Yannis Tsarouchis: The Struggle to Unite Body and Spirit
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
The Artist's Ordeal with Oppressions of Greek Patriarchy, Religion, and Society
Review of Yannis Tsarouchis: Dancing in Real Life
May 7 - August 7, 2021
659 W. Wrightwood, Chicago, IL 60614.
By Diane Thodos
Published in the New Art Examiner - Autumn's Quarter 2021
Christianity has succeeded in transforming Eros and Aphrodite—great powers capable of idealization—into diabolical kobolds and phantoms.
-Friedrich Nietzsche 1
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws the peep of day with steady tread
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 2
Behind all appearances, I divine a struggling essence. I want to merge with it. I feel that behind appearances this struggling essence is also striving to merge with my heart. But the body stands between us and separates us. The mind stands between us and separates us.
-Nikos Kazantzakis 3
In the climax scene from the film Zorba the Greek we witness a circle of men outside a church in a small Cretan village. They surround a helpless widow as the people of the village, including the women, try to stone her to death. The men grab her, tearing off her clothes and attempt to rape her. In spite of Zorba's attempt to save her she is seized by the village elder and stabbed to death. The 1945 book written by Nikos Kazantzakis, on which the film is based, portrayed the reality of Greek customs in all their violence, xenophobia and misogyny—stories which correspond to events that occurred in the small Greek villages where my parents lived. Even though I was born in the United States I grew up with the keen consciousness and firsthand experience about the controlling power and potential violence that male patriarchy and religious dogma could assume. Michael Cacoyannis’s film Zorba was not an entertainment for me, but a confession of existential truth.
My own lived experience of these troubling aspects about Greek society and religion stirred my curiosity about the work of Yannis Tsarouchis who lived from 1910–1989. How did he manage to survive as a homosexual artist and progressive intellectual in a society that I knew firsthand to be conservative, patriarchal, and oppressive? The fact that he painted the truth about his inner life and sexual desires is all the more impressive and courageous, considering much of his work was realized long before the gay liberation movement of the 1960’s and the Western social consciousness about homosexual rights in the decades that followed.
I looked for clues in wall texts and pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition, but aside from an occasional reference to “queerness,” “blurring gender differences,” “latent sexual energy of the male body,” a poem by C.P. Cavafy, and a confrontation with the military against one of his homoerotic works, most of my questions were not getting answered. Public material discussed the influences of the classical Greek nude, Zeibekiko dance, folk art, Byzantine icons and Tsarouchis’ work in stage design and theater with a mostly academic, stylistic and historical analysis. The most audacious fact remained the rendering of the artist’s subjects—whether clothed or not—within his erotic gaze. The significance of the Eros that is deeply infused in all his male portraits and nudes struck me as being sidelined within in the official public presentation.
After much digging, I found the answers to most of my questions in a single essay buried on p. 271 of the exhibition catalog. After reading In Search of Divine Lightning by Evgenious D. Mattiopoulos I recognized that part of this problem had happened before.
The progressive respected art critics of the time, left-wing and liberal, extolled and analyzed Tsarouchis’s work ideologically and stylistically. They did not however dare to interpret depictions of nude men and appeared to be exclusively interested in formal analysis. By not addressing eroticism the critics…were as censorial as the conservative media. In exercising self-censorship, they demoted eroticism conceptually and excluded it from what they deemed moral enough to interpret. 4
To what degree did the curators of "Dancing in Real Life" maintain a cautious distance from addressing the erotic power at the core of Tsarouchis work? Was it to avoid conflict with contemporary conservative religious and social forces in both Greece and the U.S.? The public texts presented in the exhibit did not adequately address how the artist managed to navigate a religiously homophobic and conservative society—and how did the struggle come to surmount that repression express itself in his work over time. I am grateful the Mattiopoulos essay shed light on how the artist attempted to cope with these circumstances.
