Panayiotis Kalorkoti

The Auction, 1982
37.5x53.3cm (sheet), 20.6x29.2cm (imp.), Edition of 40
about this collection Click image to enlarge



Totality - The Viewer


The art of Panayiotis Kalorkoti is a deeply involved exploration of human alienation and social estrangement. It ironically comments on the foibles and weaknesses of our modern civilization and on the incapacity of individuals to openly and truthfully communicate their thoughts, emotions, and desires to one another. A figurative artist, Kalorkoti is an acute observer of the human condition, and like Goya and Courbet, holds up a mirror to his society in order to expose its deceits and hypocrisies, and its social and political contradictions. Beyond this, he obsessively probes the often tense and alienated relationship the artist has with his society, his colleagues, and the art market.


Kalorkoti's art is often allegorical in content and ironical in its borrowing of the recognized subject matter and visual vocabulary of some of the most important figures of art history. A series of eight multi-plate etchings by the artist pay homage to some of the figures of art history whom Kalorkoti regards as "the fathers of modern art" - Seurat, Cezanne, Whistler, Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Pollock, de Kooning. This series visually paraphrases and incorporates imagery from some of the most famous works by these artists. Other compositions by Kalorkoti such as "Earthly Paradise", "Before and After Court", and "Cast of Characters" are directly inspired by works by Bosch, Daumier, and Hogarth. Although his art is indebted to the past, Kalorkoti is a socially critical artist who uses the visual imagery of previous generations to mordantly comment on contemporary society.


In our century a flood of historical art and mass culture imagery has been mechanically reproduced, so much so that our responses to it have for the most part become deadened and desensitized. This world of mechanical reproduction, on the other hand, has inspired Kalorkoti to create a form of art which fuses the past with the present, is rich in historical references, multi-layered in meaning, and challenging in its ambiguity. One of the hallmarks of his work is the placing of other art work within his compositions. These "paintings within pictures" must be closely considered if one is to fathom the meaning of his art for they greatly increase our comprehension of the scene depicted and are the visual keys which unlock the secrets of Kalorkoti's complicated world of allegory.


"The Studio"


Many of Kalorkoti's artistic techniques and major concerns find expression in one of his most important paintings "The Studio", 1983. Inspired by Courbet's painting on the same subject, it is also an "allegory real" about the artist's relationship with his society and the art world. In this painting, ten men appear to be visiting an artist's studio. Seven of them form a line on the right, and three are grouped to the far left. They are dressed in the historical garb of the eighteenth century Spanish court. They form a physically frozen, and gesturally affected retinue of noblemen, military officers and clerics. In other words, they are the powerful and wealthy few who control society. They are the social types that Goya was commissioned to paint but whom the deeply sensitive artist often held in inner disdain. In the centre of the canvas, Goya sits on a chair, which has been placed over a lion's skin. To his left, a figure sits on a pillow, his face hidden from view by a wide-brimmed hat. Above this veiled form, is Goya's stone-like figure "The Ghost of Fear". To its right is the famous "Maya" and its counterpart "The Desnuda". Directly above, and overpowering all of these figures and art objects are twelve self-portraits by Kalorkoti, arranged like Byzantine icons.


What can we fathom from this complicated and ambiguous imagery? What is the meaning of this "allegory real"? It fuses fantasy with reality, and dissolves the boundaries which separate the past from the present and the living from the dead. Beyond this, it is a critical commentary on the artist's isolation from society. The ten historical figures belong to both the past and the present, for Kalorkoti has given them the features and faces of his colleagues and teachers. He thus, in one brilliant stroke, equates his relationship to his peers with Goya's to his contemporaries. Standing in their stilted poses, they are psychologically distanced from their immediate surroundings and do not show any sign of interaction with the wealth of artwork which is around them. They do not look at the art of either Goya or of Kalorkoti, but rather their gaze is fixed on the Spanish artist whose back is turned against them. There is thus no direct communication between the artist and his patrons and this further intensifies the scene's aura of alienation.


