The Voice of Modern Greek Art

The art of Yannis Tsarouchis exhibited in Chicago. Credit: exhibition “Yannis Tsarouchis: Dancing in Real Life”/Bella Kontogianni/Greek Reporter

Yannis Tsarouchis was one of the most important figures in modern Greek art, and although his work is well known in Greece, he is only beginning to attract attention outside the country.

Known for his striking and colorful depictions of young Greek men, particularly sailors, Tsarouchis has created some of the country’s most iconic modern works of art.

His style was both decidedly modern and distinctly Greek and featured elements of ancient Greek art, Byzantine painting and European modernism.

Using dominant themes and trends found in European painting of the time, Tsarouchis injected elements of his own unique perspective as a Greek man into his work, creating an entirely new aesthetic.

As his work contains many homoerotic elements, Tsarouchis has also become an iconic figure in the Greek LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community despite the fact that the artist was never able to live openly during his lifetime.

Youth and artistic influences of Yannis Tsarouchis

Yannis Tsarouchis was born into a middle-class family in the Athens port of Piraeus in 1910.

His childhood years growing up in his family’s neoclassical home in Piraeus were particularly formative for Tsarouchis’ artistic vision, even though he moved to Athens with his family in 1927.

The artist himself reflected on the significance of his childhood many years later, saying, “I used to look up at the sky a lot when I was a little kid in Piraeus.”

“I have never seen such a sky in any other part of the world, and I am sensitive enough to see the difference,” Tsarouchis said. “My first impressions of the sky provided the basis for my aesthetics and standards. I judge everything that has to do with art by these standards. Everything I’ve done is based there, in my childhood memories.

Clearly, Tsarouchis had an artist’s eye from childhood and took his surroundings as a major source of inspiration for his work.

Living in Athens in the early 20th century, Tsarouchis was surrounded by ruins from many important historical periods of Greece, including the Classical, Neoclassical, and Byzantine periods, and was thus exposed to architecture from these periods.

Using ancient Greek, Byzantine, and Ottoman folk art as aesthetic sources, Tsarouchis differed from earlier Greek painters, who largely emphasized the importance of Greece’s ancient past in their work or depicted life in the Greek countryside during their time.

Creating Greek Modernism

Yannis Tsarouchis
Yannis Tsarouchis dancing the Zebeikiko in 1955. Credit: exhibition “Yannis Tsarouchis: Dancing in Real Life”/Bella Kontogianni/Greek Reporter

This is a theme commonly found in the work of Greek writers and artists during the time of Tsarouchis, especially among individuals of the generation of the 1930s to which Tsarouchis belonged.

This group was fascinated by Greek identity and the formation of a Greek modernist movement following the emergence of modernism in Europe in conjunction with the turbulent period following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. It was a time that made many people think about serious questions about culture and identity.

Members of this group include some of Greece’s most prominent poets, artists and writers, including Giorgos Seferis, Odysseas Elytis and Nikos Engonopoulos.

Characteristics of the movement include the reform of a Greek identity that is not only based on religion or ties to antiquity, but which accounts for Greece’s many historical periods, even those once considered less worthy than Athens. classic, the country’s golden age.

A turn to the folklore of the country, as well as an emphasis on Greek culture during the Ottoman period, is clear in their work.

Painters of the time looked to Archaic Greek art, widely considered “primitive” compared to the art of the Classical period, for inspiration, as they noticed its links to the Abstract and Cubist movements emerging.

Additionally, Byzantine icons exhibiting elements – such as a distinct flatness, shallow spatial plane, and impressive use of graphic color and line – common in Modernist paintings, were a great source of inspiration for artists of the time.

Separating the aesthetics of sacred objects from religion, painters of the time created the “neo-Byzantine” movement, characterized by profane scenes in the style of Orthodox icons in paintings.

This movement had a particular influence on Tsarouchis’ work, as he studied under Fotis Kontoglu, an artist who painted both traditional icons and neo-Byzantine scenes, at the Athens School of Fine Arts. .

The Tsarouchis and European Painting

After completing his studies, Tsarouchis left Greece for Europe to visit Italy and Paris, where he encountered European modernism.