…he pointed to homosexuality and its significance with great discretion, speaking allusively with rhetorical twists and awkward circumvolutions. He would obscure it with ambiguities, terms and meanings whose significance was opaque and permitted alternative readings. He wrote for example of “that great intoxication that is given by the acceptance of our self—whoever that may be— and by respect without limits for our desires.” 5
…there was only one subject on which Tsarouchis was uncommunicative: erotic love. It was apparently impossible for him to either dissemble or reply insincerely on the matter, and he had therefore chosen to conceal it from public view. Even when he was repeatedly provoked…he never gave a clear answer: he always shifted the issue onto indeterminate ground. 6
Clearly the artist had to hide behind a constructed mask to protect himself from the potential dangers of church, state, and Greek male patriarchy. One person who interviewed him commented that “Seeing your painting, one feels that the force of inspiration is love. Your whole work breathes a pervasive eroticism.” 7
One of Greek civilization’s lasting achievements was the invention of the nude—the unification of the body with the spirit into an idealized whole. The unity of spirit and flesh was aimed at awakening the mind as much as erotic passions. Admiration of the well-proportioned naked human body became fused with a high idealism that symbolized heroism, beauty, triumph, glory and moral excellence in the human spirit. Sexuality and love, including gay sexuality and love, was considered a normal part of life. The coming of the Christian church signaled the downfall of this classical ideal, nowhere more evident in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. For them the nakedness of the body was considered so negatively by the church that it demanded shame, punishment, and eviction from paradise. The asceticism of the church believed the body and its needs were a distraction from divinity, even going so far as to “mortify the flesh.” It elevated the importance of the spirit, while vilifying and repressing the body and its sexual and instinctual needs. Gone was the naturalistic rendering of the human body, replaced by two-dimensional Byzantine stylization, with its standardization of limbs, faces and forms that attenuate the human body into an abstract expression of spirituality.
This religious split consciousness that condemned Eros as sinful set the stage for the kind of strife that Tsarouchis would face as a homosexual in his struggle to artistically unify the body with spirit. Much of this was not conscious on his part as he had to find a way to “overcome the Christian and bourgeois puritanism of his background that he had internalized.” 8 Tsarouchis’s many depictions of his male nudes have an undeniable erotic power. Yet the frequent unsmiling faces and melancholy cast of his subjects allude to his own divided state of consciousness. No matter how great the desire for erotic and spiritual union Tsarouchis’s figurative works made before the 1960’s often exude a sadness and frustration that undeniably grew out repressive cultural and religious circumstances. To be fair one must also consider the tragic train of Greek historical events that occurred during his lifetime: the Greco-Turkish war or Asia Minor Disaster1919–22, the Second World War 1939–45, the Greek Civil War 1944–49, and coup by the military Junta 1967–74. Greek political instability and WWII made life precarious; death was a constant possibility. In Tsarouchis’ work the life-giving force of Eros is also under the pressure from the Thanatos of war, which is why his works are shadowed by a sense of fatalism about life’s precarity.
Matthiopoulos goes to great lengths in explaining how Tsarouchis’s turn toward mysticism or “divine lightning” was a subconscious way of overcoming his own internalized repressions. Mysticism allowed a space for the co-existence of psychic and erotic truth by shrouding the “love that dare not speak its name” as expressions of spiritual and historical symbolism. Tsarouchis was attracted to the mystical power of Dionysian dance as a form of transcendent spiritual worship and a means of circumventing social approbation. “From Father to son, all these dancers were initiated into divine ecstasy .… I always saw these dances as sacred rights and I try to convey their exalted character with reverence.” 9 Whether consciously or not, Tsarouchis idealization of ancient dance was a way to acknowledge its power to transcend the mind body split as a resistance against homophobia. The contemporary tradition of Zeibekiko dance was a safe way for Tsarouchis to overcome his self-repression—a socially acceptable way to participate in Greek male engagement that fused body and spirit through dance—as a means of emotional catharsis.
