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In January 1976, Desmos Art Gallery performed a retrospective evaluation of its five-year-long history, publishing a portfolio of typewritten essays. In addition to Manos Pavlidis (1921–2007), who run the gallery jointly with his wife, Epi Protonotariou (1933), art critics Alexandros Xydis and Charles Spencer, and musicologist Ioannis Papaioannou signed the essays. In all of them, the experimental approach of this art venue was underlined. Pavlidis noted that they sought ‘a more expansive meaning to the notion of the “gallery”, clearly focusing on contemporary pursuits in the visual arts,’ adding that Desmos was ‘a hub for research, promotion and communication of contemporary art’. Papaioannou regarded the 30 music events hosted at the venue as ‘interdisciplinary experimentation’. Spencer, who curated Desmos’s debut show, wrote that the gallery’s policy promoted ‘an adventurous and open spirit, the desire to explore, investigate, learn’. Finally, Xydis, who had closely watched the gallery’s exhibition programme, was even more unequivocal: ‘I wrote, earlier on, about the desirable distinction of art galleries into “commercial” and “experimental” ones – I was clearly more interested in the latter, which were non-existent in Athens,’ notes the renowned Greek art critic. While acknowledging the contribution of commercial galleries to the promotion of Greek art, at a time when ‘the only alternative open to an artist was studio visits’, he openly sided with the second kind, believing that, in addition to ‘not being primarily motivated by financial considerations, they are able to play an important role in determining the shape of art and, above all, in cultivating public taste.’ Notably, according to Xydis, in at least 7 out of 48 exhibitions organised by Desmos during the first five years of operation, ‘there was no possibility, let alone intention, of putting works up for sale.’ Moreover, ‘several other [galleries] brought into view works of such experimental nature that it was doubtful, had they been available to buy, whether they would appeal to many Athenian buyers.’ And he concludes: ‘Endeavours such as Desmos justify art trade in the eyes of the public by camouflaging the more brutal aspects of the capitalistic system.’
Anyone who has followed or studied Desmos’s activity cannot but concur. During the post-war period, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s, there were several commercial art galleries in Athens that made an invaluable contribution to the promotion and dissemination of Greek art (Zygos, Nees Morfes, Hilton Athens Art Gallery, Merlin, Astor). These must be the ones that Xydis writes about. Unlike these galleries, Desmos played a major role in ‘determining the shape of art’. Now, what does that mean? That gallerists did not merely put up an artist’s work for sale in the gallery; they took up more responsibility and an additional capacity, in effect, becoming more of curators than mere gallerists. On the other hand, Desmos artists paid close consideration to the architecture and ambiance of the venue and the possibilities it afforded. In most shows, there was a strong interplay between art and the venue itself. We may take this for granted today; yet, before Desmos, that was not the case – at least not as a rule, the exception being certain solo exhibitions involving installations, or environments. Examples include shows by Maria Karavela (Astor 1970), Michalis Katzourakis (Hilton Athens Art Gallery 1970), Diohandi (Astor 1971). Desmos was undoubtedly an experimental, trailblazing gallery that enthusiastically promoted new art movements and trends; it catalysed a paradigm shift in the function of art galleries in Greece.
The experimental approach introduced by the Pavlidises was unprecedented –particularly in the 1970s. Of course, the spirit of defiance prevalent at the time (which also turned against the gallery ‘system’) also played a role in this. ‘Our selections were characterised right from the start by an element of inquiry, an avant-garde, provocative quality,’ Pavlidis remarked in an interview to Giorgos Karouzakis, prompted by Desmos Archive, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Crete at Rethymnon (2000). He adds: ‘Desmos was the first contemporary art gallery where music events were hosted (including works by Jani Christou and other contemporary Greek composers). It was also the first venue to hold a photography exhibition (by the architect Aris Konstantinidis). Every single event there stimulated discussion about the arts in general.’ Indeed, another element that boosted the mood for experimentation on the part of both Desmos owners and artists was the extended opening hours (the gallery was open until midnight every Monday, hosting music events and discussions); also, the fact that exhibitions were also held outside of the physical limits of the gallery. The first exhibition held at a venue other than the gallery (which was located at 4, Syngrou Avenue) was by Dimitris Alithinos at Studio 47, in Exarchia, Athens, in October 1972, followed by exhibitions at the Pavlidis’ residence at Apollonio, an apartment complex in Porto Rafti seaside resort in eastern Attica, including an environment installation by Niki Kanagini in summer 1974 and Correlations, a three-day-long happening by Stathis Logothetis, featuring music by Anestis Logothetis, in September 1975. This policy continued for the next few years, culminating in the exhibition 7, Stilponos Street by Rena Papaspyrou, a happening held on 15 October 1979, which established a dialogue between a dilapidated house in Pangrati and the gallery’s ‘white cube’.
