Alecos Levidis

Levidis Alecos
© Elly Economides

He was born in Athens in 1944. While still in school he took Painting lessons with Kostas Malamos and Alekos Kontopoulos. He studied Theatre Direction at the Université du Τhéâtre des Nations in Paris (1963-1964) and Architecture at the École d’Architecture of the University of Geneva-E.A.U.G. (1964-1969). Upon returning to Greece, he was involved in the founding, management and running of the “Strofi” bookstore (Athens). He has worked extensively as a book cover designer and art editor (Agra, Crete University Press, Athens Concert Hall, Benaki Museum, Estia, Kedros, Ikaros, Themelio, Astra, Alexandreia). He has created sets for the theatre (Nea Skini – Theatro odou Kykladon, the National Theatre Experimental Stage, Argos Festival) and murals for private homes (Arta, Syros, Kifissia). Alongside his activity as a painter, he has also engaged in research on issues of painting and published relevant work. In 1994 he translated and edited Book 35 of the “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder, “On Ancient Greek Painting” (Agra Publications), which, the following year, was awarded the Academy of Athens Prize. He has taken part in conventions in Greece and abroad, on ancient Greek, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine painting, colours and colour mixing. During the semester of March-May 2007, he visited Princeton University on a fellowship as Artist in Residence. He lives and works in Athens.

Works

On Art and His Art: Alecos Levidis

The painter Alecos Levidis defines his relationship with art as an integral part of his existence and a means for identifying the world. He charges artists with the duty to analyse reality and to reconstruct it, transforming it into their own image that should transcend human concerns. He points out that his own painting seeks to maintain a balance between the mythical and the internal experience of the world, in times dominated by the notional anxiety to be original. Expressing his belief that representational painting is an irreplaceable means for creating an image materialised by human hands, and which must be saved from extinction, he brings up the reasons why the Sotiris Felios Collection plays an active part in that rescue operation. In describing the process of creating his painting Agora, he talks about the common feature of storytelling that is shared by all his works in the collection, as well as the building up of each one of his images with sketched notes and references, which connect his world with the world of the viewer.

Solo Exhibitions

2018

Alecos Levidis: 36 x 36 Painting Essays Skoufa Gallery Athens

2017

Alecos Levidis. Familiar Place, Familiar Time: Two Paintings from the Sotiris Felios Collection, with Their Preparatory Studies 16 Fokionos Negri Athens

2016

Palmyra Requiem Benaki Museum – Central Building (Museum of Greek Culture) Athens

2014

Das Buch, Die Schrieft, Das Bild / Book, Script, Image Travelling exhibition Hellenic Foundation for Culture / Zografeio, Athens Berlin

2013

Of the Sea Pontoporos Gallery Naoussa, Paros

2013

Zografeio Athens

2011

Works for a Summer Zografeio Athens

2010

Painting for Books Institute of Mediterranean Studies Rethymnon

2008

Painting for Books National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation Athens, Thessaloniki

2007

Pomegranates and More... Galerie Astra Athens

2006

Testimonies 1965-1976 Galerie Astra Athens

2004

Twelve Paintings Athens Art Gallery Athens

2004

Painting for Books Caen Public Library Caen

2002

Georgiades Mansion Mytilene

1999

Technopolis Athens

1999

Art Athina Athens (Galerie 3)

1998

Painting for Books Galerie Astra Athens

1997

Argos Festival Kapodistrias Barracks Argos

1995

Art Athina Athens (Skoufa Gallery)

1995

Athens (Galerie 3)

1995

Argos Festival Argos

1994

Skoufa Gallery Athens

1994

Polyedron Patras

1992

Skoufa Gallery Athens

1991

Bathers Athens Art Gallery Athens

1990

Iconographies Galerie 3 Athens

1986

Mylonoyanni Art Gallery Chania

1986

Ora Art and Cultural Centre Athens

1982

Ora Art and Cultural Centre Athens

Press

Notes on Two Paintings by Alecos Levidis

I have always been a literary painter,
thank goodness, like all decent painters.

