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Exhibition of works by the Austrian-Greek sculptor Joannis Avramidis in Austria on show at the Leopold Museum
Exhibition view Leopold Museum. Photo: Lisa Rastl.

VIENNA.- The Director of the Leopold Museum Hans-Peter Wipplinger had personally invited Joannis Avramidis (1922–2016) to design a retrospective exhibition to be held at the museum. One year after the artist’s death, this largest exhibition of works by the Austrian-Greek sculptor in Austria to date is now being shown at the Leopold Museum. Some 100 exhibits from all periods of the artist’s work – including 50 sculptures and over 40 graphic works and paintings – afford comprehensive insights into the oeuvre of this eminent artist. The presentation, which can be regarded as long overdue recognition of this great loner of Austrian art history, conveys a sense of the fruitful tension of Avramidis’ work, with which he sought to objectify forms as much as possible while at the same time achieving a high degree of sensuality.

His formally severe but at the same time multi-faceted works have made Joannis Avramidis one of the most important protagonists of Austrian sculpture after 1945. Avramidis participated in the most renowned international exhibitions of contemporary art already in the 1960s: in 1962 he represented Austria together with Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928—2000) at the 32nd Venice Biennial, and in 1964 and 1977 he presented his works at the documenta III and VI in Kassel. In 1973 the sculptor was awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize and in 2013 he received the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria.

At the center of Joannis Avramidis’ work was man as the measure of all things. The high degree of abstraction inherent in his sculptures resulted from his search for a universal, timeless design vocabulary. The artist entrusted the design of his sculptures to a principle of construction based on mathematical rules decisively shaped by referencing pre-modern theories of Antiquity and the Renaissance. The parameters of harmony, symmetry and proportion borrowed from these traditions as well as their mathematical-geometrical basis were pivotal to Avramidis in his quest for depicting the “absolute figure”. This led him to a highly autonomous style described by Werner Hofmann as “rhythm of severity”.

The artist’s early years were shaped by flight and emigration. Born to Pontic Greek parents in 1922 in the Georgian city of Batumi, which at the time was part of the USSR, Joannis Avramidis was forced to flee to Greece with his family following his father’s persecution and death in 1939. Under Nazi-German occupation, he was moved from Greece to Vienna in 1943 as a forced laborer. These early years, shaped by fateful events and forced uprooting, fostered a strong connection between the artist and the cultural heritage of his homeland, with Avramidis deliberately referring to himself as a “Hellene”.

“Previous explorations of Joannis Avramidis’ work have all centered on Hellenism, and for good reason. A lesser emphasis has up to now been placed on the feeling of foreignness itself, however, which Avramidis openly discussed in connection with his teaching activities in Hamburg between 1966 and 1967. His stay in the cosmopolitan port city was refreshing for the artist, who said with regards his experiences in Vienna, “the negation of my identity was effectively expected or desired from the outside.” In the case of Joannis Avramidis, the inexorable demand for objectivity of Classical proportion theories and their shape derivatives was perhaps an appropriate means of remaining above temporal and spatial correlations while at the same time honoring a heritage which he could call his own.” ---Exhibition curator Ivan Ristić quoted from the catalogue accompanying the presentation

Robin Christian Andersen (1890–1969), who from 1945 was Joannis Avramidis’ painting teacher at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, introduced the young artist to the Italian Early Renaissance painters Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. The proportion theories of Renaissance, coupled with Avramidis’ interest in the proportion esthetics of Antiquity, would remain decisive for his sculptural work as well, which he dedicated himself to from the early 1950s. Avramidis’ works created between 1953 and 1957, when he was given his own studio at the Academy as a student in Fritz Wotruba’s (1907–1975) sculpture class, are characterized by the elaboration of his very own principal of construction. As his design drawings reveal, the volumes of the bodies as well as the tectonic structure of his figures are determined by his work with circular segments starting from the central axis. This way, Avramidis abstracted his figures, transforming them into unmistakable, intrinsically harmonious sculptures.

