THE OTHER TIME AND THE PAINTING OF LEFTERIS KANAKAKIS
Professor of History of Art, Athens School of Fine Arts,Director of National Gallery, Museum Alexandros Soutsos
My tutor, Pantelis Prevelakis, used to say that there are creators who defy the pace of historical time.
They weave a cocoon, take shelter in it, establish its time dimension and have their creations subjugated to its law. Among them he mentioned creators such as the sculptors Mayol and Brancuzi.
This other time of art creation, brands the works it blesses with its special quality, and is, of course, totally irrelevant to the frantic pace of our times. A pace which, thanks to the media, is democratically shared by all of us: shepherds, farmers, merchants, teachers, housewives.The other time is a privilege of the powerful; it presupposes selection, rejection, conquest. In answer to frantic change and the riveting pace, this other time brings duration.
In other eras, historical and creation time coincided. Phidias, the mosaic artists at Daphni, the 15th century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck or Michelangelo had no need to devise a time of their own in order to create their work. But the industrial era challenged, threatened, sieged and, aided by the media, finally absorbed private time; in other words, it absorbed privacy, not to say the soul itself. I sometimes reflect, on how true it is that the dominant media in such era force their own laws upon upon all other forms of communication.
It is not accidental that, today, art imitates the mass media jargon. What is more, it has relinguished one of its inherent and principal qualities: the aspiration to defeat time, wear, death. Today, art is expressed rapidly, it adopts new materials and is often ephemeral, as actions, happenings, etc. Movements interchange quicker than fashion.
Lefteris Kanakakis, several years after his graduation from the Athens School of Fine Arts and, even more significantly, after his return from his postgraduate studies in Paris – an even more suggestive fact- continued drawing spherical forms with Cezannian spite: fruit, eggs, etc. His drawing strove to capture the minute variations of light on curved surfaces, to transform the unreal space of white paper into the natural ambience of the depicted object, to interpret the critical encounter of space and form; some historian pinpointed the entire issue of Cezanne’s painting at this very point. Even to an expert his persistence seemed like a paradox, until one day everything made sense. The first exhibitions of Kanakakis revealed a painter who was mature, self-confident in his technique, well in control of his means of expression and, above all, with his own artistic vision.
The painting of Lefteris Kanakakis has always been depict. No one who knows Kanakakis’s background and career would jump to the conclusion that the young painter had attached himself to the widespread trend for the return of figuration, which swept over Europe and America at the same time. Besides, Kanakakis did not share one of the dominant features of European realism and American surrealism, as these new trends were to be called, namely, their dependence upon mechanical means of image reproduction. The artist remained faithful to vision, the most exalted of senses, in the of Plato, and the one that Leonardo da Vinci glorified. He also remained faithful to the traditional methods. His favourable medium was oil painting. As attested by his oeuvre as well as the comprehensive paper he dedicated to it.
The first works of Kanakakis are almost exclusively Nekres physeis; translation of the unfortunate term by which Latin-derived language describe the painting of inanimate objects. The term natura morta was introduced, with a pejorative nuance, in 18th centurry Italian terminology, as distinct to the “noble” natura vivente, favoured by the academics. It is the English and German terms still life and Stilleben, respectively, of older and more genuine origin, that would be more appropriate for the paintings of Kanakakis. Indeed, this term was used in the early 17th century in the Netherlands -where this kind of art thrived with a slightly different meaning; still-stehende Sachen meant “restful motif” as opposed to the “restless” live model.
I am going back to the etymology of terms and the origin of the kind, because ever since it was created “still nature” occasioned a “peaceful subversion” in the habits of the eye, in the history of painting, in aesthetics. Indeed, when Caravaggio painted that vivid basket of fruit on a brilliant golden, abstract background, the first still life work in the modern history of art, around 1600, painting had already signed its declaration of independence. It silently demonstrated its will to be independent of religious, mythological and other traditional subjects; to rely on its own inherent means of expression, to become its own signifier. Caravaggio, by means of his still nature, wrote a talking poem not through the prosaic narration of image, not even through the objects we recognise on it; but rather through the melody of forms, the living tune of the composition, the harmony of colours, the lyricism of light. The first step toward abstract art had already been taken.
A silent world, populated by few, stringently selected objects; this is what the still life -or natura morta if you prefer- of Kanakakis’s art proposes. A plain rectangular table with a single object. A curvilinear Viennese chair. Plain, geometric forms. Shape, Colour and texture are the features which provide access to this closed universe. Layout is simple, at times an archaic line-up reminiscent of the bodegones of the 17th century Spanish painters such as Zurbaran and Velasquez.