Walter Richard Sickert1

Α  |  Μodels in the studio

This large painting (250 x 240 cm, mixed media, 2010-2013) refers directly to a western ecclesiastical triptych. The top part is laid out in three sections, while the lower half takes the form of a Renaissance predella, with five smaller scenes in procession, running from left to right, as brief but significant episodes, like a comic strip or frames from a movie.

The central, dominant position is held by a youth, naked from the waist up, confronting the viewers and, despite looking directly at them, his gaze is more evocative of introspection. His arms are slightly open and resting upon a rectangular mirror, where a feather has been placed. The background behind him (as well as the two other figures) is a piece of unused, pure-white, primed paper, nailed onto a wooden sign, ready for immediate use, and it surrounds the youth like a white sheet. A small wheeled cabinet is featured, ritualistically, in front of him, containing various small vessels with the precious materials of painting (the drama unfolds in the painter’s studio), pots, paraphernalia, tubes, and next to it hangs a clean piece of cloth for wiping his hands or brushes. On the left hand side of the painting, standing upright but seen from the side, a young man in a white linen suit, his feet bare and his hands deep in the pockets of his trousers, is watching the central figure with obvious and intense anxiety, sharing in its Passion. Across from him and on the right hand side of the painting, sitting in a more lively pose that creates a triangle with a hand on the knee as its apex, a young woman, dressed in a white pleated one-piece dress over a black bra, with her gaze fixed on the young man in white, indicates the visual route of the eyes. The viewer cannot help but follow that route.

The composition is staged on three horizontal levels: a) the anterior vacant space of the floor, b) the space in-between, where the three figures are contained within an imagined triangle, and c) the heavily-loaded vertical surface in the back – where we see a number of objects (the large, upright painting easel, the backs of canvases, frames empty of pictures, and other paintings, on the right yet another large, modular easel with pictures ‘stuck on’ at the top, and a photograph of a loved one).

The original idea for the painting came long before its creation. Around 2005, the artist has his children pose in the respective positions (the triptych depicts Levidis’s youngest son, as the central figure, the youth in white is his eldest son, and the seated young woman is his daughter), and captures them on camera. He then goes on to create life-size studies of the three figures, in pastels on specially prepared paper; studies of remarkable finesse and great sensitivity. The transition to the completed painting remains dormant until 2010-2011, when the collector Sotiris Felios sees these studies and a rough sketch of the painting’s composition, and responds with the perfect commission: he will let the artist do exactly as he pleases, without the merest hint of intervention, as patron, on his part (this is why the paintings within the background painting are pieces that belong to the Sotiris Felios Collection, a cryptic nod of praise towards an eminent collector on the artist’s part).

The painting is subsequently created upon plywood, primed with several layers of gesso, finely sanded down. Levidis, with the help of anthivola (working sketches-templates) and a hard 6H pencil, traces the final composition onto the gesso, as the former has taken shape from dozens, by now, preliminary drawings and studies of its every detail. Before that, however, he turns the face of the central figure from beardless to bearded (in the time elapsed between original conception and execution, the artist’s youngest son has developed from an adolescent to a young man) – life imposes its own demands upon art – but, most importantly, he adapts all three figures to the anatomical rule of Albrecht Dürer2(the height of the head repeating eight times in the length of the body, while in Byzantine and Ancient Greek art it is sometimes eight and sometimes seven times).

In the summer of 2012 at Koufonissia, where the artist spends his holidays every year, he begins to work on the figures in acrylic paint. The piece is still incomplete when, in November 2012, he shows it in a flash exhibition, lasting only two days (the 11th and 12th of the month) at Zografeio, as work in progress. It is subsequently exhibited at Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome from late November of that same year until early January of the next, as part of the “Ellenico Plurale: Dipinti dalla Collezione Sotiris Felios”3exhibition.

