Born in Patras in 1956, he studied Physics at the Physics and Maths School at the University of Athens and Animation at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. He works as a cartoonist at “Kathimerini” Newspaper. He has published several books. He lives and works in Athens.
The Potato “Reserve”
(The Silent Rhetoric of Painting and the Visual Obsessions of Dimitris Hantzopoulos)
It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.
Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
It is often the case in art criticism that the opposite happens than in art itself. Criticism, in its sophisticated tone, focuses on the most insignificant detail; art, through the simple or the insignificant, opens up onto the universe. The case of Dimitris Hantzopoulos and his series of paintings on the theme of “potatoes” is, I think, a typical example. With his consecutive variations of lowly tubers, he says more about life and art, representation and truth or the rational and the paradoxical, than what the most philosophical and eloquent pen can discuss at length.
Besides, the inspired work of philosophers and art critics, such as Hegel or Heidegger, is a jungle; a jungle which one understandably hesitates to enter. Some attempted it and were never seen again; others, like Derrida or Deleuze, attempted it and came out, except they left the “jungle” thicker upon their return. How, then, is one to enter into the transaction of images-words when, while the ancient equation remains: “one image = a thousand words”, the words that are imparted in recent decades are increasingly crotchety: deconstruction, misreading, conceptuality, differance [with an a], aspect theory or cloud theory, etc. Millions of these words, for few images. And for an art that manages, like great painting par excellence, not only to show but to think without the words, the entire venture becomes an ambitious labour in vain.
In the 1930s at least, when Gorky and Zhdanov’s “socialist realism” opposed the “formalism” of Gautier and Poe, and the support of art for art’s sake established the enemies of the people, one could examine the virtues of the content or, as an incorrigible aesthete, occupy oneself with processing the form, ignoring the moral messages. This was, of course, how works such as Ostrovsky’s How The Steel Was Tempered, Aleksei Tolstoy’s “The Road to Calvary” trilogy, or Vera Mukhina’s sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” came to be considered great art, because they extoled the appeal of the masses as revolutionary, and proclaimed the end of “the exploitation of man by man”! Just like, conversely, with the emphasis solely on the innovations of the form, several experimentations of minimalism, and the games of abstract expressionism and pop art were overrated. But now the critic had a field day, as he could slate or glorify either a Victorian (or socialist) moralisation of content, or the innovative inventiveness of form.
After 1940 and Clement Greenberg, however, with form becoming a definite part of the content and content committing to its form, things got harder for critics. Their verdicts, since then, took care to avoid any clarity or certainty, given that everything could now be considered to have the form of art and, even more so, artistic content. From Marcel Duchamp’s subversive gestures to Damien Hirst’s repulsive variations on morbidity, via those endless pages of “Ulysses”, where James Joyce records dozens of inconsequential objects from Leopold Bloom’s kitchen drawers.
What, then, can be said of the multiple and authentic potatoes of Dimitris Hantzopoulos? Are they a wink to the diet of the plump models of Fernando Botero? A hint at the endless variations of Evangelisms, whereby began the history of Western painting? A contraction of “still lifes”, glorified by Dutch painting in the 17th century, and “landscape painting” that French art was praised for in the 19th? An art “di maniera”, which playfully expresses the judgement of our political and cultural values (given that every government minister claims to be handling another “hot potato”), like Mannerism in the 16th century expressed the judgement of cosmological and religious values in the time of Copernicus and Luther? Or do they expressly denounce the poor diet of the contemporary working class family, and thus make for a kind of “socialist surrealism”?
In any case, if we focus on the content, the fixation on the theme of potatoes proves remarkably praiseworthy.
Inarguably, it is to potatoes that Europe owes the doubling of its population between the 17th and 19th centuries. Potatoes were first grown on the plateaus of Peru, 8,000 years ago. In the late 16th century, the annihilators of the Incas imported them to Spain, the victors of the Spanish Armada (Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh) imported them to England and Ireland and, as soon as they were adopted by the reserved – to begin with – Central European farmers, they saved thousands from starvation. Offsetting, in fact, their import from America with a mass export of poor Irish citizens to America, in 1845, when a type of fungus destroyed the entire crop of potatoes in Ireland. In Greece, too, they played a similar role, saving the starving, when Kapodistrias imported them from Corfu, where the French had brought them over from Toulon, in 1800. Hence I presume, the term “geomilo” (earth apple) for this Solanum tuberosum – from the translation of the French pomme de terre.
Even if we only took into account the lifesaving effects of its import for the survival of the Europeans, the humble tuber immediately goes up in our estimation. Even more so, given that beneath its usually brown or dark skin hides an incredible variety of colours – from light yellow all the way to purple – and a wonderful range of flavours. But while its wealth of flavour concerns the gourmand and their recipes, it takes an artistic gaze of true genius to focus on an even greater wealth – visual – of its shape and the texture its skin might take on.
A little like the figures of Henry Moore or Hans Arp (“Human Concretion”, especially) and a little like certain sculptures by Botero (such as “Man on Horse” or “Roman Warrior”), Hantzopoulos’s potatoes remain, however, blatantly potatoes. Their disfigurements do not exceed, at any time, the disfigurements that we come across in any potato variety. And the relief of their surfaces, sometimes like a strange asteroid, sometimes like wrinkles on a face, sometimes like landscapes before the creation of man, which Renaissance painters used to reproduce as the background for portraits, also does not exceed, in any instance, the relief of the skin of the average potato. With its real blemishes and its real spots of decay or peeling.
In terms of the form, that follows the more realistic tradition of painting, only to transcend it through sarcasm (in the spirit, perhaps, of the artist’s other role – that of a great political caricaturist).
