Born in Larissa in 1963, he was an Athens School of Fine Arts student (1981-1986) of Dimitris Mytaras, Rena Papaspyrou, Yannis Moralis, Dimitris Koukos and Zacharias Arvanitis. Throughout his studies he was granted scholarships; eventually he received his degree summa cum laude. In 1987 he won a French state higher education scholarship (CROUS) to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (1987-1991) under the tutelage of Leonardo Cremonini and in 1988 he received a Greek State Scholarships Foundation (Ι.Κ.Υ.) grant to pursue his studies at the Parisian École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs. Works of his are included in public and private collections both in Greece and abroad. He resides and works in Athens.
- 2017 Fluid Frames, Evripides Art Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 2015 Art Fair, Swab Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
- 2006 Dream Navigator, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece
- 1997 L'Estree Art Foundation, Ropraz, Lausanne, Switzerland
- 1996 Terracotta Art Gallery, Thessaloniki, Greece
- 1995 Athens Art Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 1991 Athens Art Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 2016 Αrt Athina, Gallery Alma, Αthens
- 2016 Homoioma, Simulacrum Group, Μorfes Gallery, Ηraclion Crete
- 2016 Αnthropography, Sotiris Felios Collection, Municipal Art Gallery, Agrinio
- 2015 Color of Greece, Consulate General in New York, curator: Irene Vantaraki
- 2015 Color of Greece, The muses: Southampton,New York, curator: Irene Vantaraki
- 2015 Group exhibition, Apocalypse Gallery, Cyprus
- 2015 Αrt Athina, Platforms, Simulacrum Group, Αthens
- 2015 Group exhibition, Alma Gallery, Αthens
- 2014 RΕ-culture 3, International Contemporary Art Festival Patras
- 2014 In the Ark of Dreams, works from the Sotiris Felios Collection, Municipal Art Gallery of Chania, Chania, Crete
- 2014 Αrt Athina, Alma Gallery, Athens
- 2014 RΕ-culture 3: Risk, Sotiris Felios Collection, Patras
- 2014 Like, Ekfrasi-Yianna Grammatopoulou Gallery, Αthens, curator: ,Αngellos Skourtis
- 2014 Polimorfies ΙΙΙ, Ekfrasi-Yianna Grammatopoulou Gallery, organised by the Art News, Αthens
- 2013 Αrt Athina, Alma Gallery, Athens
- 2013 Εnigma, Skoufa Gallery, Athens, curator: Elizabeth Plessa
- 2013 RΕ-culture 2, International Contemporary Art Festival Patras
- 2013 The 80's Generation - Contemporary Greek Painting from the Sotiris Felios Collection, National Gallery - Alexander Soutzos Museum - Sparta Annex (Coumantaros Art Gallery), Sparta
- 2012 Ellenico Plurale - Dipinti dalla Collezione Sotiris Felios, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome (curated by Giuliano Serafini)
- 2012 Between Reality and Fantasy- Paintings from the Sotiris Felios Collection, Giorgio de Chirico Cultural Center, Volos (curated by Irene Orati)
- 2007 Het nieuwe Verhaal Imaginair-Figuratieve Schilderkunst Pulchri Studio der Haag Netherlands
- 2007 Selective Relativities, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece
- 2007 Reali Mundi/Εγκόσμια, P.&M. Kydonies, Andros, Greece (curated by Athina Schina)
- 2006 May, 3 Greek Painters, from the Collection C. Christofi, French Institute, Athens, Greece
- 2005 Anthropography II, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece
- 2005 Fresh Ground, Thanassis Frissiras Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 2004 In our image, after our likeness, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece
- 2004 Suffering Body, Rethymnon Centre for Contemporary Art, Rethymnon, Greece
- 2004 Suffering Body, Nees Morfes Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 2003 Anthropography I, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Greece
- 2002 A visual journey, Frissiras Museum, Rethymnon Centre for Contemporary Art, Lefteris Kanakakis Gallery (curated by Maria Marangou)
- 2002 Contemporary Greek Artists, Marnix Neerman Gallery, Bruges, Belgium
- 2002 Young Greek Artists, Delineating the Present, the Future and the Past Tribute to the Prefecture of Ioannina, Averoff-Tositsas Gallery, Metsovo, Greece (curated by Lina Tsikouta)
- 2002 BP Portrait Award 2002, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
- 2002 BP Portrait Award 2002, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland, UK
