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Basil Simos. A backward glance. Works 1954-2014
Basil Simos’ painting is an unusual amalgam that combines realism, expressionism and abstraction. His work is profoundly anthropocentric and its subject matter remarkably unchanging: it faithfully revolves around agricultural life and the Greek landscape. If we wished to trace the origins of his imagery, we would have to refer to the Greek landscape artists, who “would seek and find the colourful ideogram for the Greek light”. In addition, we would have to take into account the pre-abstractive work of his fellow countryman Alekos Kontopoulos (1904-1975), with whom he shares a similar colour range, as aptly pointed out by the art critic Angelos Prokopiou. We could not overlook the “Tobacco Fields” (1951) by Karditsa-born Dimitris Gioldasis (1897-1993), or many other Greek painters who engaged with nature and the Greek countryside: indicatively, “Return to the village” (1952) by Theofrastos Triantafyllidis (1881-1955) and “Watering the animals” by Vasos Germemis (1896-1966). In a sense, Simos picks up the torch from these painters, to continue their vision.
In the context of this genealogy, it would be remiss not to mention the “painter of peasants”, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), who left a strong mark upon the generations that followed. The influence of Joaquín Valverde Lasarte (1896-1982), Simos’ teacher at the San Fernando Fine Art Royal Academy, was equally decisive. Lasarte is considered a representative and continuer of the interwar “return to order” (retour à l'ordre) movement, which was linked to the renaissance of classicism and realist painting. In the museums of Spain, over the course of his studies (1955-1960), Simos had the rare opportunity to study the Great Masters up close: El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. Finally, pivotal was also the influence of his iconographer father, who was his first teacher, as well as of Yiannis Moralis, who emphasised drawing and conveying the character of the depicted object.
The realistic ethography of Simos is markedly different to that of his predecessors. It would suffice to look at Kontopoulos’ painting “Misery” (1930). Simos would never adopt such a title to describe the humble life of the rural people. On the contrary, and without idealising, he elevates the manual work of his anonymous heroes, just like Vincent Van Gogh did in “The Potato Eaters” (1885). Simos, however, does not paint interiors, nor does he place emphasis on faces: his attention is focused on the natural/transcendental light and not on the artificial light of a lamp. He may not use bright colours, like the landscape painters mentioned above, but light is a central theme of his work (a fact that becomes all the more obvious in his latest paintings). And, most importantly: although his painting is essentially dark, his perspective is always optimistic.
The landscapes he paints in Spain (“Granada”, “Bridge in Toledo”, “Old Madrid”) are striking for their maturity in the way he employs the earth colour palette. Moreover, they reveal something that will come out much more strongly in the years that follow, once Simos moves permanently to Lamia: through his works, the painter charts the place where he lives and works, which means that his art is quintessentially experiential. In Spain, that “charting” is manifest if one goes over the list of the 34 works he showed in his first solo exhibition in February 1960 at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. The titles of the paintings indicate the course followed by the young painter: the famous murals of Alhambra and the Court of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) captivate his gaze, as does the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Cathedral of Cordoba, the fortified palace of La Alcazaba in Malaga, the Sacromonte neighbourhood in Granada, and the surrounding villages.
