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Anthropogony:
the fate of man in the painting of Tassos Missouras
Thanassis Moutsopoulos

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death
Roses are planted where thorns grow.
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river, and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Wunderkammer: the alchemical side
The alchemists' labs with their dozens of mysterious little bottles are like caves of the forbidden, the heterogeneous, the chaotic. The inner and outer parts of the human body served as metaphors for the planets or metals, and thence to an endless series of poetic parallels with landscapes, animals, temperatures, seasons, times of the day, numbers, chapters of the Bible. As inventors of poetic metaphors and visual images, the alchemists influenced major literary works –such as Hypneretomachia Poliphili or Goethe's Faust– as well as painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Durer, Arcimboldo, Beardsley… Tassos Missouras seems to be continuing this tradition of influences from the alchemical mystery. His painting perpetuates this mystery and exploration which at some times coincided with the ontology of Western art. The works of Missouras are involved in a magical process, in the sense that they strive to transform everyday reality or representation into something entirely different. In other words, the artist reworks the adventure of human existence in order to interpret it through his own personal viewpoint. Moreover, steeped in the collectors' obsessions Missouras explores the tradition of Wunderkammern (or Cabinets des Curiosites) and the weird atmosphere from the layout of such objects. Wealthy people in the 17th century used to keep personal collections of Wondersof the World, the most wild, unnatural or shocking objects displayed in showcases. Alongside the real Wonders, i.e. the true exhibits (exotic animals, embalmed members or bones, mandrakes, fossils) they added faked or falsely described exhibits ("mermaid scales", "Sea Demons"...). Still, what mattered was that viewers saw every one of these things as genuine. To Missouras, the notion of truth in the artwork acquires an entirely different character. His painting, representational at first sight, goes into horizons which have little to do with the visible world around us.

Distortion and the Grotesque
Missouras builds on an age-old tradition of distorted and disproportionate human figures, from the wooden carvings of Africa and Oceania to the emergence of caricatures in 18th-century Europe and thence to the adoption of similar practices by 20th-century modernism: Picasso "assailed" above all the classical principles of bodily proportions. In addition to the deconstruction of the human body, in a series of paintings the geometrical and architectural space is distorted to the limit, the vision imitates that of the retina or the wide-angle lens. The geometrical distortion of perspective deforms doors and rooms and turns them into absurd spaces. If not wholly dissolved, the architectural space is undermined. Is perspective really a means of expressing the essence of things, as its proponents claim, and should therefore be seen as a sine qua non of artistic creation? Or is it just another kind of
representation which does not sum up the holistic interpretation of the world but merely one version of it, and reflects a specific cognizance and a way of life? Could it be that the perspective rendering of the world constitutes its sincere image, the truth about the world? Even if it is so, the experience from the modernist painting of the twentieth century has answered this question. Or is perspective, from the opposite point of view, a distinct system of transcription, an alternative proposition which reflects the attitude, the timeframe and the views of its originators yet still allows the existence of other equivalent systems? Indeed, such systems may have gone deeper into the true form of things; in fact, by deviating from the principles of perspective they may have got closer to the essence without in any way distorting the truth they put forth.3 Stelios Ramfos notes: "The moral is that the recent painting may have ousted perspective and representation, but the foundations of their world remains since the distinction of matter and species is still based on the form and its geometrical or chromatic expression. As Plotinus had rightly divined (ΙΙ.8, 1, 6-9) the pathological condition was not cured. What is the point of truth having fallen as a logical precept if it is now entrenched in sensation?" The answers may well lie even further back. The derogatory view of the visual arts in the Republic is atoned for by the excerpt in Philebus which is so well-known to and loved by the theoreticians of contemporary art. In Socrates' hymn to the beauty and the supremacy of mathematical shapes and pure colours, which afford us pure intellectual pleasure, we trace the distant prophecy of both non-figurative art and the intense symbolism in painting which reaches down to the oeuvre of Tassos Missouras.

Neurosis and Dejection
The Angel of Durer reflects as the artist unfolds a new European vision of Dejection after the Middle Ages. The element of the strange, the weird, the paradoxical and an ill-boding melancholy permeates the works of Missouras. The persons he paints are experiencing an inner drama, a struggle between melancholy and elation, between inner peace and madness. The enigmatic smiles sustain the sickly erotic feeling which pervades his works. Here beauty is almost idealised yet acutely fragile, bordering on decay. In his poem "Dejection: An Ode", Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes an:
…inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd.

