The expressive portraits of Giorgos Bouzianis

If a painting is a reflection of an artist’s inner world, then the muted colors and strangely sad faces that inhabit the paintings of Giorgos Bouzianis could be the optical metaphor of a life filled with difficulties brought about by financial constraints and the disillusionment caused by the artist’s belated recognition in his own country. More than 70 works, spanning the artist’s entire career and presented at an exhibition currently taking place at the Benaki Museum, speak of a closed-in, almost tormented, existence painted in broad brushstrokes, an unusual handling of color and a style that straddles the ground between figuration and abstraction. This exhibition on Bouzianis is the largest held since the 1977 retrospective at the National Gallery and the works included are all drawn from the Vassilis I. Valambous collection, the most comprehensive collection of the work of Giorgos Bouzianis. For the past 27 years, Valambous has searched the world for works by Bouzianis which, in general, are few and seldom come up for sale. An essay by Valambous included in the exhibition’s supplemental album (published by Adam Publications) provides an interesting account of the collector’s persistent search. Portraits for the most part – some of them full-bodied – the paintings in the exhibition show faces that stare out at the viewer behind heavy impastos and nervous painterly brushstrokes. Never clearly delineated, their faces are hardly discernable and appear as if hidden behind a veil. They are trapped and frightened souls caught in a world of existential worries. Underlying anguish It is probably this underlying feeling of anguish that has led many art historians to simplistically label the work of Giorgos Bouzianis as part of German expressionism. After his studies at the Athens School of Fine Arts (his teachers were Constantinos Volanakis, Nikiforos Lytras and Giorgos Roilos), Bouzianis continued his studies at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts (the institution that had trained a whole generation of Greek painters before Bouzianis) in 1906 and spent much of his prolific career in Germany, first in Berlin and then in Munich. Given his training and exposure to German art, it is therefore only natural that something of a German expressionist influence would have entered his work. But, as Chronis Botsoglou aptly points out in his essay included in the catalog, the absence of clearly delineated figures and the distinctive use of color resonate with an influence of French post-impressionism and, even more so, come closer to American postwar abstract expressionism than early 20th century German expressionism. In fact, Bouzianis spent a few years of his life in Paris in the early 1930s and, as a letter to his gallerist Heinrich Barchfeld suggests, held the artists trained in the French style (he mentions Constantinos Parthenis) in high esteem. Possibly influenced by a French style derived from impressionism and post-impressionism, Bouzianis depicts his figures by color alone, in blotches of paint, as in the small dabs of black paint that stand for the sitter’s wistful eyes and inward gaze. Bouzianis uses color in a non-naturalistic way. There are no gradations from light to dark as there would be if color was shown in relationship to natural light, just layers and juxtapositions of color that create a tension and self-enclosed world. The intensity of Bouzianis’s paintings quickly earned him a high reputation. Although he was respected by the German press and art world, the financially dire interwar period caused him much hardship. When, in 1934, he was promised a position as a professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts, he decided to return to Greece. Unfortunately, the promise was never fulfilled. Apparently, Bouzianis was repeatedly disappointed and lived in poverty. In the postwar period, things began to change. In 1949, his first solo exhibition in Athens was highly acclaimed and a year later he participated in the Venice Biennale. The Guggenheim Prize was given to him in 1956. Bouzianis died three years later. As usually happens with artists, Bouzianis’s reputation increased after his death. His works became a rare commodity and, when included in an art collection, added to its leverage and reputation. Giorgos Bouzianis became one of those artists who will never be forgotten: He perfectly fit the legend of the tormented, talented artist who lived for his art. His art shows that, besides a legend, this was also a reality. «Bouzianis, From the Collection of Vassilis Valambous,» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000) through February 5.

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