13 November 2008
It wasn't this painting, but it belonged to the same series of Underwater Swimmers. I was on my way to Borders Books in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, NYC, looking for something I needed to purchase--not a pleasure read; it was an all-business kind of day--and the painting stopped me cold. It was, in fact, a cold day. Last winter I think it was. And maybe it was the escapist in me who found this canvas so magnetic. Before I even knew the artist's name, this painting made me think of the Mediterranean, of Greece and the Hellenic love of sun and sea. I wanted to be there, swimming, and not at all where I was, roaming the slick public spaces of Manhattan's vertical (and very upscale) answer to a strip mall.
The painter, in fact, is an Athenian-born artist by the name of Maria Filopoulou, represented in New York by Millenia Fine Art. My sense of affinity increased upon seeing the nameplate next to the luminous canvas, and yet again once I did a little biographical research: not only is Filopoulou Greek--born in 1964, only five years my senior--but once she reached her twenties, she made her way (as I also did) to France, where she studied painting in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, working through the equivalent of an M.F.A.
Filopoulou has achieved some measure of international success. According to the artist's website (linked above), her works grace the National Gallery and the Greek Parliament, and belong to private museums and collections across the globe. I find it easy to understand why.
As you stand in front of a canvas belonging to this "Swimmers" series, the peripheral world fades away. The picture seems to extend beyond the two-dimensional confines of the canvas, seems to envelop you, pulling you with a strong current into the underwater world of light and motion. It is hard to turn away, especially if you succumb to the suggestion of secrecy--the idea that you are viewing a private, sacred ritual of swimming.
Okay, reality intrudes: I would be dishonest to say there were not a few crass gawkers, some unsophisticated tourists doing double-takes as they realized, Those swimmers are naked! I was embarrassed for them--and also for myself and the condescending turn my thoughts took in their direction. How quickly people can twist the sacred into something base; how quickly our looking becomes voyeuristic, dark. It's absurd.
But to be voyeuristic, you have to hold yourself at a distance, which I find impossible to do when facing Filopoulou's paintings. The key to her success lies in this--in the masterful way she manipulates space in the plane of the canvas. I do not think it's outrageous to make some comparisons to paintings in the canon of art history: I am thinking of Monet's water lilies, the ones just a half dozen blocks farther south, hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. The play of water and sky, object and reflection, the illusion that creates depth and infinity within a finite, flat space of stretched canvas... these qualities are similar.
Look at that blue, though. God, just look at it! Look at the dazzling hue and the dancing sparks of light, and you know at once that this art could never be born of gray Paris, or even the gardens of Giverny. The Greek summer sun is unmistakable--the harsh light and honesty of it--and the fact that only the sea can lure it to playfulness. Filopoulou's scene is not cultured or cultivated as a cosmopolitan city or a garden; rather, it is simple in its joy. It is open and innocent, as well as free.
In her own statement, Filopoulou writes: "My compositions enable me to liberate myself from the enclosed space, providing me with the wide perspective that I need for my work. I inhabit the space I create and it becomes a secure refuge. The feeling of security gives me the vital sense of freedom to look at everything calmly and objectively, to experience vertigo, movement and even rebellion." Yes, there is rebellion, too.
In her talk of enclosed space and refuge, of security and freedom--in her talk of rebellion, too--I find an artist I'd like to imagine is a kindred spirit. Both of us born in the 1960s, a time of turbulence. In America, there was the Civil Rights movement, the counter-culture rebellion; in Greece, the "Colonels' Coup" that brought the Junta to power. Such different childhoods we must have had, she and I, but our countries were both preoccupied with the idea of freedom (America's at Greece's expense, I admit the argument will be made when it comes to the Junta).
But back to the canvas. Here, there is no sign of struggle, only of organic, utopian life--rhythmic and pulsing, wonderfully vital. There is something at once modern and classical, ancient even, at work in the "Swimmers" paintings. And in the moment of standing there--no matter the bitter weather outside or the storms of daily annoyances and emotions within--I become part of it all. I feel grateful for the innocence, the openness of bodies, the caress of water and light.
Maria Filopoulou's art is, for me, a wonderful discovery. I hope it is for you, too.