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‘Life is beautiful. It is lovely to see the light of the sun,’ painter Panayiotis Tetsis tells Kathimerini

The Saturday before last on Hydra was glorious. The tall, slim figure of Panayiotis Tetsis stood on the wharf where he was waiting for us with a broad smile. We walked with him to his studio. On the threshold, a packaged painting that he had just finished was waiting to be taken to Athens for the artist’s exhibition, «My Friends,» at the Nees Morfes Gallery. On show are 11 new works for which his friends posed. We sat opposite the easel on the green sofa where he positions his models and talked. Treating us to traditional preserves and an armful of flowers from his garden, he welcomed us too like friends. How did you decide to make an exhibition of paintings of your friends? Since I began painting, I have never worked exclusively on one theme; I never felt that I was a landscape painter or portrait painter. I always did what I was interested in. It’s a pleasure to have an opportunity to paint, thanks to the good will and the presence of a friend who agrees to pose because you find his stature or his gait interesting. I have never stopped putting my friends on canvas. I don’t call them portraits because they don’t show only the face. I want the whole body, the person. For me a model is a collaborator who is present in the work and who is a part of the work. Did the models offer to pose, or did you ask them? I asked them and they accepted. For example, Angelos Kotronis enjoys posing. When he was young, he wanted to be an artist but in the end he became an architect. In another picture I painted him next to the harbormaster of Hydra in his white uniform. I needed a few days to complete the picture but a bad weather ban on shipping delayed me. I was under great pressure, and the extreme tension I felt when I sat down to finish it made aspects of the work very good. But maybe they needed a bit of extra work. People and places Is your mood different when you paint a person from what it is when you paint a landscape? For me there’s no difference, even though one is animate and the other is not. Of course, even the inanimate comes alive in some way in art. My landscapes are areas I have lived in for a long time, through different phases and weather conditions. They have become part of me, of my experience. You managed to see the Greek landscape in a much purer state than what we see nowadays. Does that influence you? bHydra has been built up a lot, but luckily everyone has helped to avoid ugliness. Sifnos has changed a bit, but without losing its beauty. The worst thing on the islands are the building complexes. Once I saw from the boat a marvelous little hill on Serifos, with a Byzantine chapel that the architect Dimitrokalis had worked on. You see that and you think, «When I die, let them bury me there with a view of the sea on all sides.» Now it is surrounded by modern buildings and has disappeared. Are you optimistic that 30-year-olds of today will be more sensitive about the environment? The architecture we see in Greece today reminds me of Lebanon and Syria. The people I mix with are artists, ethical people, but they are a minority. They always respect nature. As for other people, I don’t know. Even some Greek architects try to cram their own «masterpiece» into a tiny strip of land without taking into account the aesthetics of neighboring buildings. Many people say that painting has come back into the spotlight in recent years. Do you agree? That may be heard more often in Greece, in the sense that many young artists are painting, and indeed very well. Despite their youth, some of them have produced considerable work. I don’t know if painting is on its way back in other countries too. I do painting. I do it for myself and and the present. Nobody can say what will happen in the future with the development and aesthetics of technical civilizations. In 200 years, art may have disappeared and we might look at artwork the way we go to look at orangutans in the zoo. What would you tell a young artist? If I were speaking the language of painting, I could tell him a lot of things, but otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to tell him. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in the number of publishing houses, theaters, cultural venues and brilliant exhibitions in museums. Do you think that Greece’s cultural level has risen? There are so many books on the market, but do they get bought? And if they do, do they get read as well? Judging by the time I have for reading, if I were to read all the books I have collected I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. In general, artistic production – to use that pedestrian term – is certainly greater than it was in the past. Among the many works that come out are some that are worthwhile. I would say there has been an intellectual advance. When I go to the cinema to see a film of substance, I notice young people sitting round me and we older ones are the exception. Do you watch television? Commercial channels – which, as businesses, are aimed at making profits – are obliged to show «light» programs that suit the tastes of the majority of their viewers. I watch state-run television, which is no longer the mouthpiece of the government of the day, and the Parliament channel, when it is not showing meetings and shows good films. They often show tributes to artists too. The prime minister, who is also culture minister, has been criticized for not spending enough time on culture and that many matters have been allowed to stagnate. One of these is the debt to the National Gallery, of which you are chairman of the board. What is your view? Everything starts with economics. The government’s line is to make cutbacks. The Culture Ministry has countless obligations. Archaeology demands huge expenditures. On Santorini, for instance, the roof [of the site at Akrotiri] collapsed. We can’t just leave it like that. Lately I’ve noticed that the state wants to boost the institution of sponsorships. Businesses – chiefly banks – give some money for culture, but do they think it’s enough? We have to look after our museums. Our National Gallery absolutely must be expanded so we have empty halls that can take new donations. There are private collections which have better works than those in the museum, but if the collectors were to donate them to us tomorrow we wouldn’t have anywhere to put them. What do you think of the opposition of neighbors to the construction of the Goulandris Museum? Their main objection is to the specific location. But museums in all countries are clustered in the center. The Goulandris Museum can’t go out to Votanikos. If a few trees are cut down they can be replaced when the museum is built. Before the National Gallery was built it was a dirty plot of land and now it has a lovely garden. The Goulandris family is giving us the opportunity to acquire extraordinary European art that we don’t have as well as a very fine building. If we ignore it, the collections will be scattered and will end up in another country. Are you hopeful that the Greek state will treat art with greater care in the future? Yes, I think it will. In the past it wasn’t that it didn’t show care, but there simply wasn’t the underpinning for it. The people who ruled didn’t see art as something that is necessary for life. I think that both the rulers and those who go to exhibitions have realized that now. West and Islam We live at a time of antagonism between the West and Islam. How do you see the global political situation? I think the inhabitants of Muslim countries have associated religious fanaticism with the exploitation they underwent in the past. They are ready to slaughter because they have suffered direct and indirect violence for so many years, seeing the West exploit their resources. The American invasion of Iraq was only for oil. If the oil wells dry up one day, that whole area will find peace. In France they may feel threatened by the troublemakers in the suburbs, but they often forget their historic responsibility for colonialism. And we too must acknowledge that the Albanians, whom we used to look on with suspicion, are working and supporting our economy. Those who cause trouble are in the minority. Many of your fellow artists from the same generation have died. Do you feel lonely? Fortunately, no. Life is beautiful. It is lovely to see the light of the sun. Tetsis’s exhibition at Nees Morfes, 9a Valaoritou Street, will run till January 21.