An artist with a multifaceted personality, Tsarouchis was open to all knowledge, whatever its provenance. He was cosmopolitan but a lover of his Greek heritage; modern and traditional, a humanist and a Christian. He was realistic and idealistic, an artist and an intellectual; well versed in the principles that regulate history, society, man and culture. Bittersweet when it came to the indifference of the Greek race, a trait which he also found in himself, Tsarouchis, austere and conservative, was nevertheless a rebel; he had a broad social consciousness that made him distance himself from the role of the artist. One of the most creative members of the ‘Generation of Thirty’, Tsarouchis considered it necessary, after the destruction of Asia Minor, to explore dominant modern culture, his goal to then amalgamate this consciousness and creativeness in to a new Modern Greek reality. Therefore, he sought out elements that would comprise a Modern Greek identity and at the same time restore the lost origins of contemporary Greek traditions. His ability to be both cosmopolitan and traditional becomes a characteristic of his oeuvre, permeating every aspect of his artistic process. The latter is formed by keenly balancing elements of Greek and European traditions and the modern fabric of time around mankind – a largely folk context of humanity. His style has various modes of representation as it cuts across the painting realm and historical time.
Tsarouchis attended the Athens School of Fine Arts, where he took the ‘strict as Swedish gymnastics’ lessons of instructor K. Parthenis; although his curriculum was based on Cezanne, Parthenis later helped the artist approach the subject of the Renaissance. Simultaneously, Tsarouchis spent four years in F. Kontoglou’s workshop where he was initiated into the secrets of Byzantine and folk customs, art, music and culture, a study he referred to as ‘good-natured and good-hearted’. He was exposed to modernism and its method by ASKT tutor D. Piskionis, as well as by other extracurricular teachers and friends, namely E. Sikelianos, A. Hadjimichael, D. Diamantopoulos and S. Spatharis who also taught him the technique of using a glue or resin made from fish bones. After his studies, Tsarouchis travelled to Paris, discovering Pompeii and Fayum at the Louvre and, in the collection of E. Teriade, the folk painter Theofilos. He admired the greats (as he called them), 19th Century artists G. Courbet and Gericault, wanting to imitate their work; however, responding to the call of the times of ‘modernism through tradition’, he became swayed by Matisse instead, identifying his work through the art of Karagiozis. Tsarouchis saw a connection because the work of Matisse and art of Karagiozis shared common Eastern – mainly Persian – roots, masterful outlines of figures that are clean and bright with colour and a three-dimensional execution of the surrounding space paired with subjects that are flat and lacking volume. In addition, the study of Matisse gave him a modern model of how to render the human form in a colourful, expressive manner – details that interested him greatly.
In this way, Tsarouchis’s works from his first period (1935-1950) are obviously inspired by Matisse and Karagiozis – however, there are also traces of the influences of Theofilos, Fayum as well as elements of classical and Byzantine art. His first exhibition was in 1938 in a shop-turned-gallery ‘Alexopoulos’; the show was hailed for the revised look at folk traditions, the artist’s feelings on the subject coming through instead of a straight rendering of the subject matter, bringing to the fore ‘civilized voices’ (S. Douka). Tsarouchis was criticized, at the same time, of ‘populism’ (Z. Papantoniou), having a ‘thoughtless technique’ (H. Ziogas) and indecent themes. Tsariuchis’ ‘bad boys’ (I.M. Panagiotopoulos) are popular male figures – sailors, soldiers, soccer players – dressed or nude, standing or sitting in rooms that are minimally furnished. The subjects are posed next to single chairs, a table, a flowerbed or a mirror, their posture copied from photographs, against a monochromatic ground. His intention was to elevate these kinds of regular people, a goal he achieved with very expressive results. The subjects were represented in the standard style, synchronously, and given, for example, the traits of classical sculpture found in Olympia or a sense of allegorical content, portraying them as lovers and later, gods and demigods, as per the prototype of ancient traditional renderings. In all his works, the female presence is limited – showing his preference for the male gender; when depicting them, he represented women through the regional folk costumes typical of the Attica region, Elefsina, Atalanti, etc: the types of women easily recognizable by their dress for their social roles as wives, widows, thieves or fiancées – never, however, as affectionate lovers. Tsarouchis made portraits of friends; these works were later made to order. Some smaller works (watercolours from the 1940-1949 period) are distinctive for their multifaceted compositions and narrative tenor (‘Memorial’, ‘Arrest by the Police’, ‘Crucifixion’, ‘Eros and Death’). Similarly, some works (male nudes) are noted for their intense sensuality and exhibiting a touch of homosexual tendencies.
The years between1950-1966 served as a transitional period for Tsarouchis and his work; a progressive shift from colour into the quality of design is evident in his emphatic renderings. Some of the artist’s most visually pleasing works belong to this period, for example ‘Sailor in Winter Uniform on Pink Ground’ and the ‘Forgotten Guard’. This is also when the first neoclassical buildings appear in his compositions as well as houses with cafes (as in ‘Neon’, ‘Parthenon’, ‘Black Head’). On the one hand, these locales interested Tsarouchis for the fact that they were an integral part of his life and himself; however, he was also following the contemporary trend in Modern Greek painting at the time, eradicating the custom of rendering models in closed quarters in favour of painting outdoors, on location under the hot sun. Themes of his that distinguish the 1950-1966 period are the ‘Countryside of Atalantis’ and various Still Life paintings with flowers in vases, on a monochrome ground next to a glass of water or naval belt. He completed his first landscapes, both in a realistic context or an imagined one, such as a series of 25 small pieces which bring together a blend of childhood and adolescent memories from the artist’s youth in Faliro.
Thereafter, his final period (1966-1980, corresponding to his stay in Paris where he settled after the coup of the Greek government (1967), features works which depart from the artist’s ‘successful’ style up until that time. A radical change takes place where Tsarouchis becomes influenced by the 17th Century Baroque movement, in particular the artists Caravaggio, Poussin and Vermeer, taken from the point of view of Byzantine painting. His focus on the Byzantine in relation to the Baroque was specifically centred around the method of shading; unlike the West or Baroque style where shadows were tonal variations made by juxtaposing light and dark, in examples such as Byzantium and Fayum, shadows were the result of an inlay of separate colour scales working from dark to light. This change of style, stemming from a childhood desire to conquer the difficult art of the Renassance and produce hand-crafted works, gave Tsarouchis the opportunity to realize and practice, since he was in Paris, Renaissance-style designs, in a time when the modernism movement itself was in a period of adjustment. Consequently, the colourful, two-dimensional figures of his first period are transformed into stimulating, three-dimensional forms; the ‘formulaic’ tendencies of his Modern Greek side with its expressive distortions giving way to the new ‘precise’ bourgeoisie Frenchman. In this way, his representations became detailed and photographic.
Yannis Tsarouchis, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ca 1935, Ink and pencil on paper, 20 x 30 cm