- 2001 2nd presentation of the Frissiras Museum Collection Body, Vafopoulion Cultural Centre, Thessaloniki, Greece (curated by Efthymia Georgiadou Kountoura)
- 2001 Galleria FORNI, Milan, Italy
- 2001 Figurazione (curated by Alessandro Riva)
- 2000 For the model Mary, Skoufa Art Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 1999 Athens, Routes and Stopovers, 24 Art Space, Athens, Greece
- 1997 The sources of gaze, Centre of Contemporary Art, Larissa, Greece (curated by Athena Schina)
- 1997 Pireos Street, Metamorphoses of an Industrial Landscape, VIS Factory, Pireos Street, Athens
- 1995 Love in Art, Terracotta Art Gallery, Thessaloniki, Greece
- 1995 Frissiras Collection, Thessaloniki, On Greco, National Gallery, Athens, Greece
- 1995 Between Humanism and the Present Age, Campus of Arts And Sciences Athens, Greece
- 1993 Frissiras Collection, Neoria, Chania, Greece
- 1992 Four Greek Artists, Fine Arts Academy, Seoul, Korea
- 1991 Pierides Gallery, Frissiras Collection, Athens, Greece
- 1989 Vers Un Nouvel Humanisme, Young Greek Painters in Paris, Espace des Esseliers a Villejuif, Paris, France (curated by Marina Lambraki-Plaka)
- 1987 Miranda Art Gallery, Hydra, Greece
- 1986 Young Greek Painters, Vassilis & Elisa Goulandris Museum, Andros, Greece
- 1986 Group exhibition for ASFA graduates, Athens Conservatoire Miranda Art Gallery, Hydra, Greece
- 1985 Epoches Art Gallery, Kifissia, Greece
From Chaos, Forms…
comments on the recent turn in Tassos Missouras’ work
From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. […] After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire. And again, she bare the Cyclopes, overbearing in spirit, Brontes, and Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges, who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt.
Tassos Missouras’ last work is different. The familiar, usually female, forms with the big faces emerge from a chaotic universe. This chaos is sometimes a pictorial chaos, close to, but at the same time, away from both the abstraction and the representation, perhaps similar to Turner’s painting, and occasionally an architectural chaos, as if the forms rise from a landscape leveled to the ground, a nuclear disaster, a polar cold. It is, I reckon, the most ominous vision in Missouras’ painting. The gothic atmospheres of the artist’s former work paradoxically remain. However, a more wintery atmosphere overshadows the climate of the German Romanticism and the fairy tales and elves of old works. Perhaps, in a grotesque geographical metaphor, Missouras migrated even more to the north of the Scandinavian landscapes towards the polar north…
Nevertheless, as it is probably obvious, this ominous climate fits perfectly to the dismal financial and psychological state of this country. Alas for the artist who does not function as a barometer of the social-political conditions of his time in order to grasp its spirit (Zeitgeist). About ten years ago, before this crisis broke out, the Frissiras Museum had hosted a retrospective exhibition of Missouras’ paintings that covered almost 21 years of his work and was accompanied by a bulky catalog. It was the first such exhibition of a painter of Missouras’ generation and, unexpectedly, was very well received. However, numerous questions arose: how did such a young painter have such a body of work, of such maturity? How did a contemporary Greek painter, with the, usual for his generation, additional training at the Cremonini studio in the Beaux-Arts in Paris emit such a dark, north-european melancholy? Regarding the latter, the artist always claimed that he never felt restricted by geographical determinations, and that his references were north-european, often German. Today, in the era of deep financial crisis and German “supervision”, it is not popular for someone to make such remarks, however, we all ought to dissociate the historical from the cultural dimension. We are all part German, because of Bach and Beethoven, Dürer and Otto Dix. For Missouras, this north-european vision pertains, above all, to painting and philosophy: Melencolia, as is pictorially defined by Dürer, permeates his whole work. It is no secret, moreover, and it has been reported by those who study Missouras’ work, that there exists a profound connection between him and the Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century.
