Interview with Helene Pavlopoulou on Art, History, and Symbolism

Helene Pavlopoulou is an Athens-based artist whose work pushes the boundaries of traditional perceptions of painting. On Peri-Tecnes we love to explore work by artists who are redefining their primary medium. Pavlopoulou’s paintings create spaces where past and present commune in front of the eyes of the viewers, beckoning them to enter their fictive space. With influences from poetry, history and the Greek landscape, she presents a sensitive and thoughtful visual vocabulary.

Pavlopoulou originally studied painting under the wing of prominent Greek artist Dimitris Mytaras and engraving at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Greece. Both prove major influences on her work to-date. Her work has been exhibited numerous times within Greece as well as internationally, while she has also participated in art fairs and Biennials.

Below, follows my conversation with the artist on her practice, its influences, definitions of painting and how memory comes into play. I thank her a great deal for this conversation and the opportunity to prod and question.

TA: I noticed that memory is a prevalent element throughout your work. It appears through your visual vocabulary, like with images of horses, or the monumentalized, poetic female figure, and in some cases even in your titles. What role would you say memory plays in your practice and what do you seek to communicate to the viewer by implementing it in your work?

HP: Plato had noted, “knowledge is memory.” Stemming from this, my painterly approach evolves through my deep relationship to history, the mythical and Greek mythology. It is also influenced by the broader forms of the universal history of humanity such as those which Carl Jung studied. Resulting from all this is a testament of worldly wisdom through which, in some cases, I seek to express a collective subconscious or a person’s communion with their soul and the mysterious magic that is to be. In addition, studying the Greek philosophers and the poets of my homeland such as Homer and Elytis, alongside the study of the Greek landscape through aquarelle painting definitely strengthened my personal worldview. This assisted in my visioning of the Cosmos through icons [Εικόνες] which becomes visible in my work.

This being said, our relationship to memory troubled me since the beginning of my artistic practice. I wanted my work to reflect the otherworldly and timeless light of history. I wanted it to have an enlightening quality achieved through the main tools of color and form. In a way, I wish my works to exude a sense of mystery and allude to ancient initiations without much explanation.

The theoretical archetypes of freedom, and of the soul together with a plethora of other symbols play a central role in my work. They create a connection with Greek iconography since antiquity and the Byzantine era especially. I also borrow and translate concepts as for example Der  Blaue Reiter, or ancient reliefs with horse depictions, and incorporate them in my compositions as a contemporary glance towards history.

TA: What about the female form in your work?

HP: The female form is often ambiguous. I see her as feminist and critical towards the mechanization of gender that occurred throughout history which actually obstructs any real emancipation. She is simultaneously, enigmatically mythical which allows her, instead, to become truly free through her personal womanly mission. And since there is much conversation on the matter of choosing one’s gender for quite some time, I will note here that I am referencing Simone de Beauvoir who noted: “you are not born a woman —you become one.” I think about femininity a lot granted I am a woman artist and often feel that just being one generates resistance in the evaluation of my work. So through painting, I try to evoke questions and messages that can, at least, appeal to a more sensitive viewer and which may give my work a more philosophical or poetic, if you will, dimension.

Rose Unfading, Mixed media on relief on canvas, 2009. From the series Unsung Brides. Image courtesy of the artist

TA: I notice that some works draw direct references to past historical figures, like in Odysseus, yet, they’re not necessarily portraits in the bare, literal sense. It is almost as though you portray them through their essence and the history of their lives as expressed through symbols engaging the mind in such a wonderful way. How did you get into a practice like that? And is there a desire to keep history alive within your work?

HP: The work Odysseas (2017), also containing the Map of Rigas, is a transliteration of the portrait of the heroic figure of the Greek Revolution, Odysseus Androutsos. I used inverted colors in tones of blue to create a ghostly, otherworldly effect. The portrait is drawn from an exhibition dedicated to the liberators Simon Bolivar and Odysseus Androutsos and referencing a poem by Nikos Eggonopoulos Bolivar. The exhibition gave a contemporary approach and view on the present and future of Freedom and Democracy. Odysseus, in this specific work, however, also encompasses the notion of the Odyssey. There are multitudes of references that led to creating the body of work that Odysseas (2017) belongs to. I am still working on and enriching it. My goal is for it to be the next upcoming works to be exhibited.

Odysseas, Mixed media on relief on canvas, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

TA: You use materials in a very interesting way. You take the basic idea of painting and play with it, expanding it beyond its strict traditional sense. Some works often give the impression of a collage that exudes the depth of a fictive space where memories float around independent of time constraints. What would you say is the role of the medium you chose for your work—what does it allow you to do?

