anything has changed in art from the day of Caravaggio to the present. The prerequisites for making a work of art and showing it are the same. This was the change: from a Greek Madonna to a Madonna by Titian. From the moment you say that you find Titian’s Madonna more interesting, things can’t change anymore: It’s the idea that the artist has the starring role and is not simply the creator of anonymous handicrafts. How essential is art? I don’t think it was ever essential. But, as long as there are artists, art is essential. Because, where else will you find that unflinching look at things? It’s very difficult. The artists is a thinker who paints. Are you satisfied with the course of your career? I created what I wanted to create. But first of all, I wanted to understand. I wanted the key to understanding others, not just Italians.