In an extremely difficult era in general, and particularly for representational painting, which after the war was met with depreciation and scorn, faced tumultuous competition in its own field by photography, went through metamodern restorations and came back into fashion and the stock exchange for art, experienced crisis and supersessions once again to finally, and more wisely in our opinion, focus its strategy on a few artists that paint after deep thought, examination and introspection and propose certain solutions, we have to be careful and accurate. Let go, if possible, of the information that Tassos Missouras should be cataloged to the painters of the so-called “generation of the ’90s” (or perhaps the end of the ’80s?) that study under Yiannis Moralis and Dimitris Mytaras in the Athens School of Fine Arts and then pursue their graduate studies with Leonardo Cremonini in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Forget it, if you can. Missouras is an extremely particular case of an artist, full of Heterotopies (he apparently seems out of place in the mediterranean, multicultural Athens) and maybe (we are not absolutely sure about that) Heterochronies. His painting is anthropocentric, in a degree seldom found in the artists of his generation. The dull colours (?) made many people talk of a “north-european atmosphere”. The element of non finito –deliberately unfinished works– appears in his latest works, which emphasize the greatest weapon Missouras has as a painter, his exquisite drawing.
And then, there are these “missouric” particularities, like his obsession with the human face, female mostly. More than ever, the recent work of the painter focuses on faces, which he paints disproportionally large with respect to their bodies, perhaps to emphasize them more. These female faces, though usually blindingly beautiful, make you swear that you know them from somewhere, you have met them before, they cannot but be faces of real people. The bodies themselves are twisted, distorted, bent, turned, they tightrope in an unnatural balance. Another “missouric” pictorial particularity is the disproportion of scale among the protagonists of his compositions. The figures grow and shrink, in a completely bizarre way. For the past twenty years, the artist seems to be painting his own version of Alice in Wonderland for adults, dark and gothic. A pictorial Tim Burton, for serious viewers. Occasionally, the atmosphere, set and costumes resemble in a way Elizabethan Baroque compositions, while sometimes they refer to something eerily contemporary.
In the last years, Missouras incorporates in his work elements apparently irrelevant to the pictorial plan, inset “little clouds”, references probably to comics or engineering drawings. Another new element in his latest period is the presence of words, either as signboards on buildings of the composition, or directly on the surface, insets like the aforementioned little clouds. These new elements bring the Greek artist closer to the pictorial quest of the Californian Robert Williams and his magazine, the Juxtapoz, but also to the north-european and eastern (in the sense of the former “Eastern Bloc”) painting of the German Neo Rauch. Undoubtedly, Tassos Missouras is an artist that evolves and I have no doubt that he will continue to do so. My greatest agony is which direction this evolution will take…
* from the catalogue of Tassos Missouras' solo exhibition at the Evripides Art Gallery in Athens in 2017, p. 9.
the fate of man in the painting of Tassos Missouras
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death
Roses are planted where thorns grow.
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river, and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Wunderkammer: the alchemical side
The alchemists' labs with their dozens of mysterious little bottles are like caves of the forbidden, the heterogeneous, the chaotic. The inner and outer parts of the human body served as metaphors for the planets or metals, and thence to an endless series of poetic parallels with landscapes, animals, temperatures, seasons, times of the day, numbers, chapters of the Bible. As inventors of poetic metaphors and visual images, the alchemists influenced major literary works –such as Hypneretomachia Poliphili or Goethe's Faust– as well as painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Durer, Arcimboldo, Beardsley… Tassos Missouras seems to be continuing this tradition of influences from the alchemical mystery. His painting perpetuates this mystery and exploration which at some times coincided with the ontology of Western art. The works of Missouras are involved in a magical process, in the sense that they strive to transform everyday reality or representation into something entirely different. In other words, the artist reworks the adventure of human existence in order to interpret it through his own personal viewpoint. Moreover, steeped in the collectors' obsessions Missouras explores the tradition of Wunderkammern (or Cabinets des Curiosites) and the weird atmosphere from the layout of such objects. Wealthy people in the 17th century used to keep personal collections of Wondersof the World, the most wild, unnatural or shocking objects displayed in showcases. Alongside the real Wonders, i.e. the true exhibits (exotic animals, embalmed members or bones, mandrakes, fossils) they added faked or falsely described exhibits ("mermaid scales", "Sea Demons"...). Still, what mattered was that viewers saw every one of these things as genuine. To Missouras, the notion of truth in the artwork acquires an entirely different character. His painting, representational at first sight, goes into horizons which have little to do with the visible world around us.