HP: Indeed, I am interested in the connection between heterogeneous elements and concepts. Especially ones which create unexpected scenes and mental connections, like the inverted perspective. I also enjoy playing and improvising, even when the structure of a work’s composition appears strict. In fact, a structured composition becomes the starting point of my liberation from an academic stance. I do not leave room for repetition or a mannerist approach to painting. My techniques, each time, are born through the needs of the respective work. The work is that which guides me to listen and look for what feels like the right means of expression. A coarseness juxtaposed with translucent elements, or drawing juxtaposed with bold colors, are antitheses that interest me greatlythey create a dramatized style. The complexity and rhythm of a painting’s composition are the foundations of my work. I adore complex compositions that resemble architecturally structured musical scores. Even in monochromatic cases, which often occurs in my practice, I invest in the strength of color as a poly-tony [sic].

Eros & Erato, Mixed media on relief on canvas, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

TA: I happen to agree that color retains a lot of power within an artistic practice. There is a prevalent use of a golden yellow hue in many of your works. Is there a specific purpose to this choice? Personally, it reminds me of the yellow of fields of wheat and that of the gold of Olympian wreaths, both of which are so strongly tied to Greece and history. I am very curious about what you have to say about this, as well as any other strong color you use to infuse meaning or to communicate something.

HP: There are parts of some of my works that indeed contain golden hues. This does relate to my childhood experiences in the fields of Thessaly with its rolling granaries shining in thousands of shades of gold in the summer. It is something I carry within me like a dowery. In my work, however, gold has been enriched with the philosophical and poetic interpretations that the color has acquired over time. It expresses the recalling of that heavenly feeling of the Archadian Idea which penetrated European art throughout centuries. It is the Genesis of the Cosmos per Hesiod and the golden generation, and the Utopia and renaissance of Nature which has suffered greatly at the hands of humanity. It is the mysticism of the transparent Greek sunlight which is responsible for the idea of the Eternal Summer. The endless golden fields of the Byzantines also reference exactly this imperceivable mystery of spirituality.

From early on I worked with yellows and ochre. But it was during a period of working on Eros (Love) when I worked with gold egg tempera. Observing the light in the summer, it is gold, and metaphysical and transporting. This is the quality I try to specifically imbue in my landscape works attempting to render them as visual equivalents to the mystic nature around me.

La Toison D’Or, Mixed media on relief on canvas. 2014. Image courtesy of the artist

TA: The depth presented in your paintings brought to mind imaginary landscapes, and for some reason, especially mythical landscapes. Has where you lived and traveled influenced your practice?

HP: I have traveled extensively carrying a folder of handmade aquarelle paper. I have immersed myself in nature as well as historical monuments, drawing while surrounded by the sounds of the wind, the sea, the birds, the frogs, and even insects during sunset. Aquarelle painting exercises my senses and sharpens my perception of space, color, and light. One must work fast and decisively with this medium. This, as a practice, influenced my larger works greatly. The bodily dimension, the senses, and emotion all become my main materials. So does music.

TA: Your CV is very impressive. You have participated in so many creative and cultural initiatives and events. What do you enjoy most about selecting the artwork that will be experienced by an audience? Such artistic events as competitions and exhibitions have the capacity to create a community (even if temporary) centered on the experience of your art.

HP: Without an audience, the work cannot come to life. I have experienced it with people who, when they do not understand a piece, it’s as though I see it dissolving, but when they study it, it suddenly begins to bloom. I believe that generating a reaction to an artwork is an integral part of artistic creation. I enjoy it as a reward for my hard work. And this work I consider sacred because it is a gift you were given, that must be translated into artwork in order to be given back to the world, like an antidoron. I look forward to more opportunities for communication because that is exactly what artistic creation and exhibitions create.

TA: Finally, I also feel compelled to ask (as trite as it might sound), how you began your path as an artist, and what led to you creating these deeply emotional works?

HP: I drew and painted for as long as I can remember. I was also a good student with much potential. Yet, life posed numerous difficulties during my adolescence which played a decisive role. I was led blindly, almost like fate, towards art. Studying Art of course also posed difficulties which I had to overcome in order to attend the School of Fine Arts in Athens. I truly believe that these difficulties and challenging life experiences created fertile grounds to see the world differently. They helped me look deeper and more thoughtfully which informs my work. Challenges, thus, became a blessing. And, as Seferis notes “difficulties rescue you.”

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