The Universal Art of Thanasis Fampas

Thanasis Fampas in his art studioby Sirago Tsiara
Director, Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art

When approaching artists who, like Thanasis Fampas, evolved their creative idiom and produced the bulk of their works while living abroad, yet without ever divorcing themselves utterly from their native country, art criticism raises the question – often in an over-simplified way – of the ethnic quality of their art.

Three women waiting for somethingIn the case of Fampas, Greek art critics and historians seek and find in his work those features which will confirm the presence of Greek influences. In this case they point to the Byzantine influences which can be seen in his style, and it is true that post-Byzantine icons of the 17th and 18th centuries are to be found widely in modern Romania, where a whole school of artists has found stylistic inspiration in them. Fampas himself had collected a large number of these works. The Romanians adopt the same approach and point to those features which gave his art its “Romanian quality.” In the catalogue of the large exhibition held in Fampas’ honour in Bucharest in 1985 the critic Livia H. Oprescu remarks:

In the petrified grief, for example, of the women’s faces as they await the return of their loved ones or the coming of better times, in this singular psychological charge which we see in his work, we must admit the part played by an experience which is a central component of the Romanian psyche. It is that emotion designated by the untranslatable word dor, an emotion of painful yearning, the grief which springs from the absence of those people and things we have lost, and from the overwhelming longing to see them again.

The artist himself refuses to dissect his internal world in order to divide his temperament into distinct Greek and Romanian constituents. As we might expect, he regards the years of his youth in Greece, culminating in his participation in the resistance movement, as a decisive period in the formation of his personality. Nevertheless – he admits shyly – he would not have become what he is without the influence of Romanian culture.

A Painting of Thanasis Fampas riding a horseHistorical circumstances played a decisive role not only in his decision to seek refuge in Romania at the end of the civil war but also in the formation of his identity as an artist. As well as his apprenticeship in monumental painting at the Bucharest Institute of Fine Arts there was also the less well-known decade during which he was producing drawings which took their subjects from the tragic experiences of the occupation and the resistance. His desire to “express in images the period when every man carried a gun” was the impulse which led him beyond “naturalistic” descriptive painting. He gradually advanced towards a more conceptual, symbolist idiom with a varying degree of abstraction and schematic representation of the human figure, the subject which had always lain at the heart of his painting.

Finally, the decisive element which determines the enduring appeal of Fampas’ work and ensures its lasting emotional power is his introspective temperament, his desire to explore and express the inner spiritual and emotional world of man: his other-worldly and at the same time mysteriously familiar female figures seem to escape the bounds of specific place and draw their familiarity and intelligibility from their reference to universal human values – love, friendship, motherhood. More than just human forms the artist depicts relationships, temperaments, gestures, and emotion. He “puts forward his own nature of things” in the words of the art historian D. Deliyiannis. Writing in the newspaper Eleftherotypia in 1978, Nikos Makrides observed most aptly:

And in the autumn of 1978 he has brought us from Bucharest those ‘women,’ those silent women with secrets sealed on their lips, weeping willows many miles from home, sad goddesses of exile, waiting and hoping so sweetly.

universal-06The environment in which Fampas found himself in Romania was particularly propitious for a young artist from abroad like himself. He was of course helped to some extent by the fact that he shared the political outlook of Romania’s socialist regime, a regime that extended its protection to artists of sympathetic views. From almost the very beginning his participation in state-sponsored group exhibitions earned him distinction and enabled him to establish himself relatively swiftly as an artist. At the same time his illustrations for Romanian translations of Greek literature supplied him with an additional source of income as well as bringing him into contact and permitting him to develop friendships with many of the Greek intellectuals who visited Romania from time to time.

Fampas thus enjoyed a policy of state support for the arts which involved the creation of educational institutes, museums, arts centres and, in general, all those institutions which foster artistic activity. This was one of the positive aspects of a policy of which he speaks with a combination of nostalgia and criticism.

Thanasis Fampas working on a sculptureHis return of Volos marked the beginning of a new period in his life. He did not desert Bucharest for good, but divided his time between the two cities. His sense of historical and moral responsibility is what lies behind another side of his creative activity: his technically conventional monumental sculpture. Among these fruits of his personal sensitivity are the monuments to the Resistance at Velestino, to the “heroes of the air” at Nea Anchialos, to the dead at Laukos, as well as the monument to Rigas in Bucharest and a number of other sculptures he donated to his birthplace. For Fampas, public sculpture is not in any sense a professional occupation. It is his own personal experiences and the need to vindicate the memory of the recent and tragic past which motivated him to express himself in sculptural form.

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