The Mediterranean Odyssey of Jannis Kounellis
‘I am a Greek person, but an Italian artist’ Jannis Kounellis has repeatedly asserted. Born in Piraeus in 1936 Kounellis’ childhood in this ancient Mediterranean port was ruptured by the many years of war and conflict that descended upon Greece during and after the Second World War. His unique and powerfully resonant art - a kind of timeless poetic realism made up of fragments and the fundamental elements of life (earth, air, fire water, etc.) - speaks similarly of the rupture of civilisation, of modern man’s distance from the Ancients and of a hope for the future. ‘I am against the world of Andy Warhol and of the epigoni of today’, Kounellis once explained. ‘I want to restore the climate experienced by the Cubists. I am against the condition of paralyization to which the post-war has reduced us; by contrast I search among the fragments (emotional and formal) for the scatterings of history. I search dramatically for unity, although it is unattainable, although it is Utopian, although it is impossible and for all these reasons dramatic. I am against the aesthetics of catastrophe; I am in favour of happiness; I search for the world of which our vigorous and arrogant 9th century forebears left us examples of revolutionary form and content.’ (Jannis Kounellis quoted in Gloria Moure, ed., Jannis Kounellis Works, Writings, 1958-2000, Barcelona, 2001, p. 26)
Moving to Rome at the age of twenty, Kounellis thereafter refused to speak Greek and immersed himself in the cultural heritage of Italy. While Greece had been the birthplace of Western civilisation, it was its prodigy, Ancient Rome, that ultimately had been responsible for bestowing this culture on Europe while the vestiges of the ancient Greek civilisation faded away towards the East. Amidst the Eternal City’s unique blend of ancient, Renaissance and modern, Kounellis found and picked up the continuous golden thread of Mediterranean culture that led through time from the land of his forefathers right up to the present day. A painter, with a poetic and painterly sensibility to all he saw, Kounellis also found in Rome and the work of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, and that of his close friend Pino Pascali, a way to navigate through the infinite and relative dimensions of space, material and time. It was ‘not only the works of Burri and Fontana that were crucial’ for him, Kounellis recalled, ‘but also those of many other artists of this generation who... found in material a path of research.’ (ibid, p.175)
From the very beginning Kounellis announced his intentions of painting ‘materially’ by using the tautology of real elements in the real world to express a hidden poetry at the heart of existence. Strongly aware of what he saw as the twin parameters of modernism - the Utopian idealism of painters like Malevich and the ironic deconstructive critique of Dada – Kounellis’s first show at the La Tartaruga Galllery in 1960 boldly announced a new ‘beginning’. He opened both his ‘material research’ and his professional career with his word and ‘alphabet’ paintings - a series of canvases onto which a mysterious or unknown language of signs, letters, numbers and symbols had been stencilled or printed. These extraordinary works, moving beyond the purely painterly logic of Johns and Rauschenberg’s number and alphabet pictures for example, were followed by a series of tautological and mimetic canvas roses sewn onto bare canvases. At this point Kounellis briefly halted, taking a meditative break from painting in 1965 fearing he had developed a ‘style’. ‘There is no style’, he later asserted. ‘What we must try to achieve today is the unity between art and life. The history of Pop art and many other forms of painting removes this unity. Like all industrial and technological things, they place you in a state of detachment from what you’re doing.’ (Jannis Kounnellis, ‘Interview with Marisa Volpi’, Macatré, Rome, May 1968.) Rooting his art in the timeless and elemental materials of life Kounellis began working in a way that ran directly counter to the synthetic shallowness and transitory ‘nowness’ of the American Pop aesthetic. In 1966 he began to paint again by literally binding art and life together, incorporating real and often living elements into his painting. Placing a live parrot perched against a canvas or a series of live birds in cages against another, Kounellis drew on the metaphysical tradition in Italian art of highlighting an isolated element or fragment as a way of asserting the innate mystery in the overt and manifest reality of life. In so openly demonstrating the apparent strangeness of the fundamental nature of reality Kounellis was also demonstrating how divorced from this reality modern civilisation had grown.
Soon, the individual and often fragmented elements of life Kounellis presented became entirely divorced from their canvas supports as the artist’s painterly aesthetic began to embrace an entire environment. Charcoal, cacti, grain, sugar, coffee, (with its powerful aroma and, for Kounellis, its evocative memories of the port of Piraeus), large burlap sacks in homage to Burri, and vast swathes of cotton, became the material vocabulary of a new poetic language in which he spoke with basic elements to the unchanging nature of man’s perceptual senses. The three works in this collection are all powerful expressions of this tendency in Kounellis’ work that began in 1967.