For a short time Surrealism provided an outlet for his frustrations. Tsarouchis wrote a number of complex and powerful poems during 1934–37 which were fomented by a disagreement he had with his teacher the Icon painter and devout Christian Orthodox artist Fotios Kontoglou. At the same time, he created Surrealist inspired drawings such as the Suicide of Gaul A (1936)—a biomorphic image of the Gaul stabbing himself while being penetrated by a giant penis. Tsarouchis admired Salvador Dali’s writings—an artist famous for using subconscious associations and sexual imagery as transgressively against the authoritarianism of his father and Spanish society. Tsarouchis’s poems came to “reflect my mental state at the time, which was a fusion of painful nostalgia for my lost childhood and at the same time an urge to finish it off ruthlessly…writing them was a necessity, so that I could have an outlet for my feelings” 10 Tsarouchis used the Surrealist technique of automatic writing based on the free flow of thoughts, bringing to the surface what lies in the subconscious mind. This created contradictory and surprising juxtapositions that could be raw and sexually transgressive, particularly regarding public morality and the church.
The agriculture of syphilis and gonorrhea, supervised by my mother, in the form of a small cannister coated in bronze with dusty fabric flowers… 11
A man set up a spirituality close to the sea. It was made of tin, in a wooden crate painted in oils. In the night the wind knocked it down killing a passerby. 12
Indeed, sometime in the afternoon, the huge spirituality fell and killed many, not officials but intellectuals. 13
Where the tram turns near the sea, in the basement, the twelve-year-old Jesus appeared in the form of a girl from Crete or Tsirigo. His mouth smelled of cream cheese. 14
When the belly of the Byzantines grew the vagina of faith opened up like a harmonious turd, all the musics alive and warm…. all these musics that fell naturally out of the belly of the Byzantines, began to smile with the innocence of the erect penis…. 15
Through Surrealist access to the subconscious Tsarouchis found a temporary outlet to expressing his anger against his repressive Greek environment and history. Though he rarely expressed his disapproval about how he was treated at one time he did confess:
People never expected anything of me; they considered me an inferior being, beginning from my relatives and ending at my few friends. Perhaps this contempt compelled me to work more intensely than I could. 16
His forays into the Modernist movements of Surrealism and Matisse-inspired Fauvism did not last. Modernist art often treated the body in a perfunctory and fragmentary, often negative fashion, against his personal need to pursue deeper tradition-based study of his human subjects.
In the 1960’s, the artist’s work starts to become more confident in the positive expression of his erotic identity most evident in his life studies of men with butterfly wings, particularly Man with Butterfly Wings in Squatting Posture: Study from Life (1965). In 1967 Tsarouchis moved to Paris, fleeing the repressive Greek military Junta. Though life remained difficult, he still had escaped into a new environment that left behind many of the social repressions and political instability of Greek society. The city gave him regular access to the Louvre with its wealth of Renaissance paintings that he diligently studied on many visits. He also took a special interest in Dutch art of the 1600’s with its realistic portraiture and intimate secular interiors
The contrast between his work of the 1940’s and the 70’s is quite striking. Naked Youth with Oleanders and a Bandage on His Hand from 1940 has a stiffness in his pose, planar rendering, and an uncomfortable apprehension in his gaze. David as Victor from 1974 inspired from Donatello’s Renaissance sculpture of David from the 1440’s, shows a confident youth expressing homoerotic self-assurance through both his nudity and stance. Most remarkable is how his flesh and muscles are painted with a supple and studied intensity.