Missouras empathises with a humanity in deep crisis. His painting is not light-hearted, yet behind his dire view of the world there lies a sense of humour. His figures, especially the female ones, have these characteristics of alienation and coldness, while an underlying eroticism persistently floats among the figures but rarely –if ever– comes to the surface. This coexistence of different worlds in his work has to do in part with his artistic influences. On the one hand he is in close exchange with the symbolist imagery of Northern European art as found in the painting of Carlos Schwabe (Death of the Gravedigger) or Arnold Bocklin; on the other hand, he converses with the entirely different worlds of the melancholy French painting of Garouste and the sarcastic pop subject matter of Ryden. In other words, underlying the deep northern melancholy is a spirited Mediterranean style.

Acherontia Atropos: The Soul as a Flame, as a Tree, as a Moth…
We know that upon death the human soul heads for the Elysian Fields, the Islands of the Blessed, Heaven or any such place of bliss, but first it must cross the "Waters of Death", writes G. Dimitrokallis – a river, a lake or the sea. This passage is often done with the boat of Charon or a similar figure in other religions, but sometimes the soul crosses the water alone over a bridge. It is a dangerous bridge, since it may be made of reed or rope, of beams shaken by the wind or –even worse– of intertwined snakes. Missouras employs a number of symbolisms of the human soul, dead or alive – the anthropomorphic trees and mother–Earth, flying flames and predominantly that of Acherontia Atropos, the nocturnal moth with the skull pattern on the back. This moth represents one of the most powerful codes in his work. Vassilis Vassilikos uses the same metaphor of the butterfly to talk about the dead hero of his novel Z (Zeta). Elsewhere, Missouras paints a human figure covered by night moths, forlorn and lost under the ethereal veil of the insects. Deadly beauty.

Eschatology
The works of Missouras seem to have a metaphysical obsession with the End, or perhaps with an extreme change in the World as we know it. Rivers of blood (?), seemingly immense seas and people floating around desperately in boats and ships. The metaphor of Noah's Ark is intense here, against the disturbing background of the "Waters of Death". If there is a dominant theme here, it is exactly this transition to "the beyond"; The entire visual mythology in his work points to this direction. The White Light which appears in many of his other works is perhaps another manifestation of the same transition to the Other World. Missouras's painting is often in tune with the visions of romantic authors, conversing with their apocryphal, paradoxical or imaginary myths. The allegorical system of William Blake, with his own construction of Heaven and Hell, serves as an archetype here. It is not easy to decipher, since its symbols and their meaning keep changing. It is the same with Missouras, whose codes are never fixed but they are adapted to the particular conditions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is based on another archetype which shows some affinities with the painting of the Greek artist and his obsession with the passage from one world to the other: the Mariner's ship sails into a strange sea where it is immobilised under a tropical sun, surrounded by weird luminous waters full of "a thousand thousand slimy things" and hostile spirits. A ghost ship appears, crewed by Death and a nightmare figure of "Life-in-Death", and the sailors fall dead one by one until only the Mariner is left alive, desperate for some water to drink. After seven days and nights of personal chastisement he wishes in vain to die, when suddenly he looks down to the "slimy creatures" and sees their "rich attire" under the phosphorescent gleam of the moonlight. Once his love for the water snakes has spilled out of his heart the spell is broken, and there comes rain followed by a wind which moves the ship –now manned by angels who have gone into the bodies of the dead sailors– back to the real world. In certain points Missouras seems to be painting a place between Heaven and Hell. Ill-boding and nightmarish it may be, but it still gives hints of a morbid eroticism. Utter loneliness, alienation and melancholy, but also a persistent confirmation of life, love and birth; of the new… In A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake claims with certainty:
"The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom
into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination
is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal.
... All things are comprehended in the divine body of the Saviour, the true vine of
eternity, the Human Imagination ".

The "Hell" of Missouras is a metaphor for the torments of the human mind – madness, depression, schizophrenia. Art, therefore –or his art, at least– is like a descent to the depths of the mind. The artistic imagination is often a strange kind of weapon. Ernst Cassirer has proffered the view that in mythical thought space and time are never seen as pure or empty forms; on the contrary, they are the major, mysterious powers which govern everything, not just our own mortal lives but the lives of the gods themselves. The painting of Tassos Missouras performs a balancing act in a timeless and placeless space. It seems impossible to determine any geographical or cultural coordinates. It is an art lost in the oceans of thought, immersed in an age-old dejection, yet strangely it acts as a barometer for our own troubled times. The words of de Musset, written in another age and for different reasons,
seem to fit the case of the painter Missouras in 21st-century Athens: "I came too late into a world too aged. A century without hope gives birth to a century without fear".

Translation: Tony Moser