The final composition is pyramidal, its apex the head of the central figure, while the latter’s open arms extend, to the painting’s left, from the handle of the easel to the edge of the bare feet of the young man; to the right, they extend from the knees and the calves of the seated young woman. At the same time, the correspondences of the lines of the objects and the shadows weave, in the background (the third level), a dense connecting tissue of rhythmical horizontals and verticals. The central figure is conveyed with great expressive force, the details of the objects, with their precious materials, with particular care: clear, clean, bright, without a trace of dust, as if they’re viewed through a magnifying glass. (Their remarkable clarity is due, to a large part, to their white background, which turns the colours, locally, transparent.)

The artist was inspired to create the triptych by the representation of “Akra Tapeinosis” (extreme humility)4 at the sanctuary of a burnt and ransacked church in Prespes. “Within the alcove of the Prothesis is a painted image of Christ, from the waist up, naked and dead, with His hands crossed, bearing the stigmata and the spear wound on His side, sitting within the tomb. Behind Him is the Cross”, as Kontoglou describes5. Levidis follows this model, but he also tweaks it: the central figure is naked, with its arms extended and open, to show us the absence of wounds from the nails. The role of the ciborium is played by the wheeled cabinet, while the mirror, where the fingertips are reflected, intensifies the sense of the tomb. The role played by the Crucifix in the traditional “Extreme Humility” is taken up, here, by the cross of the easel.

Levidis ‘tweaks’ the “Extreme Humility” overall, because he combines it with an inverted Prayer. The role of John is held by the eldest son, while the role of Mary by the blooming, attractive daughter (Du hast das Wunder der Welt gesehen). The painting, however, is teeming with other references as well. The seated position of the young girl, with the left hand on her thigh and the sole of the right foot resting on the chair, with the toes just about touching the floor, refers directly to Yannis Moralis and his painting “Morfi” (1951, National Gallery – Alexandros Soutsos Museum). The inlaid image on the wheeled cabinet is from a mural in Pompeii. The paintings in the third level introduce the motif of a painting within a painting or, more accurately, of a painting within a painting and within a painting again. Behind the right leg of the young girl, we don’t see Picasso’s “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922) or “The Duchess of Urbino” (1465-1470) by Piero della Francesca. Behind the youth in white, we do not see De Chirico’s “Great Metaphysical Interior” (1917). What we see, instead, are paintings by Levidis that incorporate the respective pieces.

The entire scene is observed from above by the black and white photograph on the third level (the artist’s wife, and mother to two of his three children) and the red horse, stuck beside her. This, again, is a fragment from Levidis’s painting Kinigi”(hunt – 1986-1987)6. The horse could function as a persona of the painter and, in combination with the photograph of his wife, remind the viewer of the parental supervisory reflection of Philip IV of Spain and Queen Maria Anna, in the unmatched “Las Meninas”7. Now, if we were to put all those tricks together, culminating in the white backgrounds behind the figures, which create the illusion that the forms might not have existed at all except as paintings within the painting, then the entire composition brings up questions about the nature of reality and optical illusion, and creates an uncertain relationship between viewer and depicted forms.

The triptych is supported by the predella. There, from left to right, in cinematic flow, five scenes unfold. In the first, we see the interior of a room (the background in Pompeii red) with a Corinthian capital from a broken column holding up the ceiling-sky, in the style of a sotto in sù painting by Tiepolo. Two pairs of athletes of Greco-Roman wrestling are being watched by the head of a white horse8. Its body emerges from the second scene where, in a seaside location, a military officer on horseback (this is the maternal grandfather of the artist, taken from a photograph from 1908) salutes. In the back, Levidis has depicted a travelling herpetarium with the Minoan Goddess of Snakes on its front. From the scene exits a figure dressed in livery (a paternal uncle of the artist) to enter the next scene: the darkest (in all senses of the word).

