Botis Thalassinos: globe-trotting painter returns home to Crete
“The turn out of the people was beyond every expectation,” said the famous artist Botis Thalassinos, commenting on the number of the visitors to his recent exhibition in the Basilica of Saint Marc in his hometown, Heraklion. “Not only had the natives turned out, but also lots of tourists hastened to come by,” he continued. “The impression that I was left with was very good. I couldn’t catch up with accepting congratulations.”
Although some time has passed since the closing of the exhibition, Mr. Thalassinos remembers it nostalgically. He is very happy every time he exhibits his work of art in his hometown, as the good words from his fellow-townsmen have a special emotional value to him.
Mr. Thalassinos was raised in difficult years – experiencing the battle of Crete in 1941, the Greek-Italian war and the German bondage. As soon as he finished school, he served in the Navy. At the same time, he auditioned for the School of Beaux Arts in Athens. Two years later he abandoned troubled Greece to relocate to Brazil. For the next five years he worked in a Brazilian television studio, while taking painting classes by the Italian professor Endimundo Migliaggio. After a few months, he studied in the “School of Beaux Arts Associacao Paulista de Belas Artes” in Sao Paolo.
His acquaintance with the Archbishop of North and South America, Jacob, brought him to New York where he worked on the hagiography of orthodox churches of the Greek community. In America, he began to be recognized as one of the most important painters of that era. He exhibits his work all over the world and he is known as the portraitist of the personalities, including Jackie Kennedy, Telly Savalas, Anthony Quinn, Pele and Nikos Kazantzakis. He also laid the foundations for a new style of art called “Photocylindricism.” His personal friend at the time, world-famous artist Salvador Dali, characterized Mr. Thalassinos as: ” . . . similar to his fellow townsman, artistic patriarch of the universe, El Greco. . .”
Famous, but still cool and modest, Mr. Thalassinos, during a recent interview, sits on the couch in his Heraklion house and talks to me about everything. He seems to be complete of life. Contented. When he says “thank God” he means it. The globe-trotting painter has now “docked” in Greece. He winters in Athens at his gallery (Patision Street 132) and the summers in Crete at his personal museum (Thenon Street 74). After a restless and rough life, shared between Brazil, America and Greece, he “disembarked” in a lee harbour. The pallet’s corsair lived tumultuously, he had been in the same salons with the greatest personalities of all ages like Salvador Dali, Maria Kallas, Aristotelis Onasis and so many others. Mr. Thalassinos, who is also famous for his roaring seas, says he is a descendant of the pirates and Saracens – his last name “Thalassinos” is not a pseudonym and means “the one that comes from the sea”, as the Greek word “thalassa” means “sea”.
I met him in his triplex home where he will stay until the end of November, and then return next summer. Here is what he had to say:
You left to go abroad very young. How were you treated as a Greek painter?
At first, I came in touch with the Greek community as I wasn’t yet familiar with the language, either in Brazil or in America. I remember that my first job in New York was the hagiography of a church in Brooklyn. My work there was favourably received, so I continued in the New York’s Cathedral doing its inside decoration. The people in America were very warm and I wanted to stay there. I didn’t want to go back to Greece, so it was urgent for me to fix my papers, which I did. After a couple of months I became familiar with the local Hebrew population. Working with the Jewish audience, I made over 120 portraits. In America I exhibited my work often. In one of my showings in 1964 I sold a painting for $250.000, a tremendous amount at that time. I couldn’t believe it myself!
What’s your relationship with traditional and modern art?
At that time, my modern works of art proclaimed my restless spirit. I was influenced by the tension of the era, and I made lots of paintings. But, I was noticing resentment on the visitors’ face, and I was hearing strange comments. Obviously, they needed interpretation of every stroke of my brush. I was eager to explain all that seemed weird, but what could I say about abstract art . . . you can’t explain it. Later, I made test periods. I passed from cubism, then stabilized in surrealism. I was also influenced by outer space. In the sixties, rockets were bringing photographic material from the planets – cylindrical shapes etc. I started putting space as my background and I was adding figures, eyes, cylindrical shapes, etc. Americans loved it. I continued this work and along with a friend of mine, who was working at the New York Times, we found a name for that style, the so called “photocylindrisism.” I could say that comes under surrealism.
From where do you get inspiration?
The summers that I came to Crete, I brought along my American car, which was needed for all my material. I drove around the entire island, painting themes from all over Crete, its life, its waters, its animals, its insular landscapes, etc. It was tiring indeed, but also very pleasant for me. I would rest sometimes in the smallest villages, just to wake up and start painting again. I have a great amount of themes in Crete.
What do you wish to say in conclusion?
What I am asking today is my work to be developed from the Municipalities, the Government, the Ministry of Culture, because I have landscapes, seascapes, portraits and works of art from all over the world, and I ask for a museum to be established in my birth town. Only then I’m going to find peace.
* The distinguished painter from Heraklion, Botis Thalassinos, died on February 2017, at the age of 91.
** Article by Maria Daskalaki