The Renaissance art reignited the ancient Greek tradition of the classical figure, which is what the word “Renaissance” means: The re-naissance or “rebirth” of the Greek ideal of nude. The nude was an art form that had been lost during the Middle Ages, from the time of the Roman Empire’s collapse around 500 A.D to the growth of the Italian city states in the 1400’s. Through studying Renaissance art Tsarouchis was able to grow in psychological confidence to achieve the “praxis” he so long sought—theory coming to fruition
as lived experience: the transcendental union of body and spirit. The evidence of this shows up in the portraits of Dominique representing Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter from 1975. Eros is transmitted through the eyes, evident in the confidence of his gaze expressing his self-assuredness in his identity. In the same way the model of Helga Testorf was for Andrew Wyeth, the intimacy and ease of Dominique’s erotic mind-body unity is something Tsarouchis unconsciously comes to identify with, healing his own internal conflict. Throughout the 1970’s he painted many haloed male nudes in the style of ancient Roman wall paintings: erotic male sexuality and divinity in co-existence.
Tsarouchis’s sense of self confidence and self-acceptance becomes even more apparent in the intimate direct eye contact and supple rendering of Study for Benjamin Without Light Contrast (1979). The casual pose of Sailor Reading from 1980 also reflects his newfound peace, as does the sleeping nude Endymion done in 1979. Both reflect Tsarouchis’ Renaissance inspired ease within himself through his subject’s closely observed psychological, humanistic and sympathetic rendering. They are enveloped in secular interior spaces of contemplative solitude. Endymion even has a shaft of light falling on his body bestowing a state holiness to his erotic form.
Through his new environment, the spirit of Renaissance art, and the psyche of his sitters, Tsarouchis’s works shows a healing of his past internalized oppressions, even if he could not articulate this transformation on a conscious level. He reached a place that touched on the mystical transcendence he had so restlessly sought, a transcendence that is simply and directly expressed in the work of the 19th century poet Walt Whitman.
Each of us inevitable, Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth, Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth, Each of us here as divinely as any is here 17
Whitman’s confident embrace of his homosexuality and his powerful erotic fusion of body with spirit, even against the disapproval of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflects a powerful transcendental strain in American art and culture. Emerson’s transcendentalism emphasized the core goodness of people and connection with nature. His most radical achievement was declaring that connection to the divine was personal, existing outside of the overbearing Christian religious institutions and dogma of his day. This tradition of transcendentalism remains a radical force against today’s ever increasing far right patriarchy, toxic masculinity, Christian authoritarianism, homophobia, misogyny, racism and xenophobia. The radical courage embedded in Whitman’s all-embracing democratic poetic vision that sees Eros as a positive binding force expressing love for all humankind. This is why Whitman’s statement that “Each of us is divinely here as any” brings my original question about the exhibition into renewed focus. I am glad the American public has a chance to become familiar with Tsarouchis’s work in his first U.S. exhibit. But I had hoped to find a greater focus on the struggles behind the erotic basis of his work that expose the injustices of the Greek religious and social patriarchy and, by implication, the same toxic masculine forces we see rising in American society today. I was hoping to read something of Whitman’s transcendentalist courage as a sub text to the exhibit, giving voice to the reality of Tsarouchis’s desiring spirit and the erotic male gaze:
Think of loving and being loved; I swear to you, whoever you are, you can interfuse your- self with such things that everybody that sees you shall look longingly upon you. 18
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic living in Evanston, IL. She is a recipient of the Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant and exhibits internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum among many others.
1. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality Friedrich Nietzsche, 1881.
2. Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass, the “Death Bed” edition, Walt Whitman Random House 1993. P. 37
3. The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises Nikos Kazantzakis, 1960
4. Yannis Tsarouchis: Dancing in Real Life pp. 259–260
5. Ibid p. 261
6. Ibid p. 257
7. Ibid p. 265
8. Ibid p. 251
9. Ibid p. 254
10. Ibid p. 35
11. Ibid Short Stories 1935 p. 44
12. Ibid The Poems of Spirituality p. 50
13. Ibid An Apotheosis p. 51
14. Ibid p. 76
15. Ibid Ode to Renoir p. 86
16. Ibid p. 258
17. Salut Au Monde!, Leaves of Grass, the “Death Bed” edition, Walt Whitman Random House 1993. P. 182
18. Think of the Soul, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, whitmanarchive.org, p. 257