By Christopher Harrity
Originally published on Advocate.com September 10 2011 3:00 AM ET
Yannis Tsarouchis, 1910-1989, was an important 20th-century Greek painter, but his male figure work and studies have sometimes been met with derision and perhaps wrongly contextualized. Tsarouchis's work moved in two main directions: toward the orientalist and sensual, with strong influences from Matisse, and toward the ancient Greek ideal as expressed by the Renaissance and the Baroque movements. In doing so, he played a pivotal role in portraying and shaping modern Greek identity, alongside contemporaries, all members of the Armos art group, established in 1949.
Born in Piraeus, Tsarouchis studied at the Athens School of Fine Art. After graduating in 1935, he traveled to Istanbul, Paris, and Italy, where he was exposed to various European artistic movements. During this time, he also met with a number of prominent contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet, and Alberto Giacometti. Much of his early work was designing for theater and opera.
Returning to a war-torn Greece in 1936, Tsarouchis become a soldier in the Greco-Italian war in 1940. A political and humanist viewpoint began to emerge in his work after World War II. His depiction of soldiers and sailors was controversial, and some of his exhibits were taken down by censors. The Greek government saw his work as degrading to the Greek male — much as artist Paul Cadmus's highly sexual paintings depicting American sailors on leave were seen as unpatriotic.
One still gets a sense of an awkwardness in the fine art world in blending his more mainstream work with his male figure work. But maybe with constant references to Greece’s past and present — from ancient sculpture to folk art — Tsarouchis reflected on the complexities of Greece’s identity during his lifetime with equal amounts of tragedy, beauty, humor, and wit. And perhaps his paintings of men, often described as "vulnerable," could also be seen through the ancient Greek sensibility as heroic, even patriotic.