An Essay by VINCENT KATZ
A girl grows up in Athens during the civil war. She remembers men slithering along walls, hushed conversations on street corners. Some time later, a girl of seven or eight, she is consumed by a desire to draw. She draws on every surface imaginable. The phone box at home is re-painted once a month, and is at once covered again with designs.
I got to know Marina Karella gradually, through the years, as a friend of my parents, someone who was always gracious, cultured, and, it struck me, knew how to live: giving meaning to “the good life,” that is, to see a Socratic meaning, where “good” and “beautiful” are synonymous, but also that the good life is the examined — or in Marina’s case — the fully sensed life.
At a certain point in the mid 1980s, it became my fortune to work as Marina’s studio assistant in New York, and it struck me again how dynamic Marina’s life was, how she could be focused on her work, but she never lost sight of — in fact was, and is, viscerally connected to — those close to her. She was different. She was the only person I knew who turned off her answering machine when she was out and only turned it on when she was in the studio, so that she could instantly interrupt her work to take an essential call from family or friend.
Though she has been making paintings and sculpture professionally since the 1970s and has shown her work in galleries in New York, Paris, London, and elsewhere, Marina’s art continues to be a rarified pleasure. This is partially due to the fact that Marina’s interests are not mainstream: she is not a formalist, nor is she concerned with social issues. Rather, her imagery and the effects of her textures tend to be ethereal, and there is an element of mysticism as well. Some of this, I believe, can be traced to her Greek roots.
Karella’s parents had an art collection, which included Monet, De Nitis, and Guillaumin. “My father did have a very good eye for paintings,” Karella remembers. “He had a few things of value, and we lived with them.” Also significant was a year spent in New York and North Carolina, when she was a child. As the artist remembers, “That influenced me in the sense of painting because there was such a difference between the artistic climate of a Greek school and an American school — the way they encouraged you and put your paintings on the wall. You felt you were a genius at the age of seven!” Living in the States also opened up Karella’s view points in terms of popular culture and what could constitute a serious work of art.
Karella achieved early success designing sets and costumes for the theater. It is not surprising that she would have an understanding of clothing when one considers that her father and grandfather both worked with fabrics. Her grandfather was from the Peloponnese and created a fashion trend by printing colored flowers on the headscarves he made. He had the first textile factory in Syra in the Cyclades. His son — Karella’s father — manufactured clothing materials.
Karella’s older brother, Alexander, introduced her to opera. “Music came from my brother,” she explains, “and I had a German nanny, who took me to all the concerts possible when I was 10 years old. My brother loved to sing. He was a singer basically. He wanted to go into theater, but at the time it was not considered the right thing to do, so he didn’t.” It was Alexander who knew the artist Yiannis Tsarouchis. “I always used to draw,” Karella says, “all the time, all the time. So at one point, Alexander liked what I was doing and he took my sketches to Tsarouchis, who was a well-known Greek painter at the time. I must have been around 15 years old.”
Tsarouchis embodied the myth of the Romantic artist. He scandalized bourgeois morality, made the de rigeur pilgrimage to Paris, where he met Giacometti, and — in his eyes and the eyes of his admirers — transformed Greek art in a way that wasn’t immediately understood. Tsarouchis was a classicist as well, steeped in ancient Greek literature and thought. Although he worked in a variety of styles, he is best known for his portraits of soldiers and sailors, and for introducing traditional Greek types into a somewhat modern context. Tsarouchis had a brief professional relationship with Iolas, Karella’s future dealer, but it was in the world of theater and opera that he may have achieved his most important work, doing stage and costume design for the Dallas Civic Opera, Covent Garden, and working with Maria Callas and Jon Vickers, among others, at Epidaurus and La Scala. Tsarouchis also made a lasting impression on several generations of young Greek artists.
He was a popular lecturer, with a devoted following. Some of his quotes, from interviews with the journalist Haris Livas, give an idea of his intelligence and aesthetics: “I have never thought of myself as being an artist and I still don’t believe it, even though I have been painting since I was six years old… I feel that Greece is neither East nor West. [T]here are Greek artists, especially in poetry, who have made a good marriage of both: Elytis, Seferis, Solomos, Halepas. Both East and West are inside me. Unfortunately, many others prefer only to drag Europe here.”” The idea of looking beyond the Western tradition — while being firmly based in anthropocentric Greek philiosophy — would come to have a profound effect on Karella’s later work.