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Halepas, a tormented genius February 14, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Exhibitions Greece.
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National Sculpture Gallery retrospective on the Greek sculptor reveals the work of an original artist

The great Greek sculptor Yiannoulis Halepas (1851-1938) lived to be 87 years old, and yet was artistically creative for a relatively short period in his life. He produced some of his most renowned works as a young artist but his work came to an abrupt end when at 27 years old, he was admitted to Corfu’s psychiatric clinic, where he remained for more that a decade. Although there is some evidence to suggest that he never quit working entirely, there are no surviving works from that time, not even from the first 15 years after his release. It is believed that either he or his mother, who blamed his art for her son’s mental illness, destroyed his sculptures. It was not until Halepas reached 65 years of age that he is known to have invoked his creative forces to the fullest and resumed working systematically.

Even for an artist, Halepas had an unusual life and produced an oeuvre filled with time lapses and missing evidence. Were it not for his rare talent and insight, he might have been marginalized in the history of Greek sculpture. But his unique creativity has placed him in the highest ranks of Greek art and, along with the tragedy that he suffered in life, made him a legendary figure.

“Yiannoulis Halepas: A Retrospective Exhibition,” which opened a week ago at the National Sculpture Gallery, brings together 95 of his sculptures, of the surviving 115, and more than 100 drawings by the artist. The exhibition is curated by a professor of art history at Aristotle University, Alexandra Goulaki-Voutira, with the assistance of National Gallery curator Artemis Zervou. A catalog with numerous essays on his work is also available and is a welcome addition to a rich bibliography on Halepas. The study by Marinos Kalligas from the early 1970s is the most significant.

Halepas is usually referred to as a “modern” artist who defied the academic canon, yet his training was based on a classical tradition which he obtained first from Leonidas Drosis and then at the Munich Academy alongside his teacher Max Ritter Von Windmann. A great admirer of ancient Greek sculpture, he also had an unusual understanding of it. He visited the National Archaeological Museum and could tell the original and later parts of a sculpture, often correcting archaeological data.

Like many artists of his generation, he was inspired by classical Greek mythology, examples include “Oedipus and Antigone,” “Hermes” or “Medea”, and throughout his life worked a single theme in many different versions. “Satyr and Eros,” one of his earliest works which stands in the permanent exhibition hall of the National Sculpture Gallery, is firmly set in the classical tradition. Along with “Reclining Woman,” a funerary sculpture in Athens’s First Cemetery, “Satyr and Eros” is the most famous work of the artist’s early period. It is remarkable for the ways it captures movement, an aspect that is not as highlighted in the later works, and for how the facial expression changes according to the angle from which the work is approached.

A young artist back then, Halepas worked in the family business. His father, a contractor who received commissions for sculptures, owned a large, profitable workshop on Tinos, a center for marble sculpture and the island where Halepas was born, raised and spent most of his life, and, later in Athens. Although Tinos was an island with an artistic tradition, painter Nikiforos Lytras, who was Halepas’s teacher, sculptors Dimitris Philippotis, Antonios and Lazaros Sohos, Giorgios and Lazaros Fitalis and Loukas Doukas were all from there, the senior Halepas hadn’t wanted his son to become an artist and his constant objections are said to have been one of the reasons behind Halepas’s mental illness.

Financial problems led to bankruptcy. When Halepas was released from the institution, his father had already died and Halepas moved back to his family home on Tinos. He now faced poverty and isolation as well as an oppressing mother who smothered his talent. According to a psychoanalytic approach to Halepas’s work, it was not until his mother’s death in 1916 that Halepas could unleash his creativity.

It was roughly at that time that artists and intellectuals began to raise public awareness of his work. Costis Palamas wrote a moving essay on the artist and, a few years later, Thomas Thomopoulos, then a sculptor and professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts, made an official proposal to the state that Halepas’s clay models be made into plaster and moved to Athens for an exhibition. Part of the project was realized and an exhibition on Halepas was organized at the Athens Academy in 1925.

In a public speech, Thomopoulos presented Halepas as a modern, unconventional artist who, like all the modern artists of the time, was inspired by the abstract shapes of primitive art and the simplicity of archaic art. True, there is some resemblance to the archaic in the rough surfaces of Halepas’s sculptures, the lack of openings and the sense of solidity and mass. There is little of the idealization and sense of symmetrical proportion that one finds in classical sculpture.

Yet, as Marinos Kalligas pointed out in his study, had Halepas finished his sculpture in marble, the sense of detail would have been more pronounced and roughness would seem less important. When appraising the work of Halepas, it is vital to keep in mind that most of his works were preparatory models that the artist intended for larger bronze or marble works. Also, one should remember that the plaster models are an interim stage and do not have the directness of the original clay models, of which a few only survive, nor the finishing of a marble work.

But even in those plaster models, one can detect a rare talent and artistic vision. A unique case in the history of Greek sculpture, with no followers or predecessors, Halepas is an artist whose work cannot be easily classified along artistic movements. He is a single case, as unique as his life, his unhappy and troubled existence.

At the National Sculpture Gallery, Military Park, Goudi, Athens, tel 210 7709855, to June 13.

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