The starting point for this one is a photograph taken by the artist at a religious festival at the Greek-Bulgarian border. It is an image with the significance of purgatory, where flesh roasts: at a makeshift canteen, a man waits to be served while, a little to the side, in an indefinite space hung with fabrics, a group of men watches a figure with a machete attacking a small donkey (pauvre bête chérie). The latter, to escape, moves into the following scene, where, however, chaotic violence prevails. Men in helmets are attempting to put a fire out, people are running to get away in the opposite direction. On the first level, a priestess in a white tunic lifts the mask of Tragedy over her head. Levidis is shaken up, in this image, by the events that followed the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos and he transfers onto the wood a photograph of a newspaper front page from the day after the riots of the 6th of December 2008.

In the final scene, a woman runs to escape the blind violence of fire. Her form is a direct loan from Louis Janmot (1814-1892) and his painting “Cauchemar”, from the “Le Poème de l’âme” series (1835-1880), and it leads us to the countryside but, even here, instead of finding peace, we are haunted by a lurking anxiety, since the world has turned upside down: a donkey rides a man – Levidis’ visual memory always dominates, as it transfers a part of Goya’s famous etching Tu que no puedes” (you who cannot [carry me on your back]); it is Νο. 42 from the “Los caprichos” series (1797-1799). Next to the strange complex, Velasquez’s grave “Aesop” (1638) (here, a guise for Levidis), and at the back a tree with its branches, but even here there is no respite: this is the tree where they hang slaughtered animals in Koufonissia. The predella closes with the Promise: the artist’s mother carries a votive candle on her shoulder as an offering, and holds on to the young artist with her right hand. In the end, Levidis has transformed into the child he once was.

B  |  Αgora

This painting (87 x 107 cm, mixed media, 2010-2017) may be smaller than “Models in the studio”, but it has such immeasurable depth that that viewer needs time to decode the many elements and contrasts the gaze encounters all along its journey up to the blue of the cloudless sky, where the menacing shadow of a bird of pray lingers.

On the first level, a carpet of rich textures, designs and colours folds and unfolds, and two seated women are arranged diagonally, with a third, like an extension of the other two, standing up. The viewer’s eyes are skilfully drawn from the seated woman at the front to the one beside her, seen from the side, and from there, guided by her gaze, they settle on the rear view of the one standing up. (The viewer is indirectly invited to enjoy three different aspects of female beauty – a wholly classic device.)

The way the limbs of the first figure are arranged connects us (due to its pyramidal shape) with the elements in the space on the left. There, half-hidden by a vertical curtain, are three nude male statues, two standing up and one seated, creating the following contradictory relationships:

2 seated female forms – 2 standing male forms
1 standing female form – 1 seated male form
living, life-size women – lifeless statues of various sizes
in the present and materials of the past

There are yet more contradictions. The super-sized bronze statue is surrounded by a wooden protective frame for transportation, shaped like a pyramid – as a counterpoint to the shape of the first seated female form. At the front, there is a hierarchical order on the carpet, brightly lit by a number of light sources. In the back left, many objects in disarray (Roman copies of Greek statues, scattered architectural parts, pedestals in dim light). Testimonies of a glorious past are juxtaposed eloquently with the declining present of decay.

On the right hand side of the painting, opposite the luxurious carpet, are the ruins of chiselled blocks, parts of the architectural structure. On the paved floor, the upright woman stands on a small pile of construction materials, and leans against one of the huge columns that support the ceiling. Next to her right hand hangs a tatty flag with a mutilated inscription. The viewer’s gaze is drawn to complete it in vain; there will be no Cavafy to read it.

The second level, despite sharing the same visual space as the first, stands apart due to the hard wooden shelter on the right and the fabric awning lower down on the left. The viewer is confronted by a torture scene: a group of four men stones a fifth. The aggressors wear short blue trousers; one is bending down to grab a stone from the ground. The victim (in pale olive shorts) is on his knees and, with his hands turned outwards in front of his face, he is trying to save himself from the lethal blows. Either unperturbed or helpless, an old man in an apron (notice his stooped back) emerges from the left and leads the viewer to a shady gate with pilasters and Doric capitals. The building extends to another atrium, brightly lit through the building’s collapsed roof, that leads to another gate with pilasters – the left one still bears traces of its painted decoration from the middle upwards.

