Polytechnion / Wall signed and dated 'NIKOS/75-80' (lower left) oil, collage and mixed media on canvas 162 x 130 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Literature: Nikos Kessanlis - Grecia Biennale di Venezia 1988, Greek Ministry of Culture, Athens 1988 (illustrated). H. Kambouridis, Nikos - The Platonism of a Barbarian, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 28, fig. 31. E. Mavromattis, Nikos, De-materilization and Process as Structure of the Image in his Work, Athens 1988, p. 120 (illustrated). Nikos Kessanlis, ed. G. Tzirtzilakis, Adam Publications, Athens 1998, p.391 (illustrated).
The walls of the city are the unlimited fields of poetic realisations L. Malet
The utter fascination of this amazing work springs from the way it can simultaneously be seen as a visually compelling work of art, as a startling archive of modern urban culture and, ultimately, as a gripping vision and priceless document of contemporary Greek history. Painted between 1975, when Kessanlis returned to Greece from Paris and applied for a tutorial position at the Athens Polytechnic, and 1980, a year before he was unanimously elected Professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Wall is an homage to the historic events of November 15-17 1973 that captured the nations hearts and minds and largely shaped the following decades. These three dramatic days and nights have been deeply ingrained in the collective Greek consciousness as an ultimate act of freedom, an affirmation of the right to dream, a vision of a new life.
The Polytechnic sit-in and uprising, which struck the first blow in the downfall of the colonels junta (1967-1974), marks the culmination of a series of national and international developments throughout the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s that prompted the liberal student movement not only to raise the banner of resistance against tyranny but also to create a broader sense of solidarity and promote the social and aesthetic agenda of youth culture. The uprising was an explosion of selflessness, an unprecedented burst of creativity and the most important lesson on politics and ethics a generation could ever learn.1 Back then we felt alive not just because we were young but because our life had meaning and purpose.2 Wisely avoiding the sentimentality of the ghastly images from the night armoured units moved in to suppress the uprising, Kessanlis focused on an assemblage of ready-made photographic imagery3 from the day before, Friday, November 16th, when Athens was still revelling in the exhilaration of freedom.
As the viewer works to draw the pictures separate elements into a whole, Wall eloquently displays most of the artists creative evolutionary stages: the skilful blending of successive layers of abstract expressionist activity and gestural brushwork, the creative utilisation of photographic representation techniques, the bold attachment of unconventional, extraneous material to the canvas and the build up of successive, palimpsest-like layers of representation.4
The artist works his canvas over with paint in the characteristic, spontaneous language of action painting, but his painterly expressiveness is tamed by the incorporation of alien matter, mainly fragments of torn posters. The inclusion of these found objects, which constitute the new imagery of the modern world, recalls the realism of Picassos and Braques cubist collages that first introduced printed labels and fragmented words in exact simulation of printing and stencilling and outside the representational context of the picture.5 Fragments of labels, notices, advertisements, commercial images and other printed matter pasted directly onto canvas allude to the increasingly important role this visual vocabulary plays in the aesthetics of the modern city and the shaping of everyday urban experience. Drawing upon Jasper Johns reviving of the cubist use of letters and numbers and Robert Rauschenbergs famous assemblages and combine paintings, Kessanlis ties his picture to the realities of both the flat canvas and the world outside, recalling Rauschenbergs oft-quoted statement that became a slogan of the new radical realism in the 1960s: Painting relates to both art and life. I try to act in the gap between the two.