He must have recognized a familiarity in what European modernists saw as radical forms that rejected the aesthetics of mainstream art movements and periods of the past. By emphasizing form, color and flat planes, Tsarouchis likely recognized elements of traditional Greek icon painting.

In fact, while modernist painters rejected the aesthetics of Western art, much of which came from classical Athens and the Renaissance, they sought out “exotic” art from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where the influence of classical Greece and the Renaissance was not as prominent or entirely absent.

Picasso
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, one of Picasso’s best-known works, is inspired by African masks. Credit: public domain

Picasso admired African masks in the Louvre and Matisse marveled at Russian Orthodox icons. Many modernist painters also appreciated the geometric shapes and graphic lines found in Archaic Greek art.

After returning to Greece, Tsarouchis developed his own style, which allowed for both the Greek aesthetics of the country’s various historical periods and the aesthetics of European modernism.

He brought attention to the Greek scene and even exhibited his work in Europe. In 1958, Tsarouchis took part in the prestigious Venice Biennale, where the best contemporary artists exhibited their work.

In his later career, Tsarouchis turned to a naturalism, or depicting things as we see them, and even produced a number of pieces with Renaissance and Baroque influences.

In the late 1960s, when Greece’s ultra-conservative right-wing military dictatorship took power, many artists and members of the LGBT community were targeted in Greece.

Those who were not tortured or imprisoned fled the country to avoid persecution. Tsarouchis moved to Paris and lived there intermittently until the end of the junta in the 1970s.

A lover of theater and costumes, Tsarouchis also designed many costumes and sets for Greek opera and theater productions.

He died in Athens at the age of 79 in 1989.

Yannis Tsarouchis’ struggles as a gay man in Greece

Marin Tsarouchis
One of Tsarouchis’ iconic depictions of a Greek sailor. Credit: Bella Kontogianni/Greek Reporter

In 1952 Tsarouchis exhibited a number of paintings in an exhibition at the Zappeion Hall in Athens. One of his works features a male nude reclining in bed with a uniformed sailor seated at the foot of the bed.

The two men stare into each other’s eyes, signaling affection and familiarity and suggesting they’ve just been intimate.

The subject, clearly homoerotic, aroused controversy.

A member of the Naval Police threatened to destroy the work, saying it insulted the Greek Navy in its depiction of a nude figure with a sailor in his recognizable costume.

Many believed the painting played on the perception that many Navy men engaged in same-sex relationships in their neighborhoods.

This response is indicative of a culture that criminalized homosexuality at the time. Ironically, it’s also a country that celebrates its ancient past, a past in which men openly engaged and celebrated sex and relationships with other men.

This isn’t the only time Tsarouchis’ alleged sexuality and homoerotic paintings have gotten him in trouble.

While he felt a relative freedom in expressing his sexuality in his paintings, it is unclear how openly Tsarouchis discussed his sexuality during his lifetime, as he feared exclusion, discrimination, and stigma. rejection by his family and community.

While one might believe that people in the art world would be more accepting of LGBT people, as many assume today, that wasn’t always the case.

It is believed that Tsarouchis lost career opportunities and was expelled from certain circles due to the subject of his work and his sexuality. This is not surprising, as same-sex sexual relations were a criminal offense in Greece until 1951.

Tsarouchis’ sexuality has also influenced people’s opinions of his work.

A Greek art critic called him “Matisse pederasta comment that fuels the widespread belief that homosexuals prey on young boys, while referencing his paintings inspired by the work of the great modernist painter Matisse.

This caused a lot of conflict for the artist, as he internalized the homophobia he was facing.

In a revealing quote near the end of his life (1987), Tsarouchis, while remaining vague about his own sexuality, expressed the reality of living as a gay man in Greece:

“People never expected anything from me; they considered me an inferior being, starting with my family and ending with my few friends. Perhaps this contempt pushed me to work harder than I could.

As Greeks’ views on the LGBT community began to change drastically in the early 2000s, with the country becoming one of the most progressive in terms of gay rights in the region, Tsarouchis turned into an idol for the Greeks from the LGBT community.

Christopher S. Washington