Upon returning to Greece, Simos continues his studies at the Athens School of Fine Art and, with Alekos Kontopoulos’ blessing, begins his collaboration with the Nees Morfes gallery. In his first solo show at the gallery, in 1966, his painting “of social content” captures the interest of the critics, who identify in his paintings a “need for drama” (Eleni Vakalo) and a “biblical atmosphere” (Veatriki Spiliadi). A year earlier, Kontopoulos extoled Simos in his opening address of the latter’s exhibition at the Municipal Theatre of Lamia: “We love this work because it is a labour of poetic emotion and passion”, “the dept of a spiritual man to his birthplace”. At a time when – in Greece, too – abstract painting prevails, Simos proposes a return to the roots, standing with one foot in realism and the other in abstraction. Based on memories from Spain, where he had the opportunity to watch the bullfights, he creates a series of works with bulls, which prove a great commercial success. At the same time, inspired by the villages of Fthiotida, he paints the local villages (Kombotades, Vardates) and agricultural scenes with farmers, horses at the spring, muleteers and gleaners (bringing to mind Alexandros Papadiamantis’ short story of the same title). In his second solo exhibition at Nees Morfes, in 1970, refusing to go with the flow, he abandons the popular subject of the bulls and presents paintings of a more lyrical content. He paints swans in the moonlight and gives his works titles (such as “Evensong”) that reveal his close ties to the Church. In fact, in the leaflet accompanying the exhibition, the artist quotes a psalm from the Scripture, denoting the way he understands the representation of the natural landscape: “The abyss like a garment is his mantle; [upon the mountains shall the waters stand”]. That verse (“The abyss like a garment is his mantle; upon the mountains shall the waters stand”) is also symbolic of Simos’ shift towards a more solitary course, which is defined by other criteria, guided by the orthodox Christian faith, rather than the dominant trends of art and the market. The titles, besides, of the works comprising his solo exhibition in 1973 are demonstrative: Peace, Preparedness, Gathering, Beginning, Contribution, Intensity, Return, Respite.
In the 1970s (from 1973 onwards, to be precise), Simos paints mostly landscapes in the region of Fthiotida, capturing with his brush the distinctive physiognomy of the area. He paints trees (acacias, planes, elms), rivers, mountains, and several villages (Argyrochori, Kombotades, Mexiates, Lychno, Kapnochori Ypatis). In the 1980s, the urban landscape of Lamia also makes appearances in his work. In his 1980 large-scale painting of the same title, the present and the past coexist in the city’s public space: next to cars and tall, faceless buildings with aerials, set against a background of a gigantic sun, he paints neoclassical buildings with antefixes and monumental statues, which, paradoxically, are larger than the industrial buildings. At the same time, he continues to add to the singular geography he began in the previous decade, in combination with bucolic themes that depict agricultural works, such as weeding, disbudding and sun drying tobacco. Gradually, his range of landscapes expands: he paints Tempe, Pelion, and Evrytania, the Kaprenisiotis river, Mt Tymfristos, and the traditional village of Prousos. In the early 1990s, he creates a series featuring boats and in 1994 he goes back to depicting landscapes, taking his viewers of a journey to Zagorochoria, Pelion, Evrytania and Nafpaktos. In the 1995-1997 period, he revisits the beloved subject of the bull and in 2000 he gives us a series of works inspired by Mount Athos (the Monasteries of Aghios Pavlos, Pantokratoras, Megistis Lavras, Filotheou, Simonopetra, Stavronikita). Here, Simos converses with the landscapes of Papaloukas (“Sketes of Mount Athos”, 1924), as well as with Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas’ geometrical works and specifically certain paintings that include staircases, such as “Houses in a dry landscape” (1978). In these works, combining the style of Papaloukas and Ghikas, the painter attempted to convey the “cool dark green that surrounds you”, the “voiceless shapes”, the “inky-purple of the night”. And, of course, the stairs, which create a large spiral, and the guardian angels.
In conclusion, we could say that, through his painting, Basil Simos sought the Lost Centre. He was well aware of there being a “time for prayer” and a “time for creation” and brought these two experiences into balance in his work. To him, the image was intrinsically linked to (intangible) experience and faith. In his own words, we could say that he managed “with lines, with shapes, with perishable materials, to narrate what he saw and lived”, and to reveal everything that touched his soul. Indisputably, as aptly expressed by Kontopoulos, Simos’ painting is a debt to his birthplace, but the latter, too, owes much to a painter who honoured and exalted it more than anyone, asking nothing in return.
Art historian and curator
Translated by Daphne Kapsali
Λιμάνι, 1979, λάδι σε μουσαμά, 90 x 130 εκ. / Port, 1979, oil on canvas, 90 x 130 cm