Women in chromatic lava: A rite of colours, and primordial symbolisms in Eirini Kana's painting

Haris Kambouridis

Light, colour, forms

Which is most important for a painter; is it the colour or the subject matter? This crucial question – the subject of the 19th century dispute between the followers of Delacroix and Ingres, which later on led to modern art – comes up again as a vigorous and creative consideration whenever one faces Eirini Kana’s paintings. The rich colour is the first impression to catch the viewer’s eye; abundant colour, with its tangible texture accentuated by the bas-relief brush strokes, and at the same time, colour in shadings that do not shrink from the extremes of contrast: brightly lit colour next to deep dark reds, blues and yellows; a dynamic fair which instantly declares that the painter relies upon colour in order to set forth her world.

However, this first conclusion is instantly called into question, since Kana’s paintings are not abstract; quite the contrary, there is subject matter, which is legible, manifest, eloquent indeed: A woman in some inner place, sometimes in postures of social interaction, but mostly in postures of individual self-reference, frequently naked, as if in front of a mirror or like a model posing for the painter-observer or even like an odalisque. The other complementary subjects are thus blended in so that the female figure stands out as the leading form. They are either abstract pictures reminding us of flower pots, walls, a chair and so on, or carvings on the colour material, which form small ornaments either for the hair or on the wall tapestry.

Timeless femininity

The female figure is truly the dominant feature of each and every painting; it is literally sovereign, and it organizes the whole composition. It is a woman not made up from drawing lines, but from rich coloured brush strokes, through which the shapes emerge. Kana possesses a great sense of colour; she has evidently great experience and has undergone extensive personal research. All these result in a fascinating pictorial image, full of bold contrasted colours, as well as gestures and all kinds of dialogue between the colours and the illuminative tones that very few painters would dare to use without fear of losing the harmonies.

The lights, the shadows and the colour scales partake in their own dialogue, which sets the tone for this artistic play of the gaze. In many pieces, the colours are related; each one shares common elements with the next one, expressing a sense of kinship and contextual calmness. More frequently though, one feels that the painting pulsates, that the dark colours will come at the foreground, while the bright yellows will alternately recede in the background. At times, you feel that the outline of the figure will dissolve due to the overflowing colour, which is smothered within the drawn surroundings of the body that the colour itself has created. All the forms in the painting are overexcited, like the blood in the veins, like overflowing lava, like Nature in Springtime. The viewer strongly feels the sense of an orgasm, of a Rite of Spring.

However, after the identification with and the communion of, the gaze relaxes and can see the compositional ground, the painter’s solid structures, the skillful conjunction of each piece’s separate elements.

For example, the depicted body’s postures themselves are classical and romantic at the same time. They converse with the solid standards of the history of art, the same standards, which – from Tintoretto to Ingres or Delacroix, and Toulouse-Lautrec or Gauguin, Nolde and Matisse – retained a tradition, to which all the great painters of the last centuries turned.

As for the drawing aspect, Kana refers to the woman as a sense of female identity, as well as a display for the male gaze, for which the woman “tries on” herself, or reversely, just as the traditional male erotic gaze fantasizes her. In other pieces, the woman becomes a maenad, a metaphysical figure, a probable crucial factor of life or death, a high-risk and highly tempting display for the eye that looks at her, a visual stimuli that is impregnated with the possibility of overthrowal. Deep looks, hands with long fingers that are both poetic and predatory, long gloves on naked bodies, cigarette in mouth or glass in hand, are only some of the signs that Kana uses quite discreetly in order to mark the diagnosis of the women she paints.

Colour: a placenta that gives birth to forms

The way the painter manages to portray such an old pictorial subject with such freshness and individual outlook is very interesting. Surely, her tool in this endeavour is her handling of colour; Kana is a colorist painter par excellence, she lives and breathes in the rhythm of colour and she doesn’t seem to fear its extremes, and rightly so, since she definitely “swims” in its world, regenerating her gaze through its attributes.

There are not many Greek painters in this visual arts itinerary. In the early 20th century, there was K. Maleas, the founder of modern Greek landscape, and next to him, M. Economou and N. Lytras with their sceneries and rich colours. In the second half of the same century, there was P. Tetsis, the great painter of colour and Kana’s beloved teacher at the Athens School of Fine Arts.

In one of my previous studies (“Colour and Design in the Modern Greek Painting”, “Tetarto” magazine, 1987), I was given the chance to examine longitudinally just how superficially has the philosophy of colour affected the Greek painters. For the majority of them – even for the expressionists – colour was just the “filling” of the drawn forms, not the primary source of the visual experience, its flesh and blood. “Style of Being” (Seinstil) rather than “Style of Becoming” (Werdenstil), following the distinction the great art historian Wolfflin was the first to make.

Kana views her subject – and consequently the entire world – through the generative role of colour. Light animates its attributes and energizes it. The intersection of any two colours portrays the drawing line, while the chiaroscuro creates the different levels of space. The entire world as a fantasy of fluidity, of the stirring of earthly forces, of paganism, of cosmogonic rite.

These words have other hidden meanings, too; they go deeper into the symbolisms of female deities that exist in most religions. With this last ascertainment, Kana’s paintings complete their meaning: Woman as subject matter, as well as a generative visual arts technique; a symbolic conjunction, which extends the fascination of the works of art, since it mobilizes not only the eye but also the sense of the harmonic cosmogony of forms.

Haris Kambouridis
Art historian-semiotician
Full Member of the Academia Europaea

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