Permeating the viewer’s space, stimulating all the five (or six) senses rather than just the visual, works such as these destroyed the boundaries between art and life. Perhaps the most dramatic and famous example of this quality of Kounelis’ work was when in 1969, he filled the Galleria L’Attico in Rome with twelve live horses. Transforming the gallery space from a sacred and pristine arena of aspiration and pretension into a stable filled with the vital stench and undeniable physicality of living material energy, Kounellis brought home in the strongest possible way the dislocation of modern culture from an Arcadian ideal. Conjuring an image of the mythical Augean stables, not only did this work articulate the rift between the ideal and the real, the material and the ephemeral, the sacred and profane, but also and perhaps most of all, between the present and the past.
Kounellis’ profoundly material aesthetic inevitably prompted his work to be seen as part of the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s - a group branding that the artist has never been entirely happy with. As the addition of fire and smoke to his vocabulary of elemental materials illustrates, there is a deeply mystical sense of both the transience of life and of the essentially transcendental nature of human existence that often borders on the alchemical permeating much of his work. Infused by a distinctly poetic sensibility, his broken fragments of classical busts, doors and windows filled with stones, flame-filled beds and ghostly smoke-burned traces, weave a tale of mankind as if it were a lost tribe wandering in the ruins of a former golden age. Against his archaic and mysteriously lyrical manipulation of material, human life is expressed as a poetic journey of the soul. Kounellis has said that he has always cherished ‘those Greek mothers who, rather than bringing up their children to stay at their sides, prepared them to leave home’, adding the proviso that ‘you have to set out in order to return because if you don’t return it means you have lost your bearings, and our culture does not allow this.’ (Jannis Kounellis quoted in Moure, op cit., p. 9).
In the same way, Kounellis’ art sings an odyssey that is a trail of associations. It is a trail where ancient fragments speak of both dislocation and of one-time union, where the smell of materials prompts memories rooted in childhood and the flame of fire or its smoky traces speak of both the vitality and the transience of life. Overriding this poetic sense of longing for the shores of an unknown past however, the overt, ever-present and persistent factuality of his materials celebrates the richness and energy of the present, expressing the artist’s fundamental joy in his work and an undeniable optimism about the potential of the future. ‘I want the return of poetry by all means available’ he has said. ‘Through practice, observation, solitude, through language, image and insurrection.’ (Jannis Kounellis quoted in Jannis Kounellis, exh. cat., Athens, 1994, p. 1).
The metaphor seems to be the source of the selection of materials in Kounellis’ universe. The mechanisms of the imaginary, of myth, culture, of ideals and passions, find in this artist an extraordinary interpreter for the recreating of a world that belongs to us all. In Kounellis’ art, material, image and metaphor are superimposed, until they merge. His works, always traversed by tensions, seem to emerge from complexity and conflict, which eventually find an “equilibrium” in the creative form of the work. The exaltation of reality seems to push him towards the search for the absolute. But in Kounellis, the absolute is not certainty, it is only the “possible”, and thus the ephemeral.
His work seems to be a meeting point between technical rigour, ideology and contemporaneity, the latter also intended as the result of an investigation into the history that has preceded us. Perhaps it is for this reason that to him “the only way to have a lasting condition is also to have a temporary condition”. It is like affirming that every thing has its shadow. To this end, in Kounellis’ works the spaces of light and shadow alternate, almost as if chasing each other, making us think of a great master of painting. But, in this case, it is not the viewer who “reads” the canvas, but the work which, clinging to the wall, leans out towards us to offer its truth, its essence.
His works are the pages of an open narrative, which never ends, because the viewer can intervene, observing these open “windows” on the world that the artist leaves behind him.
A powerful, incisive, passionate artist, by whom we absolutely wanted to acquire a significant work of the 1960s, that would testify to the beginnings of the path developed subsequently. It was not at all easy to satisfy our expectations and, above all, to succeed in our aim. Too many candidates. But in the end, here is the conquest pursued with tenacity: this canvas of 1968. A work that is as historical as it is rare, of museum quality: it makes a strong impact, inside us and in the environment in which it is situated. Its “constitution” is of a brilliant, disarming simplicity: the iron frame of a double bed, the sheet of jute stretched over it and sheep’s wool applied in the middle. It looks like a great white, open wound that is running from the jute; or a cascade of natural energy. With the power imprinted
by Kounellis. It bears magnificent witness to the work executed by this great artist in the 60s. We have always been extremely proud of it.