Jannis Kounellis (Piraeus, March 23, 1936 – Rome, February 16, 2017) was a Greek painter and sculptor naturalized Italian, a leading exponent of what the critic Germano Celant called “arte povera”.
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The beginnings, 1950s
Born in Piraeus, Attica, after being rejected by the School of Fine Arts in Athens, in 1956, just over twenty, he left Greece and moved to Italy, in the city of Rome: “I arrived on New Year”s Day 1956, a date that is not forgotten. In the Italian capital, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts where he completed his studies under the guidance of Toti Scialoja, to whom he owes the influence of abstract expressionism, which together with informal art constitutes the fundamental combination from which his creative path takes off.
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He made his debut in 1960, organizing his first personal exhibition at the gallery “La Tartaruga” in Rome. Compared to his masters, Kounellis immediately showed a very strong communicative urgency that led him to reject individualistic, aesthetic and decadent perspectives and to exalt the public, collective value of artistic language. In his first works, in fact, he painted typographic signs on a light background that alluded to the invention of a new order for a shattered, pulverized language.
Dating back to 1967 are the first exhibitions ideologically close to the Arte Povera movement in which the use of products and materials of common use suggest for art a radically creative function, mythical, without concessions to mere representation. Evident are also the references to the Greek origins. His installations become true stage sets that physically occupy the gallery and surround the viewer, making him a protagonist in a space that also begins to fill with live animals, as opposed to geometries built with materials that evoke industrial production. In “Margherita di fuoco” (Daisy of fire) fire also appears, a mythical and symbolic element par excellence, generated, however, by a blowtorch cylinder.
In 1969 the installation became a real performance with the Horses tied to the walls of Fabio Sargentini”s L”Attico gallery, in a sumptuous ideal clash between nature and culture in which the role of the artist was reduced to the minimum level of a substantially manual industriousness, almost like a man of toil.
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With the passage to the seventies, Kounellis”s volitional enthusiasm is charged with a different heaviness, the result of disenchantment and frustration in the face of the failure of the innovative potential of Arte Povera, swallowed up in spite of itself by the commercial dynamics of consumer society, guarded by the traditional spaces of fruition such as museums and galleries. This feeling is expressed by the famous door closed with stones presented for the first time in San Benedetto del Tronto and then over the years, with significant structural variations full of poetic meanings, in Rome, Mönchengladbach, Baden-Baden, London, Cologne. In 1972 Kounellis participates for the first time at the Venice Biennale, an event in which, in the years to come, participates several times as the Quadrennial of Rome, from 1973.
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The years of bitterness continue with installations in which the vitality of fire is replaced by the obscure presence of soot, while live animals give way to stuffed ones. The culmination of this process is perhaps the grandiose work presented at the Espai Poblenou in Barcelona in 1989, characterized by quarters of freshly slaughtered oxen fixed by hooks to metal plates and illuminated by oil lanterns.
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In more recent years, Kounellis”s art has become virtuously mannerist and has taken up themes and suggestions that had previously characterized it with a more meditative spirit, capable of interpreting with renewed awareness the primitive propensity for monumental emphasis. Examples of this new direction of research are the installation Offertorio of 1995 in Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples. Naples, 1998 “Mulino in ferro” permanent exhibition in Piazza Ponte di Tappia. In 1995, in the ancient courtyard of the central building of the University of Padua, he created a monument for the fiftieth anniversary of the Resistance, a splendid assemblage of wooden planks, collected in the vicinity of the city, to evoke the fatigue and the chorus of the Resistance, to which the University made such a contribution as to be the only site in Italy awarded the gold medal for military valor.
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The great exhibitions in South America continue, such as those in Argentina (2000) and Uruguay (2001). In 2002, the artist reproposes the installation of horses at the Whitechapel in London and, shortly after, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome he builds an enormous labyrinth of sheet metal along which he places, as if they were as many landings, the traditional elements of his art, such as the “charcoal-burners”, the “cotton-burners”, the jute sacks and piles of stones (“Atto unico”). In 2004 he realizes an installation in the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, inside the temporary exposure Forme per il David, born to celebrate the five hundred years from the creation of the David of Michelangelo.
In 2007 he realizes two installations in Calabria: With Mattia Preti at the National Gallery of Palazzo Arnone in Cosenza, and A touch as light as the wings of a sparrow …. at the National Archaeological Museum of the Sibaritide in Sibari. In 2007 he worked on the realization of the 383rd festival of Santa Rosalia in Palermo, designing the triumphal float of the Saint. Always in 2007 he inaugurates in Rome the Door of the Monastic Garden of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, an imposing iron gate embellished by chromatic elements made of glass stones. In 2009 Galleria Fumagalli and Museo Adriano Bernareggi (Bergamo) dedicate to the artist a personal exhibition and a unique installation realized site specific. The artist creates a special exhibition of works proposing a reflection on art and man, evidence of the poetic reflections that have always been at the center of his work and for which he was indicated as a possible guest at the 2011 Venice Biennale in the first pavilion of the Vatican City.
In 2012, moreover, one of his famous works is exhibited at the Riso museum of contemporary art in the city of Palermo. In an interview that highlighted his Italian citizenship, he qualified himself as an Italian artist in all respects: “I am such and such I consider myself since always”. In the same interview, concerning painting, although he had almost never made “pictures” in the strict sense, Kounellis defined himself as a painter: “Because painting is the construction of images. And it is such if it is revolutionary, without brakes for the imagination”.