Distortion and the Grotesque
Missouras builds on an age-old tradition of distorted and disproportionate human figures, from the wooden carvings of Africa and Oceania to the emergence of caricatures in 18th-century Europe and thence to the adoption of similar practices by 20th-century modernism: Picasso "assailed" above all the classical principles of bodily proportions. In addition to the deconstruction of the human body, in a series of paintings the geometrical and architectural space is distorted to the limit, the vision imitates that of the retina or the wide-angle lens. The geometrical distortion of perspective deforms doors and rooms and turns them into absurd spaces. If not wholly dissolved, the architectural space is undermined. Is perspective really a means of expressing the essence of things, as its proponents claim, and should therefore be seen as a sine qua non of artistic creation? Or is it just another kind of
representation which does not sum up the holistic interpretation of the world but merely one version of it, and reflects a specific cognizance and a way of life? Could it be that the perspective rendering of the world constitutes its sincere image, the truth about the world? Even if it is so, the experience from the modernist painting of the twentieth century has answered this question. Or is perspective, from the opposite point of view, a distinct system of transcription, an alternative proposition which reflects the attitude, the timeframe and the views of its originators yet still allows the existence of other equivalent systems? Indeed, such systems may have gone deeper into the true form of things; in fact, by deviating from the principles of perspective they may have got closer to the essence without in any way distorting the truth they put forth.3 Stelios Ramfos notes: "The moral is that the recent painting may have ousted perspective and representation, but the foundations of their world remains since the distinction of matter and species is still based on the form and its geometrical or chromatic expression. As Plotinus had rightly divined (ΙΙ.8, 1, 6-9) the pathological condition was not cured. What is the point of truth having fallen as a logical precept if it is now entrenched in sensation?" The answers may well lie even further back. The derogatory view of the visual arts in the Republic is atoned for by the excerpt in Philebus which is so well-known to and loved by the theoreticians of contemporary art. In Socrates' hymn to the beauty and the supremacy of mathematical shapes and pure colours, which afford us pure intellectual pleasure, we trace the distant prophecy of both non-figurative art and the intense symbolism in painting which reaches down to the oeuvre of Tassos Missouras.
Neurosis and Dejection
The Angel of Durer reflects as the artist unfolds a new European vision of Dejection after the Middle Ages. The element of the strange, the weird, the paradoxical and an ill-boding melancholy permeates the works of Missouras. The persons he paints are experiencing an inner drama, a struggle between melancholy and elation, between inner peace and madness. The enigmatic smiles sustain the sickly erotic feeling which pervades his works. Here beauty is almost idealised yet acutely fragile, bordering on decay. In his poem "Dejection: An Ode", Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes an:
…inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd.
Missouras empathises with a humanity in deep crisis. His painting is not light-hearted, yet behind his dire view of the world there lies a sense of humour. His figures, especially the female ones, have these characteristics of alienation and coldness, while an underlying eroticism persistently floats among the figures but rarely –if ever– comes to the surface. This coexistence of different worlds in his work has to do in part with his artistic influences. On the one hand he is in close exchange with the symbolist imagery of Northern European art as found in the painting of Carlos Schwabe (Death of the Gravedigger) or Arnold Bocklin; on the other hand, he converses with the entirely different worlds of the melancholy French painting of Garouste and the sarcastic pop subject matter of Ryden. In other words, underlying the deep northern melancholy is a spirited Mediterranean style.
Acherontia Atropos: The Soul as a Flame, as a Tree, as a Moth…
We know that upon death the human soul heads for the Elysian Fields, the Islands of the Blessed, Heaven or any such place of bliss, but first it must cross the "Waters of Death", writes G. Dimitrokallis – a river, a lake or the sea. This passage is often done with the boat of Charon or a similar figure in other religions, but sometimes the soul crosses the water alone over a bridge. It is a dangerous bridge, since it may be made of reed or rope, of beams shaken by the wind or –even worse– of intertwined snakes. Missouras employs a number of symbolisms of the human soul, dead or alive – the anthropomorphic trees and mother–Earth, flying flames and predominantly that of Acherontia Atropos, the nocturnal moth with the skull pattern on the back. This moth represents one of the most powerful codes in his work. Vassilis Vassilikos uses the same metaphor of the butterfly to talk about the dead hero of his novel Z (Zeta). Elsewhere, Missouras paints a human figure covered by night moths, forlorn and lost under the ethereal veil of the insects. Deadly beauty.
