An Excerpt from the Book Triumph of the Light about the Sozopol-Born Artist Yorgos Gounaropoulos

10:59ч / 10.09.2023г
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The absence of direct evidence pointing to any contacts with Bulgaria did not mean that, in his thoughts, Gounaropoulos had severed his connection with his native place. In 1956, on the threshold of his seventh decade, he stated in an interview that, in his opinion, ‘art cannot be a rational act, for it is a spiritual need’ and ‘the more a person ages, the more he returns to his childhood visions’. 

So it was no wonder that only a few years earlier, when he met Marc Chagall (1887–1985) in Athens, Gounaropoulos spoke again about the Sozopolian light that streamed throughout his oeuvre.

Chagall visited Greece in search of inspiration for the illustrations of the antique novel of romance and adventure, ‘Daphnis and Chloé’. He considered his meeting with Gounaropoulos—about whom he had heard much from their mutual friend, Tériade—to be an intrinsic element in the process of acquainting himself with Greek artistic reality.

The journalist and film director Ion Daifas (1924–1994) recalled the conversation between the two at the Greek artist’s studio. He described Chagall, ‘the creator of incredible works of fiery themes and explosive colours’, as ‘a white-haired, middle-aged man, of world renown and unaffected bearing’, ‘who had found himself at some point immersed in Gounaropoulos’ transparent and enamelled chaos, filled with extralogical creatures’. 

After discussing the use of various pictorial means with his Greek colleague, speaking slowly and using the simplest French, Chagall remarked: ‘You have your colour, Gounaro, it is inside you, and possessing it, you have the painting in the palm of your hand. Because the colour carries and subordinates form… but I do not know whether form manages to achieve the same.’ Then he brought one of the fruits offered to him close to the painting, ‘Prometheus and the Eagle’, which the two artists were discussing, and continued to talk about the magic of hues: ‘You see, the tone of its colour is as deep and ripe as the yellow springing up above this rock…’ At this point, Gounaropoulos clarified: ‘The light in the colour, though, is due to me personally. I was born facing the sea, Chagall, and from the cape where I used to live I saw the sea beneath me, while the sky spread all around. Perhaps it is to that I owe the pulsation of my colours and the spherical orchestration of the forms and tones I seek.’

→ Excerpt from Ion Daifas’ memoirs, Gounaropoulos family archives.

This explanation reminded Chagall of the natural elements of his own past, the myths and iconography of his homeland. On his return to Paris, he declared: ‘Greece inspired me for Daphnis, just as Vitebsk enabled me to illustrate “Dead Souls”.’ 

Not only the etchings for Gogol’s satire, but most of Chagall’s works with scenes from his home town Vitebsk (now in Belarus) were completed in Paris; this imbued them with a tone of longing and loss, and their abstractness added to this sense of detachment. Impressed by them, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called them ‘surnaturel!’. 

→ ‘Oceanid Coming out of the Rocks’, 1976, charcoal, crayon, varnish on hardboard, 83 x 62 cm, G.Gounaropoulos Museum.

Some of Gounaropoulos’ recollections of his native Sozopol, which we find preserved in the memory of the artist Yannis Chrysopoulos, were also supernatural: ‘There were moments when it seemed to me too that, any minute now, a nymph would emerge from the wave. But I must’ve just imagined it. For me, the simple beauty of the wave was enough. For him, apparently, that was not enough. We artists have different eyes… And thank God!’, he remarked to journalist Kiril Yanev in an interview a few years before his death, adding that Gounaropoulos was intelligent, but a down-to-earth person and a crank who liked to dress up as a fisherman—‘to trick himself out in fishing tackle, go fishing with chikonta [wooden reel] and play at being a Sozopolian fisherman’.

Translated into English by Nigrita and Philip Davis