PRINT November 2021

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Yannis Tsarouchis, Illustration for the Poem “Lovely White Flowers” by C. P. Cavafy, 1964, gouache on paper, 10 1⁄4 × 15 1⁄4".

BETWEEN THE AGES of twenty-three and twenty-four, Yannis Tsarouchis (1910–1989) sketched Two Cretans, 1933–34, a scarcely rendered double portrait in sanguine. The man at left stands in tall boots and double-breasted uniform, his arm thrown around his friend’s shoulder; their hands almost meet to shake, and the drawing is quiet, blissful—and yet apparently just a means to an end. Next, Tsarouchis painted Hope, 1934, based on that very work: It is a roughly Cubist composition of hatched patterns, trompe l’oeil drapes, and those reaching hands. “The word ‘hope’ expresses my desire to make a naturalistic painting that would release me from the fear of looking out of date and naturalistic,” Tsarouchis remarked. “Some surrealistic elements rescued me from these misgivings of mine.”

That early, committed logic—a yearning for earnest representations of gay desire collapsed with or pulled toward the idioms of classical art and modernism—guided the Greek artist through his long career. One may also read Tsarouchis’s fear of fading from relevance intimately, as he hangs on to and later repaints youth.

Yannis Tsarouchis, Two Cretans, 1933–34, pencil and sanguine on paper, 13 3⁄4 × 9 7⁄8".

Tsarouchis’s first US retrospective, “Dancing in Real Life,” organized by Androniki Gripari and Adam Szymczyk for the three-year-old Chicago exhibition space Wrightwood 659, told this significant story through a selection of some two hundred works of art. The show encompassed portraiture, personal snapshots, and examples of the artist’s book illustrations, as well as his atmospheric stage sets for Maria Callas and Samuel Beckett, his landscape and ruin paintings, and his late-life exchanges with, and homages to, the old masters.

Tsarouchis painted to consider masculinity and desire in solitude, vulnerable to and reflective against regimes of repression.

Yannis Tsarouchis, Hope, 1934, oil on plywood, 23 1⁄4 × 12 5⁄8".

A full-length portrait Sailor in the Sun, 1968–70, stood taut at the end of a hallway and drew viewers into the exhibition. Lining the walls was a photobiography of the artist: Shots from his childhood in Piraeus led into photos of the adult artist costumed as a Byzantine monk or lounging amid greenery on the veranda of his Athens studio. Tsarouchis danced through it all—specifically, he performed the zeibekiko, an Anatolian folk dance characterized by fervid improvisations on a codified form. He first saw the dance in Istanbul as a young artist while on a trip to copy Byzantine icons. Those loose-limbed limits of the performers’ bodies became a lifelong wellspring of influence; he would stage, draw, and paint the dancers well into the ’80s. Among a group of such works was a sheet of paper Tsarouchis had painted with faux tiles for his models to pose on. Displayed here on the floor behind the stanchions, this prop—a black-and-white checkerboard with a crenellated fringe—was also visible in the archival photographs, and there was something rudimentary and performative in how it was pictured there, rolled out and held in place with a paper tube. The fringe anticipates an incoming wave of postmodern classicism, the grid an inadvertent rib on Carl Andre.

Yannis Tsarouchis, Sailor in the Sun, 1968–70, oil on canvas, 88 × 41".

Crisply rendered, the subject of the aforementioned Sailor in the Sun appeared stoic and at attention with the slightest contrapposto, thumb tucked into his belt and cap fastened tight to his chin. He was solemn and steadfast, strangely serious when viewed against the adjacent row of dynamic male portraits and nudes Tsarouchis painted between 1934 and early 1940. Several of these men posed before a cascading backdrop of bushy trees that Tsarouchis had commissioned from shadow-puppet master Sotiris Spatharis for use in his studio portraits. The paint handling here was rough and restive: The men were chiseled but lopsided, and the folds in their muscles and clothing, when they are clothed, were often left unpainted. Their eyes were but dots, brows quickly brushed on above. What the lifelike and buttoned-up Sailor in the Sun seems to prove is that by the time Tsarouchis matured as an artist, he could paint in both modes. Yet the through line was clear: Tsarouchis painted to consider masculinity and desire in solitude, vulnerable to and reflective against regimes of repression. Perhaps the sailor’s uniform and the painted backdrop intrigued him similarly: Both are devices for masquerade.

Though the classical influence obviously looms large in Greece, Tsarouchis came of age during a period of especially heightened revival that coincided with waves of regionalism and nationalism under the rule of far-right dictator Ioannis Metaxas. The young artist’s responses in graphite and ink from the ’30s, wryly trenchant attempts at forging a voice amid daunting influences, anticipate his particular style. Grave Stele with the Letter, 1935, split the profile of the seated woman in the Grave Stele of Hegeso, ca. 410–400 bce; here, she holds the unseen half of her face inquisitively, a theater mask. Scribbles and dotted lines abound, and instead of the proffered pyxis, or vessel for jewelry and cosmetics, the man reaching to shake her hand has a prominent erection. Two 1936 drawings of the Ludovisi Gaul, 200 ce, were tragicomic for how they unmistakably transpose the dying woman into a lurching phallus. The ropy forms and sheer erraticism of these drawings recall John Altoon, perhaps, while the looseness of Tsarouchis’s concurrent portraits suggest Matisse—though the weight of the artist’s various historical contexts and personal yearnings makes most comparisons falter.

Yannis Tsarouchis, Winged Spirit Buttoning his Underpants, 1966, acrylic on paper, 15 3⁄8 × 11 1⁄8".

Tsarouchis starts adding wings to his men in 1962, turning them into butterflies and manifestations of Eros. His classicism remained tinged with the erotic, though that is not to say the originals weren’t already. Winged Spirit Buttoning His Underpants, 1966, was remarkably still; by focusing on the mundane and pausing his subject’s fluttering, Tsarouchis achieves a moment of peaceful sincerity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be staring. A small gouache from 1964 portrayed an angel gazing upon his boyish lover’s body in a casket; it was one of many drawings the artist added to volumes of C. P. Cavafy’s poetry. Cavafy’s verse is unabashedly flat and direct in its lust: “As I was going down those ill-famed stairs . . . Our bodies sensed and sought each other; / our blood and skin understood,” read the beginning and end of “On the Stairs” (1904). As W. H. Auden wrote of Cavafy’s poems, “Love, there, is rarely more than physical passion. . . . At the same time, he refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” At times, Tsarouchis himself appeared to strive for such unequivocal statements—but, in turn, his rendering of diffidence, backs turned and gazes averted, speaks to a different facet of Eros. 

James Rondeau is the president and Eloise W. Martin director of the Art Institute of Chicago.