Oil paint on wood, all of the works, they piously preserve the typical materials of late Renaissance. With a distinctive technique for diluting the colours, such that creates the impression of a photographic magnification. Thus they play on the threshold of a surrealism like Rene Magritte’s, for example, or of the dream-like associations of Paul Delvaux and the underwater landscapes of Yves Tanguy. Instead of Tanguy’s multicoloured seaweed, Hantzopoulos has most of his dark potatoes ‘floating’ on a background of clear skies, like that magnificent Aphrodite of Alexandre Cabanel, swaying on the waves. And only once, in this wide range of mature potatoes, with creased skins and the first sprouts shooting up, does a fresh potato appear, cut in half, levitating majestically over a slightly worn straw chair. Something like a reverse Evangelism, in this particular painting, the two halves of the potato facing one another like the angel and the Virgin, with the backrest of the chair playing the role of a typical ‘column’ – a reference to Columna Christus and the Incarnation – over the perfect perspective of a floor like those created by painters such as Donatello or Holbein.
There are, of course, certain added elements that vary the precise depiction of real potatoes and guide the viewer’s imagination. There is, for example, a potato like a diplodocus, with a daring and immaculately dressed rider straddling its neck. Another, like a plump Creole or like that Colombian Aphrodite of Botero, bathes in an old-fashioned bathtub with lion’s feet. A third, in an unusually narrow painting, becomes the handle for the string of a plumb line – whose weight is an equally realistically drawn lemon. Yet another potato, particularly aged, balances casting its shadow across a floor overlaid with multicoloured outdated tiles. One looks upon it with awe, as if it were a cut up and badly sewn together corpse – a Frankenstein potato, in a way. There are also, elsewhere, potatoes with their skins curling up in places, demonstrating that greenish decay of corpses that have been dug up once they had started to rot. Perhaps to remind us that, when it comes to potatoes, harvesting is a type of translation of relics.
There are also two potatoes standing side by side, like a mother waiting to deliver her plump child to the school bus, before a horizon that looks like a tidy suburb, with a sky painted on a carelessly unfolded sheet of paper. In yet another, more obvious ‘personification’ of the earth apples, in fact, the potatoes have become the heads of a group of immigrants, captured through a camera lens on the deck of a boat. Some formally dressed and others more casual, they bear on their all-potato heads (and this is what’s remarkable) all the expressions that people in that situation would potentially display. Melancholy about leaving their home behind, optimism for what might come next, pride for their courageous decision, camaraderie and selfish ambitions: it’s all there, in the typical potato people. Taking it a step further, I would say that there – in the mid-war clothing and, most of all, the potatoey expressiveness of faces and postures – are also the destinies of the group’s members: the one that will become a wrestler, the other one who will remain poor, one who will become rich, one who’ll end up a gigolo or a gambler, etc. And, as if seeking to validate the phrase by Douglas Adams on the title page of this piece – replacing: “Man shall not live on bread alone” with: not all problems can be solved by potatoes – Hantzopoulos has added to the painting’s group another pale member, who isn’t a potato person, but who could well represent the artist himself, wondering what ‘journey’ he’s embarked upon!
The best painting, however, in my opinion, are the two potatoes facing each other – one coming out of the neck of a trench coat and the other suspended just above the collar of another trench coat. The trench coats are rendered in the rough lines that are typical of Hantzopoulos’s caricature sketches and the potatoes thus stand for the faces of two strange figures in conversation. One of them, seen almost head-on, is saying something and the other, viewed partly in profile, (literally) loses his head over what he hears. Except that, while the dumbfounded listener has a visible ear, the speaker, opposite, has eyes and a nose (they are clearly marked on the skin) but not a mouth. What better allegory for the conversion of thoughts into images, like in the silent film of dreams (and their Freudian interpretations); what better allegory for the silent rhetoric of painting?
Like bad doctors, only interested in curing the symptoms, bad humourists think of laughter as a symptom of their ‘ingenious’ jokes. As a very good humourist, Dimitris Hantzopoulos applies comedy to the most serious combination: a nutritional food for the stomach – potatoes – and an equally nutritional food for the mind – images.
One could spend hours gazing at his series of potatoes. Discovering feminine folds and masculine outcrops, geological subsidences and mountaintops, blemishes on the skin, preludes to the inevitable ageing, or reborn flora and deserts – an entire topography of little planets. A more profound look suggests that the totally potato-like ‘potatoes’ might show that they are coming out of the painting surface and levitating in space, like genuine planets. That, besides, is the great charm of painting – the innamoramento, as they once used to term the sense of a painting coming to life in the eyes of its love-struck viewer. And perhaps ‘gazing’ isn’t entirely accurate, as it implies a tension in the gaze. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if one only “caressed with their eyes” those strange, out-of-scale earth apples. To contempler them, as the French say – a verb that contains the word “temple”, from the Latin templum. In other words, the notional square that Roman soothsayers drew in the sky, waiting to see how certain birds would move within it, so that they could issue their prophesies. The delineation of a similar zone on the ground, instead of the sky, resulted, subsequently, in templum, as a sanctuary and a temple.
Which is, in fact, what painting does as well, define the zone within which its every composition and its every artistic thought is ‘gazed upon’. In this case, the potatoes of Hantzopoulos. A thematic ‘reserve’ which, while seemingly having been exhausted by the painter in all its possible variations, remains always apt for another and yet another possible or impossible version. A reserve, which you observe and feel ‘sated’ but, at the same time, light and cheerful, as if you had been rinsed of the endless stupidity and confusion of our days.