In the summer of 1932, the Athens School of Fine Arts wrapped up the academic year with an exhibition of work by the first-year students in the class of acclaimed painter Oumbertos Argyros. Yiannis Moralis showed two self-portraits in the show, which earned him a positive review by influential art critic Dionysios Kokkinos in the magazine Nea Estia.
This exhibition is the first stop in the comprehensive retrospective being held on Moralis (1916-2009) at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street Annex, in cooperation with the Greek National Gallery, the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, Zoumboulakis Galleries and the artist’s family.
The exhibition is loosely arranged in decades, covering the entire career of the great painter, engraver, set designer and art teacher, while also providing important insights into his private life.
“The 1930s section, which concerns the Athens School of Fine Arts and his years afterward as a student in Rome and Paris, includes a 1946 portrait of academic Sokratis Kougeas. Why? Because when Moralis’s father died in a car accident in 1937, Kougeas, who was a family friend, took responsibility for the young man’s studies,” explains the show’s curator, Nikos Paisios.
Moralis, he adds, was something of a prodigy and started attending Sunday classes at the Athens School of Fine Arts at the age of 13, enrolling properly at the age of 17. His impressive trajectory is beautifully narrated through the 200-odd paintings and 100 or so other objects that comprise the exhibition, starting from his childhood as a country boy in Arta, northwestern Greece, who took up art after moving to Athens with his family at the age of 11.
“Other than his enormous talent for drawing, Moralis was the most gifted person I have ever met. What you see here is not even 10 percent of his body of work. We would need three museums to show it all,” adds Paisios.
That 10 percent is impressive, though, ranging from small-scale paintings he produced as a teenager and his early celebrated work from the 1940s – when the student became the master – to designs and engravings, sculptures and architectural elements (like those at the Hilton Hotel in Athens, the Dionysos restaurant near the Acropolis and the Doxiadis residence at the foot of Lycabettus Hill), book and album covers, posters for the Greek National Tourism Organization and ceramics.
Among the last is the first dish he ever did, depicting a mermaid, for the poet Giorgos Seferis in 1960, before he went on to work with the acclaimed ceramicist Eleni Vernadaki.
The Benaki show also includes theater costumes and sets, though arguably the most exciting part comprises his portraits, and especially those depicting his family, friends and romantic partners who may never have succeeded in getting him to walk down the aisle but did inspire eruptions of color on his canvases.
“There are also a lot of stories that simply cannot be told because some of the leading ladies in his life are still with us,” says Paisios.
“Yiannis was a shy, introverted and extremely tender man who never held a grudge,” adds Peggy Zoumboulaki, a close friend and associate of 45 years. “But he always had a lot on his mind and also had secrets. We won’t talk about this now. To be honest, we’ll never talk about this, because we know he would not have wanted us to.”