Aris Kalaizis

His Figures and Faces seemed to be Alive

Jusepe de Ribera | St. Bartholomaeus | Oil on canvas | 50 x 38 | 1612
Jusepe de Ribera | St. Bartholomaeus | Oil on canvas | 50 x 38 | 1612

Prof. Dr. Michael Haensel from the uni­ver­sity of Leipzig describes at the example of baroque paint­ers like Rib­era and Velazquez up to con­tem­por­ary paint­ers of "New Leipzig School" like Neo Rauch and Aris Kala­izis, the role of the craft in the painting

Aris Kalaizis | Mother | Oil on wood | 39 x 31 inch | 1994
Aris Kalaizis | Mother | Oil on wood | 39 x 31 inch | 1994

Using those words above, Fran­cisco Pacheco (1564−1654) sought to char­ac­ter­ize the way Jusepe de Rib­era worked. In his tract on paint­ing, Arte de la pin­tura (1649), Pacheco dis­cussed Rib­era in one breath with Cara­vag­gio and Diego Velázquez. And there are con­tem­por­ary com­ment­at­ors who believe that craft played a great­er role in Span­ish baroque paint­ing than has been com­monly acknow­ledged. The inten­tion­ally unfin­ished Apostles, dis­played at the Museo del Greco in Toledo, show the bravura brush­work of the mas­ter. No one could fig­ure out Caravaggio's abil­ity of bring­ing out the del­ic­ate nuances of bright­ness and dark­ness without enga­ging a con­crete light source. The Mac­chi­aioli style employed by Diego Velázquez not only inspired Fran­cisco de Goya, but also the Impres­sion­ists. And, some say, Jusepe de Rib­era allegedly cre­ated a strange aes­thet­ic the­ory called nat­ur­al­ism before its time without con­sult­ing a text­book and only by work­ing with his paint­ing tools.

What's so bad about craft? Isn’t crafts­man­ship the pre­con­di­tion of all good art? The New Leipzig School of Paint­ing, or ›Neue Leipzi­ger Schule‹, brought this debate back into the scene. One of the most prom­in­ent soci­olo­gists, Richard Sen­nett, even believes the new recog­ni­tion of crafts­man­ship is a cer­tain utop­ic notion, for “when the mind is dis­en­gaged from the hand, it ulti­mately leads to the det­ri­ment of the mind.« Driv­en by the desire for upward social mobil­ity and espe­cially for an adequate com­pens­a­tion, the Itali­an artists of the early Renais­sance developed the tech­nique of per­spect­ive and also tried to gain afflu­ence as crit­ics by attempt­ing aes­thet­ic the­ory. The academies affirmed their aspir­a­tions even though the avant-garde tried once again to get rid of the­or­et­ic­al spec­u­la­tion. Nev­er­the­less, the mod­ern paint­ers of today have held on to the primacy of the artist as an intel­lec­tu­al. Crafts­man­ship, there­fore, seems to be an under­val­ued cat­egory in our head­strong, brainy era.

Aris Kala­izis, like Neo Rauch, a ›Meister­schüler‹ of Arno Rink at the pres­ti­gi­ous Leipzig Academy of Visu­al Arts, has elec­ted the Span­ish baroque paint­ers to be his point of depar­ture. In many inter­views, he openly con­fesses the admir­a­tions for his par­agons El Greco, Rib­era, Velázquez. 
There is even a paint­ing by Kala­izis (»Feld­ver­such eins«│»Field Exper­i­ment One« 2003) that cites Ribera's »Mat­ri­mo­nio Místico de Santa Catalina« (1648, Met­ro­pol­it­an Museum of Art New York). One of the first paint­ings by Aris Kala­izis is a full-fig­ure por­trait of his moth­er in the style of the old mas­ters and is clearly inspired by the Span­ish spir­it: Ribera's scru­pu­lous over­head view on a green background.

The Prax­is of Gradualness

»Fa presto« (»Rush!«) was the nick­name of Luca Giord­ano (1632−1705), but most Baroque artists took their time when cre­at­ing their paint­ings. The works by El Greco that the Ger­man Expres­sion­ists liked so much were the fruits of many steps in the work­ing pro­cess and are, there­fore, still in a much bet­ter con­di­tion today than the much young­er paint­ings by the avant-gard­ists who referred to El Greco in 1912. 
New research shows that »Men­i­nas« (1656) by Velázquez is in no way a snap­shot, as Carl Justi still believed, but was instead cre­ated over a num­ber of years with a sig­ni­fic­ant con­cep­tu­al reori­ent­a­tion half way through the pro­ject. This is also true in the case of Ribera's »Last Sup­per« (1651). The first-gen­er­a­tion mem­bers of Worpswede, the most well-known artists' colony around 1900, also took their time with their paint­ings, even though their works were made to be sold. Their ateliers pro­duced only about ten oil paint­ings – but quite a num­ber draw­ings and oil stud­ies – per year.