The works of Missouras seem to have a metaphysical obsession with the End, or perhaps with an extreme change in the World as we know it. Rivers of blood (?), seemingly immense seas and people floating around desperately in boats and ships. The metaphor of Noah's Ark is intense here, against the disturbing background of the "Waters of Death". If there is a dominant theme here, it is exactly this transition to "the beyond"; The entire visual mythology in his work points to this direction. The White Light which appears in many of his other works is perhaps another manifestation of the same transition to the Other World. Missouras's painting is often in tune with the visions of romantic authors, conversing with their apocryphal, paradoxical or imaginary myths. The allegorical system of William Blake, with his own construction of Heaven and Hell, serves as an archetype here. It is not easy to decipher, since its symbols and their meaning keep changing. It is the same with Missouras, whose codes are never fixed but they are adapted to the particular conditions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is based on another archetype which shows some affinities with the painting of the Greek artist and his obsession with the passage from one world to the other: the Mariner's ship sails into a strange sea where it is immobilised under a tropical sun, surrounded by weird luminous waters full of "a thousand thousand slimy things" and hostile spirits. A ghost ship appears, crewed by Death and a nightmare figure of "Life-in-Death", and the sailors fall dead one by one until only the Mariner is left alive, desperate for some water to drink. After seven days and nights of personal chastisement he wishes in vain to die, when suddenly he looks down to the "slimy creatures" and sees their "rich attire" under the phosphorescent gleam of the moonlight. Once his love for the water snakes has spilled out of his heart the spell is broken, and there comes rain followed by a wind which moves the ship –now manned by angels who have gone into the bodies of the dead sailors– back to the real world. In certain points Missouras seems to be painting a place between Heaven and Hell. Ill-boding and nightmarish it may be, but it still gives hints of a morbid eroticism. Utter loneliness, alienation and melancholy, but also a persistent confirmation of life, love and birth; of the new… In A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake claims with certainty:
"The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom
into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination
is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal.
... All things are comprehended in the divine body of the Saviour, the true vine of
eternity, the Human Imagination ".
The "Hell" of Missouras is a metaphor for the torments of the human mind – madness, depression, schizophrenia. Art, therefore –or his art, at least– is like a descent to the depths of the mind. The artistic imagination is often a strange kind of weapon. Ernst Cassirer has proffered the view that in mythical thought space and time are never seen as pure or empty forms; on the contrary, they are the major, mysterious powers which govern everything, not just our own mortal lives but the lives of the gods themselves. The painting of Tassos Missouras performs a balancing act in a timeless and placeless space. It seems impossible to determine any geographical or cultural coordinates. It is an art lost in the oceans of thought, immersed in an age-old dejection, yet strangely it acts as a barometer for our own troubled times. The words of de Musset, written in another age and for different reasons,
seem to fit the case of the painter Missouras in 21st-century Athens: "I came too late into a world too aged. A century without hope gives birth to a century without fear".
Thanassis Moutsopoulos Translation: Tony Moser
* from the catalogue of Tassos Missouras' solo exhibition at the Frissiras Museum in Athens in 2006, p. 65-69
Τhe other side of the spectacle
Wishing to see how he works, I asked Tassos Missouras to show me his drawings. The images I saw were astounding. I realised that when he feels the need to draw he will do it on any piece of paper to hand, without the slightest qualm about respecting some artistic tradition or other. Indeed, instead of fancy paper which would require the use of fountain pen or pencil he appears to prefer envelopes, wrapping paper, restaurant tablecloths and torn scraps of paper. It does not matter if there are things already written on them. He will draw among or over addresses, headings, slogans and official inscriptions. He is not bothered if he or someone else has already jotted down a name or a phone number. In fact, he seems to be amused by such incongruous proximities and make the most of them. All this gives an impression of urgency and vital energy.
