Vlassis Caniaris (1928-2011): An oppositionist and a gentleman

by Afroditi Panagiotakou

Vlassis Caniaris, Kunstverein Hannover, 1976
Courtesy of the Estate of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki
Exhibition catalogue Vlassis Caniaris, Arrivederci – Willkommen – 1976
Kalfayan Galleries, Athens, 2009, p. 18

Caniaris was, in many ways, a political artist; however, he repudiated the label ‘partisan’. He did not feel like a sworn bearer of social messages to awaken the people. Indeed, he always aimed for honesty, consistency and freedom rather than heeding a set ideology. “I don’t believe that art can change things. I lived in times when the circumstances themselves made me be ‘anti’. For most of my life there was ample scope for my being ‘anti’. Opposition is in art’s very nature; this cannot change, even if the trend today is towards the apolitical.” He chose to be a realist about his environment, acknowledging the precarious way in which art operates. He recognised the laws of the market and seeked professionalism in all those involved. He also demanded a similar professionalism and seriousness from critics, who he felt ought to be able to get to the heart of his works and be bold enough to comment on the essence instead of stopping at mere descriptions.

Caniaris spent many years as an intellectual émigré away from his native land, and this distancing gave him better insight. “By leaving Greece in 1975 I broke out of an artistic and social corral. I left to escape the suffocating political aura of the time. In this sense, that breathing space made fleeing worthwhile. Other than that, those of us who left were perhaps more egoistic, more ambitious… We lagged too far behind Europe. In fact we may have been a little crazy, oblivious to the magnitude of the undertaking. Nevertheless, we fought on an equal footing.” Caniaris remained Greek, even if the sense of belonging to a country he left behind for so long was quite unthinkable. “I cannot feel integrated,” he admitted. “When we were leaving back then, coming back was not an objective.” Yet Caniaris did return, and, when he did, Greece was ready to receive him. A lot has changed since that 1958 show at Zygos Gallery, when abstraction in painting loomed like an aesthetic miasma. As usual, of course, his reception had to be preceded by the appreciation of his work by major European museums.

“The way I understand this general mobilisation of artists, galleries and museums is that even if not every show or other event has a reason to be, it still generates broader interest. The artworks, even when they are innocuous, essentially address the masses and are easier to assimilate. I see in this an attempt to approach the audience, and it makes me optimistic about contemporary art and the new things. I am not so much interested in the ‘artwork’ itself; I am much more interested in the possibility afforded to someone to see it again and again and ultimately to appropriate it. This is why I am optimistic about what is described as ‘mayhem’. True, once you remove some of these works from their context they are no longer treated as art – but I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It becomes something else; a possession, which retains its ideas and gets appropriated by more people.”

Caniaris also wondered about the place of art, its usefulness or uselessness. He avoided the arrogance of the creator who believes they have approached divinity every time they complete a work. “I am more concerned about all those billions of people who live without the slightest interest in art the way we usually define it. Yet they still have their life, good or bad… Art is not something you learn and incorporate into your life. It’s not a foreign language. Art is a tool, an everyday utility. So all those supposedly initiated people may in fact have nothing. This is why I am more interested in the others, the many who cannot see art as a catalyst. Perhaps we should go back to the concept itself and redefine it.”

This is an excerpt from an article by Afroditi Panagiotakou originally published in Highlights (no. 13, November/December 2004, pp. 70–73).

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