Biography
Early years

Giorgos Gounaropoulos (G. Gounaro) was born on March 22, 1889, in Sozopolis, a small town on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The town had been a Milesian colony in ancient times, and it had been called Apollonia in honour of Apollo, the Greek god of light. From the Byzantine era to the beginning of the 20th century, Sozopolis had been inhabited by Greeks.

Gounaropoulos was son of Anna and Elias, and he was the fourth and youngest child in the family. Fascinated by the myth of Orpheus and the supernatural lore of his hometown, he develops a dreamy sub consciousness which will, later on, redound to the integration of the visionary figures of the myth and the irrational stories he had heard during his childhood into his work.

Beginning 1900’s, the Bulgarian government launches a bulgarization campaign of the Greek population, pressuring the Greeks who live in its territory to adopt the Bulgarian national identity. It is then that the family decides to emigrate to Greece.
For a short period of time they lived in various Greek cities; finally, they settled in Athens. Living conditions in 1904 Athens are hard, and the young Gounaropoulos puts to use his natural flair for drawing and is employed by various signboard makers, providing for his family.

The neighbourhood of Gounaropoulos in Sozopolis

The house where the artist grew up

Studies in Greece

In 1907, Gounaropoulos enrolls in the Applied Arts Department of the Athens School of Fine Arts; shortly afterwards he transfers to the Painting Department. He graduates in 1912 and is conscripted to the Greek Army. He fights in the Second Balkan War and in World War I.

Meanwhile, he succeeds in the Averofian Competition and is granted a scholarship to pursue his studies in Paris. In 1919, after the end of his military service, he sets off for the French capital.

Selfportrait, 1912
oil on panel,  27,5 x 17 cm
Collection G.I. Katsigras Museum

Studies in Paris

In the beginning Gounaropoulos enrolls at the “Académie Julian”, and follows courses there until 1924, when he continues his studies at the “Académie de la Grande Chaumière” (1924-1925). Meanwhile he has the opportunity to acquaint himself with the plethora of works of art exhibited at the museums and to take in the artistic preoccupations and tendencies of his contemporary artists in the Parisian galleries. He studies the landscape and light of southern France. In 1924 he exhibits his work at the “Salon National des Beaux Arts”, the “Salon d’Automne” and the “Salon des Indépendants”.

Permanently settled in Paris, he begins to stand out in the artistic circles of the city, receiving positive reviews for his work in which his own personal style already starts to emerge. After his participation in the Salon d’Automne, the art dealers Max Berger and Alfred d’Albert become his patrons. By now working at his own atelier, at no 95 Rue de Vaugirard in Montparnasse, he often visits and paints in the area of lake Martigue, in Provence.

In autumn 1924 he returns to Athens and has his first exhibition at the Zappeion Megaron, presenting 77 canvasses from his latest Parisian work. His avant-guarde paintings startle the conservative Athenian bourgeoisie; he nonetheless receives laudatory reviews.

Apostolos Geralis, Loukas Doukas, Dimitrios Biskinis, Antonios Zohos and Giorgos Gounaropoulos (Paris, 1920)

Recognition

In 1925 he returns to Paris and devotes himself to work. He attempts to give his personal solution to the problem of light in painting, something that has preoccupied him since his first acquaintance with modern art in Paris. In October 1925 he has an exhibition at the “Galerie Vavin-Raspail”, one of the most influential Parisian galleries. The exhibition is very successful. The art critics write enthusiastic reviews about his work, and the Parisian press supports the young painter.

In March 1926 he has his second exhibition at the same gallery under a permanent cooperation contract, which means that his recognition has started to establish. He conquers the hearts of the Parisian public and succeeds, thanks to the merit of his work, in convincing a whole publicity apparatus to invest on him. The arrangement of light in the pictorial space that Gounaropoulos proposes is in step with the artistic preoccupations of the time (1920-1930), and is acknowledged by the Parisian art critics as trailblazing. Thus the personal painting style of G. Gounaro (the name by which he will sign his work ever since) is established, and it is given special mention in the art press on the occasion of his second personal exhibition in Paris. Articles on his work appear in the journals: La Vie, Les Arts Plastiques, Le Journal des Debats and in Christian Zervos’s Cahiers d’Art.

In January 1927 he has another personal exhibition at the Galerie Vavin-Raspail, and then departs for Athens, where he works feverishly on a set of canvasses that he will present the following year (1928) at one of the three most prestigious Parisian galleries, the “Galerie Georges Bernheim”, once again meeting with remarkable success. His works can by now be found in art collections in France, England, and Spain.