The subjects and the style of his drawings are equally impressive. There are sketches which could have been made in a cafe or a train, with passers-by or fellow-travellers as his models. Others may have been drawn in the studio, which would make the variety and the humbleness of the materials even stranger. Unless, of course, they were executed from memory one day, when his hand, triggered by reverie, began to move across the sheet. And what emerged was the incomplete and disproportionate body of a half-naked woman, a rocking horse, the innards of a machine or the walls and staircases of an obviously unfinished building. What these images have in common is that they are clear and strange. Clear, because Missouras has obviously no problem in making them emerge, his draughtsmanship enabling him to draw any kind of being or object; strange, because any attempt to explain what he has drawn entails the risk of failure.
What we can postulate, at the risk of being wrong, is partly influenced by the above descriptions of the drawings on torn envelopes, among the scattered inscriptions. If they appear like that, it is because they could not have been done in any other way: any preparation or the slightest delay would have been fatal. At this point we can advance our analysis based on the recent art and the experience from the drawings of Missouras. It is striking how most –if not all– major artists of the twentieth century were obliged to devise ways and methods to capture what we might call the "first" drawing, as opposed to the "artistic" study. The latter carries several centuries' worth of knowledge, references and styles. Its history is immense and well-known. In the 19th century it led to a certain way of teaching drawing, based on ancient art or its plaster casts, on the great masters or their copies. So effective was this teaching that suitably gifted and diligent students could, at the age of 15 or 20, draw as skilfully as Raphael, Michelangelo or David. They mastered charcoal and ink, the smudger and the line. They learned to cover increasingly larger sheets with their exercises.
Excellent. Only, those who were not content to mimic the tradition had to find ways to unlearn what they had learnt. The adolescent Picasso was a match for Raphael; but if he had stopped there, his name and his oeuvre would have been long forgotten. He spent half a dozen years, in Barcelona and Paris, trying to shed this skill. Post-impressionism, Iberian art and "negro" art were useful in this venture, not as models to imitate but as agents of disturbance. They destroyed the machine for the reproduction of classicism or neo-classicism. The rest is history. Once the machine was finally out of order, it was time for Picasso to set to work; to find new forms to depict or suggest such timeless subjects as the body or the head of a woman; to be able, through these new forms, to keep the intimate journal of his passions, his fears, his outer and his inner life, nightmares included.
His accomplishment –this deliberate destruction of acquired habits, the rejection of traditional teachings in which he had excelled, this terrible trial– inspired others to follow the same gruelling path. Mirο and Giacometti were also good students of good art schools; yet eventually they had to reject this training, once they had realised how it encumbered them. Had they failed to do this, they would not have become what they did. Mirο, for instance, would not have been able to render so minimally the fragmented and condensed forms under which he wrote "this is the colour of my dreams". To achieve this, he had to forget the rules, to improvise, to hurry in order to evade the familiar, the already drawn by generations of celebrated predecessors. For freedom is not just a question of will but of speed, too: to succeed, one has to be as quick as possible, otherwise memory, training and habit will recapture the fugitive and restore him to the ranks of imitators.
The importance of this factor in understanding the first half (and more) of the 20th century cannot be overemphasised: artists had to react to an education that was too good. They had to forbid themselves the endless repetition of the stylistic effects available from art-history textbooks; to revolt against the overdose of knowledge and the law of repetition. Without these rebellions, art would be but the work of respectful inheritors of Raphael, Rubens, Caravaggio, Poussin, Rembrandt, Ingres… Besides, these paradigms themselves could have shown the same vain dexterity, borrowing from one or the other school or attempting monstrous hybridisations of Michelangelo and David, of Durer and Tintoretto.
This is one of the reasons why the quick sketches of Missouras are so interesting. He was himself a good student in Athens and Paris, with distinguished teachers at prestigious academies. He was taught how to draw and paint reality with precision. He could have rested at that and quietly cultivated this achievement. He would have prospered certainly, perhaps in a small but safe and guaranteed way. He was well able to execute elegant drawings on Ingres or Japanese paper. Instead, he chose to draw the figures as and when they come to him. If the term had not been overused for surrealism and its imitators, we might say that his sketches often point to automatic writing, because of the way various motifs spring up in an imperious manner and go into one another according to an impenetrable logic. This rough sketching on anything, with no plan or preparation, is Missouras's own way of escaping.
