In Greece, this is the last weekend of Carnival, and little kids are roaming the streets dressed in those ghastly plastic Superman costumes with fake abs. This year, trending among little girls is ‘Policewoman’, complete with holster and gun (I found this vaguely disconcerting), closely followed by ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Skeleton’.
The end of Carnival heralds Clean Monday, a day of flying kites and feasting on delicious seafood and other delicacies to mark the beginning of Lent. For those of you who missed it, I wrote about this holiday last year, and you can read the post here.
Since I’ve been on a roll regarding Greek artists, I realized that the iconic images about Clean Monday and other holidays are often by Spyros Vassiliou ( Σπύρος Βασιλείου; 1903-1985), a Greek painter, printmaker, illustrator, and stage designer.
Vassiliou painted the objects that define special moments: the May wreath, the little table by the sea with its glasses of ouzo and plate of olives. And landscapes with fishing boats, and little white chapels, and the blue of the sky and sea.
The townsmen of Galaxidi, where Vassiliou was born, collected money to send him to Athens in 1921, to study at the Athens School of Fine Arts under the famous painter Nikolaos Lytras.
Vassiliou started becoming recognized for his work in the 1930s, when he received the Benaki Prize from the Athens Academy. The recipient of a Guggenheim Prize for Greece (in 1960), his works have been exhibited in galleries throughout Europe, in the United States and in Canada.
Spyros Vassiliou became recognized as a painter of the transformation of the modern urban environment, depicting with an unwavering eye the sprawl of urban development that surrounded his home in Athens, under the walls of the Parthenon. He combined monochrome backgrounds with the unorthodox positioning of objects, and paid homage to the Byzantine icon by floating symbols of everyday Greek life on washes of gold or sea-blue color, very much like the religious symbols that float on gold in religious art.
For many years, Vassiliou taught theatre, and designed sets and costumes for the stage. He also worked in film. During the years of the German occupation of Greece (1941-1945), when painting supplies were scarce, Vassiliou turned to engraving and woodcuts.
I once visited Vassiliou in his studio, for a ‘lesson’; this was organized by a well-meaning friend of my parents who knew I loved to paint. Vassiliou was a tiny, rotund old man, and I was a hulking, awkward teenager who literally towered over him. He let me paint on one of his monochrome backgrounds – I had never painted in oils and produced an indifferent fish – but, although he was very amiable, I was too shy to pick his brains or even snoop around amongst his canvases and we did not establish a rapport. But he did ask me to visit a theatre where he was making the scenery for a play, and I have fond memories of both occasions. I still have that small canvas with a boring fish on it somewhere.