Kalorkoti's self-portraits are in violent contrast to these wooden social puppets. Filled with anguish, exaggerated gestures, and grotesque facial distortions, they communicate the painfully intense emotions of the artist. His contemporaries pay no attention. These figures are deaf to the artist's screams expressed in the self-portraits which altogether seem to be paraphrases on Munch's "Cry". The artist is completely alone. His physical absence from the studio further dramatizes his social and spiritual isolation. He only appears as a prisoner within twelve picture frames.


The Spanish courtiers compared to these self-portraits and the "Maya" and the "Desnuda" appear stilted and lifeless. The art works possess a greater sense of plasticity and physical vigour than the visiting figures. Indeed, it is difficult to actually decipher what is animate and what is inanimate within this painting. The Spaniards could conceivably be lifeless figurines or two-dimensional cut-outs. The "Maya" and Goya's self-portrait are certainly more life-like and three-dimensional than these court figures. The painting deliberately denies perspective and is compositionally flat. It is difficult, for example, to determine where the floor ends and the wall begins. The self-portraits could just as well be suspended in space rather than hanging on an actual wall. The harsh, aggressive red colouring of the space accentuates this air of unreality and increase the sense of two-dimensional claustrophobia. We may even doubt the physical unreality of the artist's studio and regard the entire painting purely as a visual metaphor on art and alienation. Kalorkoti, by confusing past with present, and art objects with the living, expresses his belief that the subjective realm of fantasy possesses a force which transcends objectivity and brings us closer to ultimate truth. We are forced to ask what is truly real. What is the dividing line between reality and imagination?


The Art World


Kalorkoti also takes up the theme of how art and the artist are unappreciated by society in his etchings "The Private View" and "The Auction". In "The Private View", a rather world-weary group on men have gathered at an Exhibition opening. They neither look at nor appear to be concentrating on the artwork nor for that matter on one another. Isolated from each other, their lack of interest may not be intentional but rather is symptomatic of the self-absorption of a society that exaggeratedly prides itself on its individualism. This work is not a critique of the empty-headed socialites who frequent events of this kind but rather of the social posturing and suspicion, which separates individuals from one another. The tiny, foreshortened figure that lies prostrate and flattened on the floor is a visual metaphor for the type of emotional insensitivity which crushes the spirit of the artist.


In "The Auction", Kalorkoti composes a scene which depicts profound social estrangement. A group of buyers have assembles at an art auction. They do not socially or physically relate to one another and are oblivious of the art that is around them. Their faces are cold and mercenary. They do not come to this auction as art lovers but purely for selfish gain. They are business foes and competitors. Kalorkoti places them in confrontational poses and sarcastically relates their demeanour and physical characteristics to the peculiar species of animals that are represented in the paintings that are for sale at the auction the only person who possesses any sign of warmth or humanity is the figure at the extreme left who looks out at the viewer with a knowing smile. He is facing forward and from his intelligent gaze it can be inferred that he shares the wisdom of the owls who hang above him. Possibly, he is a young artist who does not belong in this commercial arena. The auctioneer is the business predator who orchestrates this entire event and Kalorkoti likens him to the painting of the cat which is by hide side.


Another work concerned with the art world is "Two London Painters". This painting is typical of many of his compositions which provide images which both reveal and disguise their inner meaning, in other words, imagery which both informs and disinforms. In "Two London Painters", Kalorkoti portrays two of his artist friends. At first glance, their back-to-back position implies their dislike for one another and their disinterest for each other's work which hangs in the background. Looking more closely at the actual canvas however, one arrives at the opposite conclusion. The two paintings within Kalorkoti's painting were actually physically painted onto the canvas by the two artists. What at first appeared to be a description of mutual antagonism turns out to be a celebration of the friendship and camaraderie of these two artists who have chosen to unite their disparate styles to assist Kalorkoti. In this painting, Kalorkoti seems to be saying that the artist can overcome his feelings of social isolation by collaborating and sympathizing with his fellow artists.