Aris Kala­izis, too, cul­tiv­ates the prax­is of gradu­al­ness. Like Picas­so, he hap­pens upon his paint­ings rather than seek­ing them out. He strives to arrive at a Buddhist-type of empti­ness, which brings about the neces­sary receptiv­ity of the new, before he embarks on his pro­jects. Con­sequently, he always only has one single paint­ing in his atelier and noth­ing else that may dis­turb the centered­ness of his ima­gin­a­tion. He usu­ally brings in act­ors, light­ing tech­ni­cians, and oth­er help­ers in order to recon­struct his inner image in a tableau vivant. Based on pho­to­graph­ic images that res­ult from those ses­sions, he slowly struc­tures and crafts the actu­al oil paint­ing in mul­tiple work­ing steps. One mod­ern ele­ment in his work, of course, is his com­bin­a­tion of paint­ing tech­niques (such as var­nish­ing and pas­tos) with­in one painting.

Aris Kalaizis | make/believe | Oil on wood | 23 x 31 inch | 2009
Aris Kalaizis | make/believe | Oil on wood | 23 x 31 inch | 2009

Of Ambi­gu­ity and Vision

A nov­elty in Baroque paint­ing was the inten­tion­al con­struc­tion of ambi­gu­ity in what was being depic­ted, inten­ded to activ­ate the behold­ers’ autonomy and allow for vary­ing read­ings of the paint­ing. Those altern­at­ive inter­pret­a­tions stood in stark oppos­i­tion to what the Roman Cath­ol­ic Church had declared to be doc­trine after the Coun­cil of Trent (1545−1563), namely to cre­ate clear and defin­it­ive depic­tions that could be unequi­voc­ally under­stood by the flock. This, of course, led to a num­ber of con­flicts. The 16th cen­tury offered new oppor­tun­it­ies with the rise of private col­lec­tions and art work that was geared towards them. This allowed paint­ers such as Cara­vag­gio to sell their work, in some cases even twice: once to a col­lect­or, and a second paint­ing to the ori­gin­al insti­tu­tion that had com­mis­sioned, but rejec­ted, the ini­tial piece, which was only seem­ingly con­sist­ent with »dec­oro«.

Anoth­er Leipzig-based paint­er was com­mis­sioned to paint a por­trait of Pope Bene­dict XVI, had one work rejec­ted, and sold the second ver­sion to the Church. Aris Kala­izis also painted the pontiff in »make-believe« (2009), but refused to paint mul­tiple ver­sion of that paint­ing, even though he could have sold many more. As in El Greco’s fam­ous »Por­trait of the Grand Inquis­it­or«, in which the sub­ject is depic­ted wear­ing one of the most fash­ion­able eye­glasses of the time, Kala­izis refuses to help us to make sense of his own paint­ing or to inter­pret it.

The angel in the paint­ing of the former pontiff also has some­thing real about him. It is not soar­ing through the paint­ing, but rather stands there and makes – par­al­lel­ing the pope – a rhet­or­ic­al ges­ture that seems to be beck­on­ing for that which has been prom­ised. Instead of pathos and cere­mo­ni­ous­ness, he seems to be demand­ing action. The light­ing in the Kala­izis paint­ing is appro­pri­ately focused heav­ily on Bene­dict XVI. who is illu­min­ated heav­enly (i.e. medi­ally), while his anti­thes­is and oppon­ent is unjustly stand­ing in the dark­er por­tion of the paint­ing. No paint­er of the 17th cen­tury could have got­ten away with such a provocation.

Between the New and the Old

But now there is, indeed, some­thing new in »make-believe« that lifts the paint­ing inven­ted by Aris Kala­izis far bey­ond the realm of Baroque paint­ing and leads it bey­ond the par­al­lels that we see in this or that move­ment. It is the ele­ment that makes his mod­ern­ity. The paint­ing unfolds an open-ended story in ambi­val­ent forms. He tells this story in a space that is access­ible to the behold­er. That space is obvi­ously con­struc­ted and invented. 