Through the gate, a white horse awaits; it waits patiently (it is not tied up) and looks at us strangely, bringing life to the desolation of this rear space. Beyond the second gate, we see a portico with a ceramic tile roof (in front of it another shelter on the right and an awning on the left) and there the building ends. Sealing the painting at the far back is the front view of a working-class store, and then we are immersed in shadow. The coupling of contradictions continues beyond the first level:

large-scale architecture – working-class homes
hard materials: marble, stone blocks – textiles, carpets: soft materials
nude – dressed forms
peace – violence

The original idea for the painting began around 2010, with the artist’s desire to deploy, in a larger composition, nude women posing au naturel from his earlier work for “Louomenoi” (1991, Athens Art Gallery). His first thought was to combine them with the stoning scene, and that was the spark that started it all.

He had his youngest son pose for all the figures of the stoning group and took photographs of him in order to study the bone and muscle structure of the bodies. Introducing the two themes within an open-air composition did not satisfy him, and he decided to insert both in the final space described above.

Countless sketches and studies ensued, until the composition and its supporting themes were finalised. The painting itself didn’t begin until Sotiris Felios gave Levidis a carte blanche commission in 2016. The painting was created, once again, on plywood primed with finely-finished gesso, but without the use of an anthivolo to trace the drawings this time.

The composition was initially painted in monochrome, a sort of sinopia. The backgrounds were created entirely in two tones, light-shadow, and possibly one more, for the half-light. The sinopia was covered with acrylic transparencies (transparencies, in addition to priming the surface, also add colour themselves; the superimposed colour intensifies, builds up gradually, and gains depth) and the final layer of oil paint was added on top. The painting was completed in early 2017.

The starting point were older poses of female nudes made for the “Louomenoi” series. Facing the front and seen from the side is the artist’s wife, while for the upright nude the artist used a professional model. The curvaceous figure of the standing woman and her posture leave us with the vague impression that she is a friend ‘for sale’. The seated nudes do not have the same role, but remain in a state of anxiety, an undefined expectation.

The stoning theme is borrowed from the lower edge of St. Stephen’s vestment in El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1586-1588). The venue of the drama is the interior of the Municipal Market of Pyrgos Ileias (which now, after its renovation, houses the town’s Archaeological Museum), the work of Ernst Ziller (last quarter of the 19th century). Levidis used a photograph published in the well-known book by Ioannis Travlos on Neoclassical architecture9,and, in certain parts, transferred it literatim: the entire system of shelters and awnings, the post/peg in the middle, the other-worldly figure of the old man and even the municipal lamp (which, in the painting, gives the viewer the impression of a bird of prey).

The scene, on the first level with the statues, is a memory from a visit the artist made to the store rooms of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples10. The horse in the back is one of the six horses of the Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga, as Giulio Romano painted them (1532-1535) at the Salla dei Cavalli of the Palazzo del Tè. The working-class shops right at the back evoke the atmosphere and colourings of “Het straatje” (1657-1658), Vermeer’s little alleyway.

The part of the painting worked on last is the one we see first: the carpet, in reality, is not a carpet but a curtain in Levidis’ studio, and the ruins on the right are taken from a photograph of Apamea in Syria.

 

C  |  Coda

Je n’ai jamais évité l’influence des des autres. […] J’aurais considéré cela comme une lâcheté et un manque
de sincérité vis-à-vis de moi-même. Je crois que la personnalité de l’artiste se développe,
s’affirme par les luttes qu’elle a à subir avec d’autres personnalités.
Si le combat lui est fatal, si elle succombe, c’est que tel devait être son sort.

Henri Matisse11

Levidis is an intellectual artist; those sparsely involved with art would flippantly use the term “cerebral artist”. His work is strewn with references to the past, but self-references as well.