In the multi-plate etching "An Artist's studio", Kalorkoti takes up more formalistic considerations, namely, how does the artist maintain the integrity and freedom of abstract form within a realistically rendered, figurative composition. In this work, where we expect to see a recognizable depiction, we see instead a grid-like pattern of dots. This grid pattern at first seems to be inscrutable. At the far right of the work is an even larger dot. These dots look entirely abstract and are in sharp contrast to the realistically delineated figures of the artist and his companion, and yet they contribute to the harmony and balance of the composition. These abstract elements do not possess the psychological qualities of Pittura Metafisica nor the obscurity of Magic Realism or Surrealism. Rather, these abstract patterns demand to be recognized solely as pure form. Kalorkoti presents us with a work which although figurative allows complete freedom of form within its realistic structure. He argues that it is not necessary for the artist to employ a non-figurative style of composition in order to insure the autonomy of form. Kalorkoti has in fact, with a stroke of mastery, chosen to blow up a small series of dots which he has selected out of the thousands which comprise the surface of his etching. He thus makes the very texture and compositional technique that has fashioned this etching, its subject. As a result, content and technique are indissolubly linked.




Kalorkoti's interests extend far beyond the immediate relationship the artist has with the art work and his society. Much of his art focuses on how individuals cope with the psychological strains of living in a socially anonymous world. He has captured with sensitivity the isolation and psychological fragility of modern men and women in a series of multi-plate etchings which he calls "Portraits".


"Portrait No.4" sympathetically portrays a young man's vulnerability. His eyes are closed. He seems unable to confront the pain of his own existence. His hand is held across his neck in a gesture of self-defence. He shields himself from the viewer's eyes and gently signals his need to the outside world for peace and sanctuary. In "Portrait No.1", a woman shields her chest with both hands in a way which is both defensive and tragically vulnerable. Her face looks utterly despondent. In "Portrait No.6", an intense young man with piercing eyes tries with his expressive hand to break out of his physical and psychological shell and make contact with the viewer and the outside world. He is, however unable to do so. Something holds him back. An invisible wall separates him from us. His staring, clear eyes can easily bridge or cross this barrier, but not his hand.


Kalorkoti, in these three portraits, places himself and the viewer in incredibly close physical and psychological contact with his subjects. He has nearly invaded their inner world and probed in psychological areas which give them discomfort. Unable to open themselves up, the figures strive to protect their physical autonomy and shield their psyches from such close observation. The figures in this series of portraits are shown in close-up. Their bodies fill the entire picture plane. They are physically constricted and utterly alone.




Kalorkoti believes that psychological desolation permeates the most intimate of personal relationships. His portrayals of human love and sexuality analyse despair. In his view, relationships between the sexes in our modern world too often have become exploitative and objectified. In his etching, "A Visit" two superficially seductive women flank a middle-aged man. The faces of the three figures are shallow and soul-less, the types of faces to be found in billboards and advertisements. The women are characterless and could easily be confused with one another. They are products of mass culture and commercial society. The man standing between them is a vacuous and jaded consumer of their sexuality. The cramped, enclosed space which they inhabit forces them into physical intimacy which accentuates their psychological frigidity.


"Girl on Stairs", a multi-plate etching from 1987, is a perceptive study of sexual alienation. Kalorkoti, in this etching, places a nude female figure at the top of a staircase. Next to the staircase is a door which is slightly ajar. The black knob of the door directs the viewer's eyes towards the female figure's black panties. The knob is a Freudian sexual symbol and it points directly at the woman's genitals. The woman's body has been partially cut off. We do not see her face or head. The viewer's gaze is concentrated on her erogenous zones. Her breasts and genitals are framed by the stairs and its black banister. The woman appears to have been transformed solely into a sexual creature, a physical object of anonymity. Her physical pose appears to be a sexual invitation. She is no longer a person but an object which beckons to be used. She is placed in an architectural stage set which is generalised. She could be a middle-class wife at home or a prostitute inside a brothel. There is no way of knowing. The viewer is placed in a position of being a voyeur or possibly her next sexual partner.


A century ago, Manet's "Nana" also placed the viewer in the same position but with an essential and profound difference: "Nana" is not purely a physical object, but is given a strong and developed personality by Manet. She is an individual who exists in her own right, not a fragmented nude. "Girl on Stairs" in actuality is profoundly non-sensual and is instead cold, depersonalized and aggressive in tone. Its colours are steely and cold. The black banister next to the nude is an acute-angled wedge, an aggressive geometric form that is threateningly close to the nude. It is a forbidding barrier that separates the viewer from the nude who is placed in an environment of structured sterility.