Yet in the span from the start of the 20th century to our time the position of the artist has become even more complicated. Picasso's only enemies were an excess of classical education, the too elaborate eclecticism which he could incite and, to a lesser degree, the emergence of the industrial image. Today, keeping one's distance from art history and the old formulas of expression is not enough; one has to fight against the crushing supremacy of the imageries of photography, television and the cinema, which have become omnipotent in. This means that they are able to depict anything and invent any spectacle. And it is now impossible to tell with certainty what is represented and what is invented. The ability to represent anything means that the technical performance of the machines of capturing and diffusion are such that no detail can escape them, and this efficacy can satisfy the most extreme demands, morbid or obscene, of human curiosity. The ability to invent anything means that both machines and software enable information technology to recreate convincingly anything from a dinosaur to a vampire. Even the most truelooking pictures may have been made in a lab without the need for models, actors or scenery; everything is "programmed". The light-sensitive film, as used by Robert Frank to photograph the Americans and by Orson Welles in his films, is now obsolete. Reporters are now suspect, since their photos could be artificial hybrids. Even cinema stars are threatened by a more perfect being which could be created within the memory of a machine and be made to look real on the screen. The only defence against this threat is the age-old need for incarnation which lies between spectator and actor for centuries – but for how much longer? The oft-repeated aphorism of Debord, that the real is only a moment of the false, must now be interpreted as follows: the real is one of the attributes with which the false like to adorn itself – nothing more. We should not expect anything more.
I do not know whether or not Tassos Missouras loves the cinema, watches much television or plays the occasional video game. I know that those of his contemporary French artists who possess a little sense of irony and provocation will happily declare that this is their only visual culture. They are lying, obviously, but the fact that they choose to present themselves as obsessed with the screen tells much about their condition. After all, where does oil painting –with its colours and binding materials, its priming and its wateriness, its slowness and its difficulties– stand against the intangible instant images which can change at will and provide the most fascinating and entertaining spectacles? Can it compete with them? It would be unreasonable. Quite a few surrealists thought they could absorb photography into painting, and as a result they were mistaken for photographers and judged on the precision of their descriptions, although that was not their intention. People failed to understand that they were actually questioning the mechanical method which reigned in newspapers and magazines: only Malcolm Morley managed to be clear enough to avoid being misunderstood.
Missouras ran the same risk: if he had thought that his painting could rise to the level of illusion which the image industry has attained long ago, if for instance he had developed a kind of modernised pictorial fantasy, he would have vanished. And he had the means to do it: his skill as a realist and his know-how would have played the same role as that of the convincing special effects in the cinema. Indeed, perhaps he was tempted by this vertigo. Instead, what makes his painting interesting is the disturbance caused by each of his works, in other words his special way of "breaking into" a known kind of art and subverting it from the inside. In his recent paintings, this kind is the oneiric, the chimerical, the symbolic – in other words, one of these in which the computer image reigns supreme since no other kind can better demonstrate its capacity to convince us of the existence of monsters and impossible worlds. These days, Hollywood relies mostly on these technological exploits. The script is only expected to justify the engineers' feats through a schematic story; its simplicity is necessary, for a too complicated story with complex characters and ambiguous situation might shift the viewers' interest and distract them from the magnificence of the digital exploits of fierce reptiles and medieval warriors.
So at first sight Missouras's painting goes clearly under this heading. It generates spectral apparitions in indescribable landscapes. We don't know whether it's night or day. We cannot tell whether the scene is indoors or outdoors, whether the figures are male or female, made of flesh or fog. Their density is uncertain and they float in space. Their actions are equally uncertain. As to their possible relations, we cannot even start to define them. On the other hand, other elements can be identified quite clearly: red trees with serpentine trunks, for instance, and female faces. Trees like that do not exist; the faces could exist, but they wouldn't be detached from their bodies like moulds of grey or white wax hanging from invisible threads. Another difficulty is the absence of visible links among the various elements – more accurately, an internal discord within the oeuvre. Seen from the single viewpoint of pictorial unity, such as spatial perspective, the continuity of forms or the chromatic ranges, each canvas is coherent, even if the artist sometimes combines the threedimensional with the two-dimensional, volumes and planes. However, in terms of inciting a discourse or presenting an allegory no painting is satisfactory. If there is some story, we don't know when it started, what is going on and how it might end. If there is some symbolism, we don't know what it is and whether it points to vice or virtue, to desire or disgust. Occasionally we think we can discern some familiar iconography, religious or mythological, but it is not enough to explain the whole of the work.