“From 1957 Joannis Avramidis brought those principles, which were already apparent in his early works – the emphasis on the vertical central axis, the horizontal structuring into individual body segments as well as the focus on the “border”, on the contour, which defines the figure –, into an increasingly constructive system. Avramidis now no longer developed his figures from the outside […], but from the inside via circular segments in order to define his figures starting from the central axis.” ---Exhibition curator Stephanie Damianitsch quoted from the catalogue accompanying the presentation

Despite his efforts to attain the highest possible degree of objectivity, Joannis Avramidis’ construction principles – according to the chosen proportion of the elevation of his figures, the number of horizontal segment sections and radii as well as the starting points of his constructional circles – opened up an impressive wealth of creative variation possibilities. The degree of complexity which increased over the years is expressed not least in the artist’s tendency of combining individual columnar figures to form groups. In this, it was always of central importance to Avramidis to make the entire creation process understandable. The artist explained the transparency of his method as follows, “This is my objective – to reveal everything in my work, to disclose the formula, so that others might use it too. That they might read and examine merits as well as shortcomings. The formula for creating a human work.”

Though Joannis Avramidis entrusted the design of his sculptures to a principle of construction based upon mathematical rules, the study of nature was a decisive factor within his work throughout his life. This tension between methodical construction and the study of nature was described by the artist as “a battle between a representational procedure […] and an abstracting process,” which he regarded as “creativity” par excellence.

In numerous nature studies spanning the various periods of the artist’s oeuvre, Avramidis focused on the motif of trees, which he regarded as directly linked to the human form via their shared principal of columnarness. This identification of trees with figures and the notion of figures “based on trees” is emphatically revealed in his 1960 mural relief Metamorphosis. In this work, figure and tree form part of a lyrical synergy which not only addresses the age-old concept of the tree in its anthropomorphic shape or the ancient theme of metamorphosis but also calls to mind the Arcadian depictions of Hans von Marées from the 19th century, in which groups of trees enter into a dialogue with the figures surrounding them.

“In the context of animated figures and trees, Avramidis’ concept of nature can be defined especially precisely […] Tellingly, the theme started to dominate at the very time that the artist was most preoccupied with entrusting organic figure volumes to the Hermeticism of construction. It is the age-old theme of the tree in its anthropomorphic form and its almost romantic-lyrical adaptation towards the figure which the sculptor had focused on since 1960.” --Michael Semff quoted from the catalogue accompanying the presentation

Via his tree studies, Joannis Avramidis arrived at his exploration of active growth, organic development and motion. The hybrid tree-man depictions in the relief Metamorphosis anticipated the series of works entitled Band Figures, with which Avramidis explicitly focused on depicting motion from the mid-1960s onwards and for which the 1966–1969 sculpture Striding Man featured in this exhibition is considered the initial work. On this new period in his work the artist himself commented, “This radical creation of static figures, which led all the way to negating the artistic process itself, elicited in me the desire to address motion next.”

In his Band Figures assembled from one to five bands, the artist deliberately neglected the depiction of body volumes to focus instead on the contour, which took on a life of its own and gained volume both in the round and the square bands with an invariable, rectangular cross-section. This new design principle opened up numerous variation possibilities to Avramidis when rendering motion, ranging from seated individual figures to dynamized, animated groups of figures. The fact that with the Band Figures symbolism took priority over sensual presence is further indication that Avramidis used these Band Figures to develop a universal sign language of the human shape beyond the depiction of the “absolute figure”.

From the mid-1960s onwards, Joannis Avramidis explored visionary concepts of sculpture which went beyond the depiction of individual figures to focus instead on the notion of community and cohabitation. In his Humanitas Columns he combined individual strung together uniaxial figures to form a single round figuration. What is striking about these works is the phenomenon of isocephaly, the equal height of the heads, which reveals the idea of understanding as the central motif and motivation. These collective bodies have their origin in the 1965–1968 work Polis presented in the first room of the exhibition. This group of figures is to be understood as a metaphor of Plato’s utopia of the city state as a unit of free and equal individuals. At the same time, Avramidis’ Humanitas Columns were conceived as part of a temple construction planned by the artist from the mid-1960s, on which the artist worked especially in his late oeuvre, but which was never realized, however. Thus, a highlight of this exhibition project is the first-ever presentation of a 13-meter-high Humanitas Column designed for the aforementioned temple construction in the main square of the MuseumsQuartier. This sculpture impressively illustrates how Avramidis embarked on a path towards architecture as a utopian concept of human community based on the sculptural methods in his late oeuvre.

“The work of Joannis Avramidis is an expression of a deeply humane attitude which, in the face of current events and challenges, has lost none of its social relevance today.” --Peter Prange quoted from the catalogue accompanying the presentation

CURATORS: Stephanie Damianitsch, Ivan Ristić

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