The 17th cen­tury couldn’t oper­ate like this, but we may find points of con­tact in the vis­ion­ary photo pro­duc­tions of the North Amer­ic­ans Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewd­son. Orches­trated or staged pho­to­graphy was developed dur­ing the 1970s in the circle of Cindy Sher­man and Jeff Wall. In the case of Crewd­son, whom Kala­izis knows well and admires, the medi­um of film, along with sur­real­ist­ic light­ing, later became an ele­ment in his work. The photo artist builds his pic­tures in an elab­or­ate set in film stu­di­os and emphas­izes the light­ing dir­ec­tions. The Amer­ic­an art his­tor­i­an, Car­ol Strick­land, inven­ted the term »Sot­toreal­ism«.

It describes gen­er­ally what Jusepe de Rib­era could have meant when he sub­sumed his art the­ory in brief terms with respect to the por­trait »Mag­dalena Ven­tura« (1631). On a painted stone in a corner of the work, we read: »Jusepe de Rib­era, Span­iard, dis­tin­guished by Christ's Cru­ci­fix, a new Apelles of his age, painted this pic­ture in won­der­ful man­ner accord­ing to life on March 14th, in the year of the Lord 1631, at the request of Fernando II, third Duke of Alcalá, Vice­roy of Napels.« In a »won­der­ful man­ner« implies that this isn’t some straight­for­ward Real­ism, and is yet the oppos­ite of an ideal­ized cos­mos of Raf­fael or Anni­bale Car­racci. Rib­era exer­cised a type of crafts­man­ship that reveals a lot of ima­gin­a­tion (»Wun­derbares«), while it is at the same time guided by nature's example and by the issues of its peri­od. Apply­ing this rationale, but per­haps without the pro­tect­or­ate of a mighty employ­er, we see the fallen angel in »make-believe«.

The par­al­lels with pho­to­graphy and film, as well as the mean­ing of the chiaroscuro, have been dis­cussed in numer­ous com­ment­ar­ies of the work of Aris Kala­izis. How­ever, crafts­man­ship is some­thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Aris Kala­izis from Crewd­son. Pic­tures, such as »Homegrown« (2011) show this very strik­ingly. Crewd­son also has the scarcely-dressed women that are being haunted by the waters in cold moon­light, but turn­ing to Kala­izis, we only real­ize that the woman is actu­ally stand­ing in water upon second glance. 

The artist Rib­era came from a fam­ily of shoe­makers in Valen­cia and had to integ­rate into a Neapol­it­an soci­ety that was to him very for­eign. Kala­izis is the child of Greek exiles, who in 1949 on account of the Greek civil war were sent to the Ger­man Demo­crat­ic Repub­lic (the DDR, East Ger­many). Accord­ing to Paul-Henri Camp­bell, artist­ic truth requires exper­i­ence in order to under­stand the art of Aris Kala­izis. Both artists, Rib­era like Kala­izis, achieve that integ­ra­tion and gain energy from their work and their exper­i­ence: being determ­ines the con­scious­ness. Richard Sen­nett argues in favor of giv­ing the opus back its dig­nity by once again immers­ing ourselves in exper­i­ence. He who cul­tiv­ates skill and does his work for its own sake also has some­thing to pro­found to say. And it is indeed so that the work of Aris Kala­izis chal­lenges its audi­ence with respect to form as well as to theory.

… I met Aris Kala­izis because he is inter­ested in El Greco, and he was the first to inform me about a El Greco exhib­i­tion that was being planned in the Museum Kun­st­palast in Düs­sel­dorf, for which I then edited an art cata­logue. It was a sur­prise for me to also find someone who is inter­ested in Rib­era as well, as I had been inter­ested in him, too. Of course, the Span­ish baroque paint­ers are not his only influ­ences, but they make up a sol­id basis and are a great top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion while enjoy­ing Rioja – which also tastes after a hard day's work.

Aris Kalaizis and Michael Scholz-Hänsel in front of the St. Bartholomew-painting (2014)
Aris Kalaizis and Michael Scholz-Hänsel in front of the St. Bartholomew-painting (2014)

Prof. Dr. Michael Scholz-Hän­sel was born in 1955 and is pro­fess­or for art his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Leipzig. His research is con­cen­trated on Ibero-Amer­ic­an art. In addi­tion to mono­graphs on El Greco and Jusepe de Rib­era, he pub­lished »Inquis­i­tion und Kunst ›Con­viven­cia‹ in Zeiten der Intol­er­anz« (2009) and was co-edit­or of »Armut in der Kunst der Mod­erne« (2011) as well as »El Greco und die Mod­erne« (2012).

©2014 Michael Scholz-Hän­sel | Aris Kalaizis

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