CULTURE

Visualizing the Greek alphabet

When artist Alexis Akrithakis was still alive, he was viewed as an eccentric personality, a talented man with self-destructive and reckless tendencies. A true bohemian artist, Akrithakis flaunted his professional career and led his life in extremes, which led to an early death from alcoholism in 1994. His tragic end sealed his reputation and turned him into something of a legend – an artist with the heart of a child, a romantic, uncompromising artist maudit. Yet his work remained largely unexplored. Alexandros Iolas, who met Akrithakis in the early 1970s and then collaborated with him, used to say that had Akrithakis wanted to, he would have become one of those Greek artists recognized internationally. Despite his potential and talent and apart from the fame that he enjoyed in life, the work of Akrthakis became both better known and sought after in high-end art markets only after his death. A large retrospective held in 1997 at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art really marked the beginning of new demand for his work and a renewed interest in his oeuvre. It is within this rekindled interest that a small yet dense and imaginative exhibition is opening this evening at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Moreover, an in-depth research into Akrithakis’s work by Denys Zacharopoulos was recently published as a monograph by K.Adam publications. The book is a vital tool for specialists and non-specialists alike in understanding the artist’s work and placing it in its proper context in art history. The exhibition Curated by art historian Maria Kotzamani (a close friend of the artist who also curated the 1997 retrospective), «A… as in Akrithakis,» the exhibition’s title at the Museum of Cycladic Art, aligns a varied collection of the artist’s works with the letters of the alphabet. A stands for Akrithakis and opens up the exhibition. The exhibition continues with B for the word for «suitcase» in Greek – the suitcase being one of the most constant motifs in his work, a motif alluding to escape and travel which was a recurring concept – and continues until the exhibit has exhausted all letters of the Greek alphabet. Letter after letter, the exhibition unravels an untainted, innocent world that reflects an uncompromising and genuine personality. It underlines the playful side of Akrithakis’s work yet on a deeper level also reveals its conceptual aspect. Script and verbal language together with visual imagery are always connected in the work of Akrithakis. «In painting words are redundant, in poetry drawings are redundant. Yet you draw a poem or write a drawing,» one reads in one of the artist’s many diary notes and drawings that he left behind. Akrithakis drew a lot but also wrote a lot, often blending the two. Phrases that read like children’s stories, daydream-like reflections and sweetly innocent yet sometimes bitter thoughts are usually incorporated into his drawings like captions that carry the artist’s ideas from a visual medium to language. «A sunny and cloudy day a small green bus was born in a factory,» one reads in between two drawings of a sunny yet cloudy sky and a bus. Sometimes, words and drawings make up an entire story. Such is the case of «Toxakias,» which was published in 1980 by Amorgos. The play between word and image comes up in several ways in his work. A typical example shows how Akrithakis paints schematized, abstract shapes side by side, in a way that resembles cryptograms. A different example drawn from his early works is the so-called «tsiki-tsiki,» the name which the poet Costas Tachtsis gave to a process of automatic writing invented by Akrithakis for his labyrinthine drawings of densely interconnected shapes. A mercurial life Alexis Akrithakis was an artist for whom life and art were inextricably linked. In that sense, his interest in language and script is perhaps tied to his close and early friendship with authors and poets. Back in the mid-1950s, when the artist was still an adolescent, he frequented the Byzantio coffee shop in Kolonaki, a meeting place for poets, artists and intellectuals. He became part of a milieu that included poets and authors, including Andreas Embeirikos, Yiannis Maris, Tassos Denegris, Nikos Karouzos, Miltos Sachtouris, Thanassis Valtinos, Nanos Valaoritis and Tachtsis. He also came under the guidance of Giorgos Makris, a cultivated man who played a vital role in encouraging Akrithakis to pursue painting. After a short, tumultuous stay in Paris, Akrithakis returned to Greece and had his first exhibition, which earned him a scholarship to study in Berlin. Back in the late 1960s, this marked the beginning of a brilliant career that left some of the most distinctive works in the history of 20th century Greek art. Ranging from his black-and-white early drawings to his paintings of bold outlines and flat areas of vivid colors to his wooden assemblages that, for the most part, show suitcases, the oeuvre of Akrithakis is a treasure that art specialists began to explore only recently. The exhibition at the Cycladic Museum helps pave the way for further research but also draws in the public by using an inviting, uncomplicated yet inventive approach for presenting the artist’s work. «A… as in Akrithakis» opens tonight at the New Wing of the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neofytou Douka, 210.722.8321). To April 8. Educational programs for primary and secondary school pupils are available.