CULTURE

A true legend of the art world

Occasionally, interesting things happen because of the enthusiasm and insight of a single individual. For the European art world from the postwar period onward, art dealer Alexandros Iolas was one such gifted person, an astute entrepreneur who helped establish artists and mold artistic trends and standards. An artist himself with a successful career as a classical dancer behind him, Iolas was not just a distinguished art dealer but also an unusual, artistic personality driven by an extravagant passion for art. He loved art as he loved the people that were committed to it. This explains his friendship with Maro Lagia, one of the founding members of the Center of Macedonian Art which is the present-day Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. His wish to leave a large part of his art collection to Greece coincided with Lagia’s forward-looking ambition of seeing a museum of contemporary art grow in the city of her origin. Iolas’s donation of almost 50 works to the center in the early 1980s fulfilled both their ambitions. It shaped the core of the center’s permanent collection (it appears that Iolas also planned to donate more of his works, a project that was cut short by his sudden death) and to this day consists of the museum’s most important holdings. Considering Iolas’s contribution to the making of this art institution, it is therefore appropriate that the museum has organized an exhibition on his life and oeuvre to celebrate the opening of its new wing (an extension doubling its existing space), a longstanding project which has finally materialized. The tribute to Iolas (which opened on September 7) also runs parallel to a retrospective exhibition on the late German photographer Herbert List (running to October 27), which is a co-production by various institutions, among them the Goethe Institute in Thessaloniki, the Herbert List archives and the Munich Museum of Photography. One part of the Iolas tribute consists of the works that he donated to the museum, among them those by Andy Warhol, Martial Raysse, Takis, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. These are some of the artists that Iolas displayed in his galleries (in New York, Paris, Zurich, Geneva, Rome, Milan and Madrid); some of them were already big names in the art world, others he helped to stardom. However, Iolas’s gift for unearthing talents and offering insightful art advice was by no means his only one. Iolas was also a charismatic and distinctive personality, which accounts for the myth and aura of past glamour that nowadays surrounds him. The exhibition attempts to capture this, both through photos of Iolas in his social and artistic milieu as well as through documents. Iolas was a man driven both by resolution and a sense of adventure. As the son of wealthy traders from Alexandria, Iolas (originally named Constantinos Koutsoudis) came from a cosmopolitan background that must have made him sensitive to matters of art. But in practice, he was a self-made man with an unconventional – at least for his social class – career choice. To avoid taking over the family business, Iolas left his native Alexandria when he was 18. Equipped with letters of reference by the poet Constantine Cavafy, he landed in the artistic milieu of Athens, where, prompted by the composer and conductor Dimitris Mitropoulos, he soon left for Italy and then for Berlin to study dance. Iolas experienced all the artistic effervescence of Europe during the interwar period but, like other emigre artists, sought refuge in New York during the late 1930s. An established dancer by then, he became a soloist at New York’s Ballet Theater Company but in the mid-1940s, a knee injury forced him to stop dancing. He then turned to art. His gallery in New York showed some of the most established European artists (among them Magritte, Ernst, Dali, Miro, Picasso, Wols, Calder and Tanguy) at a time when the American public was not particularly familiar with European art and American artists were absorbed in establishing their own identity. An excellent judge of the rules governing the art market, Iolas became a prestigious art collector and an adviser on the buying policy behind some of the most important art collections, such as the de Menil, Metropolitan Museum, MoMA and Beaubourg collections. Iolas left his mark on the art market in various ways and the donation he made to the Center of Macedonian Art is, for the Greek art scene, one of the most important. It is this contribution that the present exhibition commemorates, reminding us at the same time of a man whose life has acquired a legendary mystique. The exhibition on Herbert List should be seen independently from the tribute to Iolas. There is, however, a distant connection, for, like Iolas, List grew to be an art collector (mostly of old masters’ drawings) in his maturity. Also like Iolas, he was the son of wealthy merchants, in his case, from Hamburg. He also developed ties with Greece, especially in the 1930s (when he took up photography professionally) when he actually spent some time in Athens after having lived in Paris and London. When the German troops invaded Greece, he left the country but returned a decade later to visit Mt Athos and northern Greece. The publication of List’s photo essay on Greece had to wait for the end of the war. In one of List’s most famous images from Greece, a lamp-shaped fish bowl is positioned on a balustrade against the backdrop of a view from Santorini. The picture shows List’s obsession with the play of Greek light and is representative of the curious blend of magical realism, surrealism and care for detail that fuse in his work. A mood of mystery but of quiet repose is always there. Perhaps it expresses List’s concern with capturing the aura of objects, of penetrating under the shallow world of appearances. For as he wrote: «In a perfect work of art, spiritual content and technical execution are on a par. Yet, of the two, spirit comes first… a technically perfect picture without spiritual content is worthless as a work of art.»