Ordinary man meets extraordinary painter

The life and work of a painter can provide alluring subject matter for a film documentary. Perhaps this is because somehow, in the back of our minds, there still lurks that old myth of the artist as a type different than the rest of us, of somebody who shuns conformity and leads an adventurous life. A recently released DVD documentary on the life of renowned Greek painter Yiannis Moralis, born in 1916, contains nothing of this myth. Instead of the artist-rebel type, the bohemian, the drunken artist a la Jackson Pollock, or the media-struck artist-star of the Andy Warhol type, one will find a down-to earth, balanced personality, commanding and charming with an excellent sense of humor and witty spirit. Above all, one will find a man with an exquisite talent for painting and who exhibits a great appreciation for the simple things in life. This «ordinary» aspect of Moralis is perhaps what makes this documentary of his life and work such a pleasant and relaxing story to watch. This is not a film in which one will learn how to place Moralis’s art in an historical context or discover the secrets of his art. It is more about an atmosphere and the aura of a personality, a casual, relaxing encounter with one of the country’s greatest, oldest and most respected artists. Directed by Stelios Charalambopoulous and produced by Periplus and others, this smoothly paced, 80-minute-long film resembles the piecing together of casual conversations and reminiscences that the artist makes of the past. Moralis is the sole protagonist. There are some brief appearances by other people in the field – National Gallery director Marina Lambraki-Plaka, rector of the Athens School of Fine Arts Chronis Botsoglou and owner of Ikaros publications Katerina Karidi – but, in general, there are no two-people conversations, just Moralis speaking, one assumes in response to the questions posed to him. The structure is loose and casual, with different information interspersed in various parts of the film. Despite that informal structure, the documentary manages to cover all the facets of his work. It goes through his paintings from the early, figurative works of the 1930s to the large, abstract compositions of later years (a few of the works shown in the film have never been published), his work on poetry illustration (he worked with poets such as his friends Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis but also C.P. Cavafy, Stratis Mirivilis and many others), his collaboration with the ceramist Virginia Vernardaki and his work on theater sets and costume design (the earliest collaboration was with Karolos Koun and the Theator Technis – he also worked with the dance theater group of Ralou Manou). It also covers his collaborations with such eminent music composers as Manos Hadjidakis, his public works (the wall carvings on the Athens Hilton’s exterior constitute one of the most well known but others include his most recent works for the metro), and his almost 40 years of teaching (1947-1983) at the Athens School of Fine Arts. Overall, there is more focus on biographical material than insight into his method of work. Repeatedly in the film, Moralis is seen in his studio going through old photos from his childhood in Arta, to his student years at the School of Fine Arts – where he first studied under Constantinos Parthenis but then joined his friend Nikos Nikolaou at the workshop of Oumvertos Argyros – and later, his sojourn in Paris. Back in Greece, one learns of his three marriages to the women who often appear in his famous portraits. Part of the documentary is filmed on Aegina, the island of his summer home and the meeting ground for the Greek intellectual and artistic milieu of Moralis’s generation. Even though much of the information concerns the artist’s life, one does not get a sense of cozy intimacy. Moralis appears unpretentious and friendly, yet has the distanced air of an intellectual. In a way, his personality is like his art. It is composed and «classical,» with no extremes or drama but an excellent sense of balance. The documentary on the artist’s life and art is successful in capturing that sense. Having knowledge of the artist’s work will help viewers to appreciate it better. But even without it, the film makes an enjoyable presentation. «Yiannis Moralis» is available at bookstores from Patakis Publications.