In a film or a play it would not be like that: there you would have heroes, a narrative, a myth and perhaps even an edifying moral to ensure a child audience and the approbation of parents. We would know why the midget-like lumberjacks are so frantically felling down the red snake-like trees, which may not be trees after all. We would know why two figures are heading towards a kind of museum or dizzying shopping arcade with brightly lit shop-fronts, why one of them is carrying a statuette –have they stolen it?– and what is the animal whose twisted horn points to the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Instead, we are left wondering why the face of the man with the statuette seems unstable and badly fitted to his frame; unless he has no frame but is a painterly phantom. And so on for each canvas. In several paintings and drawings the scene is viewed from high up, as if the viewer is looking down on a roofless house or as if it is a cinematic backdrop designed to create the illusion of space. If it is the latter, it means that Missouras challenges the viewer's gaze and suggests that his painting is neither a depiction of reality nor a dreamlike vision, but a visual and mental mechanism generating images to upset rather than captivate and fascinate us. These strange things stop us from simply accepting what we are shown and enjoying the fascination which characterises the contemporary spectacle. The fantastic demands this reception in order to generate fear or simply to draw attention; the symbolic does not tolerate such liberties which appear sacrilegious.
Let us resort to art history again to understand it. In the late 19th century no European artist was more renowned than Arnold Bocklin, maker of the Isle of the dead. He was seen as one of the great masters of painting, and justly so. Yet aside from this work, several of his paintings treated mythology irreverently. We see a Centaur going to the farrier to replace a missing horseshoe, and the beautiful Deianira as a barmaid; the Tritons are fat, red-faced and lustful, while the Nymphs –particularly chubby– are seen caressing snakes whose heads are unmistakably phallic. Bocklin paints well –even exquisitely– Mount Olympus and its deities. He is so skilled and diligent that we could be taken in, but in the end he cannot resist introducing quite obviously absurd and obscene elements. He likes to highlight the absurdities, the verisimilitude, the false grandeur in the system he has created himself. De Chirico, a great admirer of Bocklin, seemed to have discerned this strange invasion of irony and exaggerated it in several of his early works in which he also used motifs from Greek mythology like Prometheus and the Centaurs. The same irony is probably an undermining agent in the prints of Klinger: this is particularly striking in the weird History of a Glove, where monstrous creatures move around abnormal edifices.
Another case, from the cinema this time, is that of David Lynch. Mulholland Drive should have been a noir, troubling, tragic film. It lacks none of the attributes of the genre and goes smoothly from one anthological scene to the next with all the allusions expected by seasoned cinephiles. Yet the irregular editing, the distortion of time, the constant back-and-forth, the sudden emergence of the burlesque upset everything. Is this a film we are watching? Is it a study on the different ways of filmmaking? A collage? A nightmare? Does anything at all take place? There are no answers. We don't know where we are.
The same effect is found in the works of Missouras, and it is exactly why they interest and intrigue us: they are so effectively disorienting that, again, we don't know where we are.
Finally, one last point. If the hypothesis of our interpretation is right, it means that Missouras belongs to what should be henceforth described as painting "in the manner of the cinema" or "in the manner of television". Throughout the 20th century, art critics and theoreticians kept announcing the death of painting which the mechanical image had rendered obsolete. Whole books were written about this. From where we stand today, this argument looks short-sighted and naive. Not only because there are still so many painters about, but because their works –especially the best of them– prove to be critical tools of a rare effectiveness. Indifferent to financial gain, rid of any commercial consideration and without yearning for mass approbation, these works resolutely oppose with their singularity the mainstream economy and the current order of things. They represent what is left of the visual freedom –and hence the freedom of thought– in a society which is increasingly uniform and shaped by the "market" and the consumption of products designed to be liked and forgotten. Which is why painters like Missouras are now more indispensable than ever.
Philippe Dagen Translation: Tony Moser
* from the catalogue of Tassos Missouras' solo exhibition at the Frissiras Museum in Athens in 2006, p. 43-51
- Website: www.missouras.gr