In the 1980s, Desmos showcased the work of young, up-and-coming artists (Nikos Alexiou, Costas Varotsos, Thanassis Totsikas), holding, in fact, the first solo exhibition by these artists in Athens. The gallery also embraced established artists of the sixties, including Nikos Kessanlis and Chryssa Romanos. Moreover, until shutting down in 1993, Desmos maintained an ongoing collaboration with artists of Cypriot nationality or background, including Michael Michaelides, Nikos Kouroussis, Dimitris Constantinou and Anna Constantinou. Notably, Maria Loizidou had her first solo exhibition on Greek soil, titled Memorandum Note, at Desmos in 1991.
The Art Seen Projects exhibition Details of an Adventure highlights works by 25 artists associated with this historic Athens gallery. The artworks, mainly small scale, do not only reveal the eclectic and discerning taste of the gallerist couple; they also trace the adventurous circumstances of an initiative that played a significant role in helping the visual arts to flourish in Greece.
To mention but a few: Study of Writing in Space (1978) by Dimitris Alithinos, the ‘bouquet’ of glass splinters by Costas Varotsos, the intentionally ‘decorative’ painting/sculpture (1970) by Niki Kanagini, the black Plexiglas triangle fused with multicolour thread, from Labyrinth series (1976) by Nikos Kouroussis, the autobiographical collage of layered writing by Yorgos Lazongas, Yellow Relief and Black and Red Relief (1995) by Michael Michaelides, the drawings/collages from the series Pillars and Clouds, a hypothetical intervention at the Temple of Olympian Zeus (1983) by Bia Davou and the detached Geography (1981) by Rena Papaspyrou, all demonstrate an expansive perception of the notion of space, mainly captured as an area of poetic potential. Matrac (1974) by the sculptor Theodoros (Papadimitriou) serves as a playful cue for the hand-painted tie by George Touyas and the ironic, Dadaist ‘bucolic landscape’ by Yorgos Touzenis. The latter serves as a counterpoint to the minimalistic landscape by Anna Constantinou, as well as to Reconstruction of a Mountain (1974) by Valerios Caloutsis and the drawings of (burning) trees by Costas Tsoclis. The praying Angel by Stephen Antonakos converses with Maria Loizidou’s Mermaid (1987), a work that takes us on a journey ‘through time, between memory and dream, inside and outside, the self and the other’, as do the sculptures from her Memorandum exhibition. On the other hand, Dimitris Constantinou, Yiannis Michas, Pantelis Xagoraris and Nausica Pastra are proponents of geometric abstraction, which was a prevalent trend amongst the gallery artists. The two unique pieces of jewellery by Vassilis Skylakos, made by reused materials, such as bottle caps, and Takis’s ‘magnetic’ pendant make reference to the group exhibition Jewellery-Antijewellery, curated by Maria Kotzamani at Desmos in 1978. Finally, the Art Seen Projects exhibition attempts to show a deeper affinity amongst three artists that has gone unnoticed until now. This is the first time for these three works go on display in dialogue: a sculptural Gesture (1961) by Nikos Kessanlis, the photograph of the drapery of an ancient Greek sculpture, taken by Aris Konstantinidis on Delos in 1962 and the series of small paper fragments (1982) by Nikos Alexiou.
The exhibitions held and artists showcased by Desmos have established the gallery as a true reference in contemporary Greek art. True to their gallery’s name (Greek for ‘bond’), Manos Pavlidis and Epi Protonotariou bonded their personal vision together with the creative endeavours of a pleiad of gifted artists. Details of an Adventure is an opportunity to re-evaluate the strength of this extremely productive bond.
Christoforos Marinos (Athens, 1975) is an art historian, art critic and curator. He lives and works in Athens.
* Exhibition supported by the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture
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