Space is defined by the objects themselves. The surface of the canvas is inviolable. It may not be “scooped” or altered; it does lend itself to illusionary impressions. Everything is tangible before us. The tactile properties are highlighted by a fine moulding of tones, which almost never slips to the extreme range of shading: black and white. The objects’ loneliness, positioning and angle of viewing, invest them with solidity, power and soul. Besides, Kanakakis selects objects which have a history: a history of their own and a history “love affair” with the painter. They are everyday earthenware vessels preserving the warmth of the hand that moulded them. Old articles, adorned by time, sanctified by use.
“Articles”, as the painter confided in me during an interview, “that I constantly saw before me; that were in my house, that I had seen here and there; I had observed the light falls on them and what effects it creates”.
Simple, everyday vessels - a pot, a jug - that once in a while become monumental. As time goes by, inhabitants of this world proliferate. The artist directs a more complex, wiser plastic conversation. The geometric shape, the table, an oval mirror converse with a piece of striped silk fabric, seemingly tossed on the back of a chair carelessly. The painter can not deceive us. Everything is calculated. Patterns, structural rate, textures: from the shiny with acute reflections to the fluffy, the cuddling. The strong, iridescent colours are in mutual magnetic attraction, in constant migration. They imperceptibly leap from one place to another, they are diffused from one level to another, from pattern to pattern, from space to the object and vice versa. An alchemy, a secret osmosis take place, with light always being the catalyst. A light which is woven, interwoven with colour, moving in its subcutaneous tissue, regulating superficial respiration, extending space and reconciling the objects in it. It is a sensitive, tonal, lyrical light; seldom does it shade in a loud manner; seldom does it wrinkle the abundant forms with chiaroscuro “incidents”. For Kanakakis favours unbroken, clean, platonic shapes which afford a taste of eternity.
In the years of the Greek junta, the painter’s choice of objects for his still lifes was not based on artistic criteria alone.
Trumpets, helmets and other sacrilegious symbols of trading on patriotism, and later the flags of revolt, satin ribbons of funeral wreaths and other signs of silence, absence, empty faceless jackets and ominous trilbies utter the chronicle of anguish. So there is the evidence that the shell of the other time is not unbreakable. The “vile signs” found a way to penetrate and disturb “still life”. The “hermit” painter does not, however, surrender his art, nor does he rush to join up on impulse. He transmutes, evokes, comments in a subtle way. His artistic language is always the same, only more acute due to rage and bitterness.
In the autumn 1980, Kanakakis surprised us with a series of large paintings with female nudes as the exclusive theme. The poetics remained unchanged. Compositions are monumental. Setting in space obeys to geometric shapes. Figures seated or standing preserve distant memories from the “Epithalamia” of Yannis Moralis, referring to the real source of both painters: tomb steles. Space is defined by bodies and the extend of the highly confined action. If a member revolts and expands space or transgresses it through a violent projection, a perspective abridgement violating the self-restrictions of the painter, such violation is not accidental; it implies a certain expressive intention.
I take the risk of a personal confession: The Nudes of Kanakakis always make me feel that they are an extention of his still lives. The bodies are familiar, real, tangibly present, and yet trapped in a palpable distance. How did the painter achieve this paradox which gives rise to a strange unease in the viewer? Is it through reduction to clean shapes? The light that illuminates forms? The stillness of poses? The geometry of movements? The concealment of space? It is only the faces of his women models that attest to the passions and mental traumas of our time. Their inquiring, anxious gaze -in obvious contrast with the classical serenity of the composition- pierces through the fictional space of the painting to meet our own space. The unseen spark from this encounter, this conflict, engenders agitation, sympathy, “intra-sympathy”.
Perhaps this contradiction, this breach, this intrusion of time can explain the spel of Kanakakis’s last works.
Could it be at this unseen point that the painter meets his great master “Rembrandt’s Portraits” he told me in the interview I mentioned before “have influenced me a great deal, …. portraits that are real people, that give you an inside and help you read the psychology of people.
Something that lasts in time is not a mere image”.
The painter of silence, duration, of other time, Kanakakis, created a work of unbreakable unity and consistence; a work with morals and measure. The validity of such painting is not derived from aesthetic
revisions of the postmodern movement, but rather from the modesty of its intentions, its sencerity, the honesty of its plastic means.
Lefteris Kanakakis had an intense, warm, humane presence.
I still find it hard to believe that he is no longer with us. But is he really gone? He may have just moved into the world he built with such patience and quiet passion.
1. L. Kanakakis, The art of oil painting, (in Greek) Athens 1981, (published by
the Athens School of Fine Arts, not to be sold). Republished in 2002 by C.C.A. It can be found
at the C.C.A.
2. Interview of L.K. to M.L.-P. on the occasion of the Kazantzakis award
bestowed to him. It was shown by the National channel ERT-2, on 11.11.83.