Today I would like to introduce you to a Greek artist, the most important representative for the arte povera movement, who passed away some weeks ago in Italy.
Jannis Kounellis, a painter, sculptor and conceptual artist, was born 23rd march 1936 in Piraeus the harbor of Athens and spend his youth there.
Greece for him was more an “opinion” than a place, which gave him a complex Mediterranean identity after he moved to Italy, the place where he lived until his death on the 16th February 2017, aged 80 years.
He said that this “engaged [him] in a permanent dialogue with the culture of the past”, The philosophical but also practical influence of the ancient Greeks can be detected by the recipient.
Supported by his father, he left his hometown at the age of 20 together with his wife, after he experienced the Second World War and ten years of Greek civil war in his hometown, to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome.
He was a pioneer of the arte povera movement, which offered an alternative to the main stream of Expressionism in that time.
Arte povera, which is Italian for “poor art”, is considered as one of the “most provocative artistic movements in postwar Europe” and metamorphoses something banal into something new. It took place in main cities of Italy, majorly in Turin, but was also important in Bologna, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice in the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The name of the contemporary art movement was coined by an Italian art critic first just as a title of an exhibition with the artists turning their backs on the traditional materials and focusing on using literally garbage, thrown away furniture and clothes et cetera to create a certain aesthetic an criticize established institutions of culture, government and industry.
Kounellis himself said the following about the role of an artist in society.
“It is related to drama. An artist must emotionally move people, because emotions are man’s freedom.”
And about necessity and importance of creating a vision.
“Unfortunately, today the economy and the art market have killed visions. The task of artists is to salvage that ability to create sense through their visions.”
The practice of Jannis Kounellis has changed over time, starting with classical painting he had his first solo exhibition in Rome two years after he started studying.
He created his very own aesthetics, “his own elliptical ideas of fom and space” after finding inspiration in the Renaissance masters Giotto, Masaccio and Caravaggio.
In his further progress he began to create sculptures and installations and even did performances, where himself or other person became part of the artwork, blurring the lines between those categories. Influenced by Alberto Burri as well as Lucio Fontana he started to involve burlap sacks, doors, windows, organic materials and even living objects into his art. The best known work of him may be eleven horses, that he arranged like cars in a huge garage used as an exhibition hall.
In his late years he stayed true to this style, because the significance did not change for him.
Actually he never saw himself as a rebel. “But do not talk to me about crossing confines,” he said. “I don't know what that means. I have never crossed confines.” Still his work turned out as the beginning of an upheaval in the view on materials.
He exhibited in Italy for example on the venetian Biennale, in his motherland Greece in Athens and worldwide for example on the documenta , in the Museum of Modern art and Guggenheim in New York city and in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, just to name a few important places.
Creativity he described like a feeling.
“It’s being struck by lightning, like falling in love, you don’t understand why, but it happens.”
The influence of his art on further generations is already significant and as a source of inspiration he will for sure not be forgotten.