In Levidis, without deep memory, there doesn’t seem to be artistic function. There isn’t necessarily a story, a narrative hiding behind his paintings (that’s up to the viewer to create himself, regardless of the artist’s intentions): the images begin from the images of memory, and it is through memory that painting interprets reality. The artist feels that the surface of the world matters (“surface” could equally take a capital S), but the forest of the world isn’t virgin; it has had a past.

“And what about today?” a mutual friend and kindred spirit would ask. Today like tomorrow like yesterday, the artist would reply. Today, to him, is his offering: persistence in painting. He likes to humbly recollect Chardin’s statement: “La peinture est une île dont je n’ai fait que côtoyer les bords” [painting is an entire island, and all I do is circumnavigate its shores], and to declare, in a low voice: “Painting is something that existed (abstract time) and now we are trying to keep the flame burning”, because he knows that miracles don’t create faith, but that faith (in painting o altra cosa) is a miracle in itself. And that is why his best paintings always convey a sparkling mystery:

“Il est extraordinaire qu’on puisse mettre tant de mystère dans tant d’éclat.“12

 

Nicolas Paissios
March 2017
* From the catalogue of Alecos Levidis’s exhibition “Familiar Place, Familiar Time: Two Paintings from the Sotiris Felios Collection, with Their Preparatory Studies“, 16 Fokionos Negri, Athens, 2017.

 

[1] Letter to Virginia Woolf, cited in: E.D.H. Johnson, “Paintings of the British Social Scene”, London 1986, p. 217.

[2] A. Dürer, “Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion”, Nuremberg 1528 (with an afterword by his friend, Willibald Pirckheimer). See also W.L. Strauss, “The Human Figure by Albrecht Dürer: The Complete ‘Dresden Sketchbook'”, New York 1972.

[3] G. Serafini (ed.), “Ellenico Plurale: Dipinti dalla Collezione Sotiris Felios”, p. 96-97, and exhibition: Complesso del Vittoriano, 27/11/2012-11/1/2013, Rome 2012.

[4] The Extreme Humility, or the King of Glory, appeared in Byzantium during the 12th century, and quickly propagated to the West. Excellent early examples are icons in the Museum of Kastoria, the Great Meteoron and the Reliquario di San Gregorio Magno, at the museum of the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. In the post-Byzantine period, it was commonly painted in the alcove of the Holy Prothesis.

[5] F. Kontoglou, “Ekfrasis tis Orthodoxou Eikonografias” (expression of Orthodox iconography), Athens 19792, p. 140.

[6] See: A. Levidis, “Eikonografies 1980-1988”, Athens 1988.

[7] Even if that wasn’t the artist’s intention, nothing stops the viewer from connecting the two paintings.

[8] The composition reuses an earlier period in Levidis’s work, that of “Palaistes” (wrestlers).

[9] I. Travlos, “Neoklassiki Architektoniki stin Ellada” (Neoclassical architecture in Greece), Athens 1967, fig. 116, p. 129.

[10] The upright bronze (as demonstrated by its patina) statue, holding a piece of paper between its fingers (causam ipsius scriptam), may be the effigy of emperor Augustus (49-50 A.D.) in the same museum (Α.Ε. 5595).

[11] Η. Matisse, “Écrits et propos sur l’Art”, ed. D. Fourcade, Paris 1972, p. 56 (“Matisse interrogé par Guillaume Apollinaire”, 1907. First published: “Henri Matisse”, La Phalange magazine, issue 2, 15-18/12/1907. (“I never tried to avoid the influence of others,” Matisse told me. “If I avoided it, I would be a coward to myself. I believe that the artist’s personality evolves, becomes more solid through the battles it has fought with the personalities of others. If the conflict turns out to be mortal, if he succumbs, he will say that it was his destiny.”)

[12] Private words by Mallarmé on Gauguin; quoted in a letter to André Fontainas (March 1899). See P. Gauguin, “Lettres à sa femme et à ses amis”, Paris 2003, p. 170 (it is incredible how we can fit so much mystery within so much brightness.)