Our animal instincts often gain mastery over us and rule human relationships. These instincts cause misunderstanding, mistrust and uncertainty. This is reflected in Kalorkoti's etching "A Moment of Anxiety" and "The Father".


Man's enslavement to his sexual urges is brilliantly depicted in the etching "The Chess Players". Kalorkoti in this work demonstrates that our outward actions are often greatly at variance with our inner desires. While the chess players play their game, their minds are filled with sexual fantasies. These fantasies are revealed to the viewer by the three nude cut-outs which hang above the chess players' heads. Each nude cut-out is placed in a position which corresponds with one of the individual players seated below at the table. The central figure at the table looks worried, as if shouldering a heavy emotional burden. His head and shoulders are pressed down. His mind is not free for the actions and decisions he must make which are metaphorically expressed by the chess game. He is too enslaved to his physical needs and instincts to act freely and think clearly.


Man's enslavement to his animal instincts is also graphically displayed in the multi-plate etching "Telefon". The telephone booth depicted here is used as a visual metaphor to represent human communication. In the scene illustrated, no one is using the telephone. Instead, a group of men, women and animals are clustered around it, blindly engaged in lewd and bestial acts. It is a frightening scene which mercilessly reveals man's sexual aggression, greed and vulgarity. This treatise on "la condition humaine" conceivably could have been inspired by William Hogarth's street scenes "Gin Lane" and Beer Street".


Kalorkoti, in his three etchings entitled "Courtship", "Love" and "Marriage" presented as a combination of picture plus title in a moral treatise, give a vivid impression of the three phases in the love life of an ordinary couple.


The general idea of a continuing story of a couple is reminiscent of Hogarth's series of six etchings entitled "Marriage à la mode". The scenes are drawn in a deliberately simplistic style, a perfect form for this sort of generalisation.


In "Courtship", man and woman, schematic and stiff as the chairs on which they are sitting, are depicted in this phase, distanced and showing their teeth in an exaggerated, formal smile.
The distance the couple initially keeps, diminishes as they reach the stage of "Love". They are shown touching, gazing into each others' eyes. Behind each figure is a picture, one of Cleopatra and one of Mark Anthony, the archetypal lovers.


In "Marriage", the bird's cage gives the basic information about the emotions of the couple; the cage is the model of this phase of the love story. The pain of being encaged and chained like the birds is even more intensified by the noise of the crying baby and the rattle. The pressure might result in aggression: the way the mother holds the rattle up in the air appears threatening. The father, indifferent to the situation turns away and reads a newspaper. An ordinary love story?


*      *      *      *


Kalorkoti follows Daumier's edict which declares "il faut être de son temps". He is an artist who is acutely aware of the social and cultural conditions of contemporary society and how these conditions affect human behaviour. While many of us feel overwhelmed by the flood of images and stream of pictures produced by our modern, technological society, Kalorkoti draws much of his artistic inspiration from this vast reservoir of existing imagery. It nourishes his creativity. From a somewhat distant and ironical vantage point, his art alludes to many of the existing images of high art and popular culture. Part of his talent is his ability to place these images in startlingly and imaginatively arranged juxta-positions which give new and fresh meaning to them.


Kalorkoti rejects the post-modernist ethos. He finds pictures for the contradictions of our time. He mirrors a world that has become so complicated that nothing stands for itself any longer; in every face, gesture and situation there is ambiguity. He is not interested in harmonizing historically disparate styles, nor in creating an art which is merely decorative. His art is not created to entertain or purely to give aesthetic pleasure. It is intensely serious. It analyses our faces and the condition of our age and comes to terms with the forces that threaten and confuse our society.


Unlike Charles Jencks, he does not wish to create a form of art which is externally decorative, one which ignores the chaos of our modern existence. Kalorkoti, rather, is willing to find and create imagery which delineates the confusion, complexity and ambiguity of this anxious age.



Eva Krabbe