This torn and pasted material, which features prominently on the right and left of the canvas, brings to mind other nouveaux-realistes painters, such as Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella, Francois Dufrêne and Jacques de la Villéglé, whose work centred on décollage, an art form based on salvaging wall posters that have been radically transformed by successive overpastings and spontaneous, iconoclastic gestures of passing pedestrians and the vagaries of rain and wind. Décollage reflected a concern with gestural imagery, calligraphy and graffiti, and at the same time low commercial imagery; it showed an enthusiastic receptiveness to chance and accident; it reflected the growing introduction of words and letters into pictorial space, and at the same time the pulverization of words into sound-fragments that characterised postwar French sound poetry. Above all it coincided with the French rediscovery of dada and Duchamp and signalled a new interest in regarding art as a matter of recognition and choice of existing objects.6
This kind of haphazard, spontaneous urban art was envisioned as early as the 1930s by the French writer Léo Malet who described it as the organization of poetry in the street itself, a new realm of surrealist practice. During his brief fling with Bretons surrealist group, Malet conceived of the accidentally torn poster as a real-life variation on a well-known surrealist pastime in which several participants each contributed a random element to a collective poem or drawing. If only ones mind were agile enough to see the mangled posters in the street as wild variants of a surrealist game, Malet thought, then those images would awaken and poetry would devour the walls! Abandoning the artists pasteboard, collage will take its place on the walls of the city, the unlimited fields of poetic realisations.7
Reflecting the tense atmosphere, forceful energy, disorienting sensation and impromptu visual poetry of modern urban life, the bold colours and loud messages of the printed material on Kessanlis Wall are sharply contrasted to the dark, heavily inked units of the pictures upper half which, being artfully played off by the shimmering white strips on the left and right, add up to a kind of intriguing peinture noire.8 The artists bold appropriation of existing photographic images alludes to the pervasive use of photography and photo-generated visual imagery in the age of mass mediation and mechanical reproduction, which has decisively shaped the way the modern world perceives and experiences reality. This view, introduced by W. Benjamin in the late 1920s and developed in the writings of M. McLuhan, gained enormous popularity in the 1960s, and by the next decade it was already plain that while photography used to be a reflection of the world, the world was eventually seen in terms of photographs.9
Acknowledging the omnipotence of mechanical reproduction and revelling in the spontaneous lyricism of the street, Kessanlis Wall, much like Pantazis pasted wall in Mauvaise recette10 a century before, is a multi-dimensional space in which, as Roland Barthes would say, a variety of readings, perceptions, ideas, sensations and experiences blend and clash. In a game of multiple levels of representation, Wall captures the vitality and relentless pace of the modern metropolis, while calling attention to the rupture an uprising can bring to a seemingly uniform world overloaded with information and dominated by the prettified, reassuring images of contemporary consumer culture.
These successive layers of intense conceptual and pictorial activity echo the overlapping writings on a palimpsest, a piece of written parchment or manuscript washed or scraped off, especially during the Renaissance, so that it could be used again. Kessanlis Palimpsests and Walls, which dominated his artistic production throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, are in fact codices rescripti, an art of inspired rewriting, blending and recapitulation, which summarises his artistic quests and adventures in form and content from both the past and the present. As perceptively noted by art critic H. Kambouridis, here in Athens, the successive cultural strata that bear the marks of age-old writings and rewritings are part of our everyday visual experience: ancient ruins, Byzantine churches, Islamic shrines and neoclassical mansions coexist side by side with modern buildings. Many of our churches are built with fragments from ancient temples and they are often decorated with motifs from various cultures and civilizations. Athens is an eclectic place, combining elements from a variety of sources. Just like Kessanlis Walls.11
1. See Polytechnio - 25 Years [in Greek], Kathimerini daily, Epta Imeres, 15.11.1998. 2. See N. Valavani, In Retrospect [in Greek], Nea Synora-A.A. Livanis publ., Athens 1993. 3. See Days of November 1973 Photographs [in Greek], Ermis publ., Athens 1974, especially pp. 20, 35-38, 42. The slogans on the banners read power to the people and people fight. 4. See H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art, The 20th Century, Athens 1999, p. 170. 5. See R. Rosenblum, Picasso and the Typography of Cubism in Picasso in Retrospect; R. Penrose, J. Golding ed., Praeger, New York 1973, pp. 49-75; 6. C. Phillips, When Poetry Devours the Walls, Art in America, February 1990, p. 143. 7. L. Malet, La Vache Entragée, Editions Hoëbke, Paris 1988, pp. 129-130. See also Phillips, p. 140. 8. Compare A. Warhols Disaster series. See T. Crow, Saturday Disasters: Trace and reference in Early Warhol, Art in America, no. 75, May 1987, pp. 128-143. 9. See W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of the Mechanical Reproduction in Illuminations, New York 1969; M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill, New York 1964; J. Canaday, Culture Gulch, Farr, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1969. 10. Auctioned by Bonhams, Greek Sale 20.5.2008. 11. H. Kambouridis, Nikos - The Platonism of a Barbarian, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 50.