Jannis Kounellis

Year and place of birth: 1936, Piraeus, Greece Date of death: 2017 , Rome, Italy

Jannis Kounellis was one of the pioneers of arte povera*. He moved from Greece to Rome to study art in 1956. In his paintings, he increasingly distanced himself from the conventions of the medium. Rather than depicting natural forms, he instead painted letters, numbers and mathematical symbols, amongst other things. He would occasionally borrow words from traffic signs or billboards from the streetscape, thereby directly integrating everyday life into his work. From 1963 onwards, he began working with materials such as found jute sacks and earth. In a short space of time, Kounellis became famous throughout Italy.

After a creative hiatus and period of self-reflection lasting several years, he combined canvases with small cages containing living birds. By integrating the animals into his work, Kounellis caused art and life to coincide. He then increasingly focused on the fusion of painting, sculpture and performance. In the late 1960s, the artist used fire, which, in accordance with the social and cultural changes then underway, could be related to destruction, processes and transformation. New series were created in which elements such as flames, traces of smoke and music took centre stage.

Kounellis’ most infamous project occurred in 1969, when he had twelve horses trot into an empty gallery in Rome. The stunt was seen as a milestone in the history of arte povera. In the 1970s, Kounellis primarily focused on choreography and theatre in which music played an important role and his yearning for sensitivity rose to the surface. From the mid-1980s, the artist again focused on installations and sculptures fashioned from materials that were unfamiliar in the art world.

According to Jannis Kounellis, it is the artist’s job to interpret and commentate on a culture. His works do indeed display a strong historical consciousness of the values, traditions and ideals within Western civilisation. By combining ‘poor’ materials, he creates a symbolic, poetic visual language whose meaning we need to decipher for ourselves. Yet the artist’s background is essential to understanding his work. He constantly combined elements from classical history and personal memories of his youth in Greece with a critical reflection on the society of his time.

* Arte povera is a movement that emerged in Italy in the mid-1960s and to which other famous artists such as Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini and Mario Merz belonged. In 1967, the influential Italian critic Germano Celant first used the term ‘arte povera’ (literally ‘poor art’) to indicate a shift in the creative mindset. Artists associated with the movement worked with natural, transient, often found materials (such as stones and branches) and opposed the use of expensive counterparts (such as oil on canvas, bronze and marble). Arte povera artists wanted to disrupt the government and the art market. The movement often revealed the capricious nature of life itself through the use of ‘poor’ materials in combination with a strong focus on the human body. The movement reached its height between 1967 and 1972, but it continued to exert a strong influence in subsequent decades.

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