In 1929 he takes part in the “Salon des Vrais Indépendants”, and at the same time in the avant-garde “Salon des Surindépendants”. In spring, he presents his second solo exhibition in Athens, at the “Stratigopoulou Gallery”. It is an exhibition that stirs much controversy in the Greek capital, and articles aplenty are published in the newspapers Eleftheron Bima, Proia, Ethnos, Patris, Acropolis, Nea Estia, Protoporia, Ellinika Grammata, Ethniki Epitheorisis, and Fraghelio, expressing admiration, criticisms, and ripostes.

Blonde nude, 1924-25
oil on canvas, 91 x 64 cm
Collection G.I. Katsigras Museum

The Great Depression

From 1919 until 1930, Gounaropoulos lives and works in Paris, enjoying an established reputation. The economic depression of the years 1929-32 that depleted the buying power of the Parisian art market makes him return to Greece, intending to stay there only temporarily, with the conviction that the economic crisis will not obstruct his international career. He visits Paris for the last time in 1932, but in the same year he returns to Greece and settles permanently in his own house-studio. He marries the composer Marika Proiou, who bears him a son, the future architect Elias Gounaropoulos.

The French press will refer again to his work after the onset of the economic crisis (1933-34). Yet Gounaropoulos is by now settled and established in Greece. He will nevertheless keep occasional contact with the art critics Marius Ary Leblond and Tériade, until the end of his life.

Exhibition by the artistic group “Techni” at Zappeion Megaron (October 1931)

Work in Greece

Gounaropoulos’s return to Greece will coincide with the emergence of an important artistic movement in which the so-called “30’s Generation” will play the leading role. Artists who returned from Paris, like Michael Tombros and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, as well as Giorgos Bouzianis who came back from Germany, together with Gounaropoulos, will infuse the international avant-garde trends to the artistic life of Greece.

In 1934 Greece participates for the first time at the Venice Biennale, with works by 74 renown artists. One of them is Gounaropoulos, whose work is given special mention in the articles published in the Italian press.

The year 1935 sees an exhibition that marks a watershed in the evolution of modern art in Greece. It is the “Exhibition of the Three”, in which Gounaropoulos, Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas and the sculptor Tombros jointly show their work.

In July 1937, Gounaropoulos is entrusted by the Municipality of Athens to paint the murals of the Council Chamber of the Athens City Hall. Remaining faithful to his personal style, he creates a magnificent pictorial ensemble of 112 square meters. He employs an oil based paint mixed with wax. The mural represents the history of Athens from ancient to modern times. The historically faithful depiction of the figures, clothing and objects is due to Gounaropoulos’s meticulous study of ancient Greek vases, coins, sepulchral steles, statues, and of much of the available literature on ancient Greek art. He began working on the mural in March 1938 and completed it two years later.

In 1950-51 he paints the murals in the Church of Hagia Triada, in the Greek city of Volos. In 1958 he receives the Guggenheim Award for Greece.

Throughout the long course of his career, Gounaropoulos presents his work in more than seventy group exhibitions in Greece and abroad, four solo exhibitions in Paris, one in Alexandros Iolas’s “Hugo Gallery” in New York (1948), and twelve solo exhibitions in Greece (indicatively: 1949, Gallery “Romvos”; 1957, French Institute of Athens; 1959 and 1962, Gallery “Zygos”; 1965, 1971 and 1973, Gallery “Astor”; 1975, retrospective at the National Gallery – Alexandros Soutsos Museum)

Alongside his painting, Gounaropoulos illustrates books of contemporary poets and intellectuals, such as Andreas Empeirikos, a major Greek poet and close friend of his, Sotiris Skipis, Apostolos Melachrinos, I.M. Panagiotopoulos and Kostas Varnalis.

Gounaropoulos will die in 1977, having attained eighty eight years of life and sixty five consecutive years of artistic creation. When once asked, shortly before he died, whether he was content with his contribution to art, he answered: “Yes, because what I gave was my own personal vision, and no, because an artist’s work comprises but a slight percentage of his entire vision.”

Mural in the Athens City Hall. The apotheosis of Pericles (det.)

Mural in the Church of Hagia Triada, Volos. The Pantocrator in the dome.

The information about the life and work of Giorgos Gounaropoulos is based on the artist’s monograph by Matoula Skaltsa (Skaltsa, M., Γουναρόπουλος, Athens, The City of Athens Cultural Center, 1990).