CULTURE

A Greek who painted in Spain

For the world, Pablo Picasso’s «Guernica» is one of the famous examples of political outcry in 20th-century art. Intended as an expression of horror at the bombing of the Basque capital by General Franco’s allies during the Spanish Civil War, it put art (abstract art) at the service of social change and proclaimed the artist’s views of «how painting is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.» For Spanish art, «Guernica» can perhaps be seen as anticipating a number of avant-garde movements of social protest, both against the long-standing Franco regime but also as part of the social and political upheaval that was taking place internationally in the 1960s and ’70s. Picasso had spent much of his life in France, which was not the case with many of his artist compatriots who also reached international fame, including the younger Antoni Tapies, a protagonist in postwar expressionist abstraction. Paris was, after all, still trading on its prestige as the metropolis for the arts. But Barcelona and Madrid as well as several other cities were, from the early 1950s onwards, gradually developing their own version of a pioneering, avant-garde art despite, or perhaps because of, Franco’s totalitarian regime. It is against the background of these avant-garde, artistic developments that an exhibit organized at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art examines the work of Greek-born painter Dimitris Perdikidis, one of those artists of the Greek diaspora whose career remains largely obscure in the country of their origin even though they might have taken part in influential art movements. «Dimitris Perdikidis and the Art of the Spanish Avant-Garde,» which opens in a few days and is curated by art historian Maria Kotzamani, now seeks to place his work in a historical context, alongside Spanish artistic movements, through a retrospective of his work that spans the artist’s arrival in Spain in the early 1950s to his departure in the mid-’80s (a few years before his death). To suggest these connections, the exhibit includes a separate audio-visual section with interviews with seminal spokesmen of the Spanish avant-garde as well as a chronology of artistic developments. Another section that documents the political and social events of the time in Spain, elucidate the work of Perdikidis even further, particularly his most obviously political work of the late 1960s and ’70s. A contemporary of Tapies, Perdikidis arrived in Spain at a time when abstraction was just beginning to gain force and groups of artists that advocated it were emerging throughout the country. A forerunner that inspired many of these groups was «Dau al Set» (the Seven-Spotted Dice), a Barcelona-based association founded in the late 1940s by a number of Spanish artists, among them the existential poet Arnoldo Puig as well as painters Modesto Cuixart and Tapies, whose prewar surrealist work provided a mouthpiece for the Spanish avant-garde. There were also groups in Santader and Saragosa, all aiming for artistic innovation, which at the time was synonymous with abstract art. In painting, figuration was the dominant style. It was also the style – though a gradually waning one – that prevailed in the work of Perdikidis throughout most of the 1950s. A major influence in the artist’s turn towards the abstract must have been the «El Paso» group (meaning passage or crossing), a turning point in the renewal of Spanish art. The group was founded in Madrid (the city where Perdikidis lived) in 1957 and was headed by Antonio Saura, Rafael Canogar, Jose Ayllon, Luis Feito, Juana Frances, Manolo Millares and Manuel Rivera, among others. Its agenda was to revolutionize art, not only in terms of form, but also in content, turning it into a force capable of effecting social and political change. «A work of art is a political solution. If there is no such need for it, then people do not need artists» was one of the group’s various claims. The work of Perdikidis is seen as part of this broader movement. His works of the 1960s, with their mixed-technique canvasses and flaming reds evocative of the work of Tapies in the 1950s, continue with the style of European postwar abstraction. For Perdikidis, the ’60s also brought public recognition as he became one of the artists that represented Spain at the Sao Paolo Biennale and twice at the Venice Biennale. This was a time of experimentation and diversity in art. There was the impact of pop art and new realism, neo-dadaists and socially attuned artists who opposed abstraction for being too elitist and undemocratic. Indeed, the conflict between realism and abstraction over which was a more socially effective means of expression is one of the most interesting aspects of modern art. It is an issue that the work of Perdikidis, with its changes from abstraction to figuration, reflects on. Like many artists, Perdikidis fluctuated between the two but in either case he was motivated by a commitment to a social art. He once said that «if there was no art, the views of the ruling class would dominate,» a statement that echoes El Paso’s political aims. In Perdikidis’s artistic career, this sense of art’s political and social responsibility reaches its fullest expression in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s. Images of riots, political unrest and violence inform most of his work of the time. They are the product of the period’s political activism (in Greece, artists of the «critical realism» group created political protest art) and outrage at a range of issues from the Vietnam War and the Greek junta to Chile’s military coup. At the same time, Perdikidis worked with the Greek left-wing poet Yannis Ritsos over the illustration of his poem «Romiosini.» In the 1980s, the political vigor of Perdikidis’s work gradually subsided. For Spain, this was a decade of cultural growth, when subsidies for the arts proliferated and a concerted cultural policy was drawn up. (ARCO, Madrid’s art fair, opened in 1982). But for Perdikidis,it was hardly a decade of growth. The death of his wife ushered in a period of depression and stifled his artistic output. In spite of Spain’s artistic activity, Perdikidis decided to leave for Greece where he remained until his death in the late 1980s. But his artistic ties had been with Spain. To evaluate his work, one has to look at the artistic developments that took place in Spain, which is exactly what the exhibit at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art tries to do.