The Curious Case of Yiannouli Halepa; a common – extraordinary story

Yiannoulis Halepas visiting his “Reclining Woman” at Athens First Cemetery circa 1922

Yiannoulis Halepas was a great Greek sculptor of the late 19th century.

Born on a small, prominent for marble sculpture, Greek island, he was blessed with a talent and an artistic environment to develop his art all around the island, except from his own family. His father was a marble cutter running a reputable marble business that spanned for generations. Yiannoulis was his first child and he wanted him as a clerk at his business and not an artist. His extended family did not encourage him either through his early years while he was already depicting his abilities, slaying his young enthusiasm with demoting comments and offering nothing but poor evaluations for his early yet hard-worked pieces.

Right before coming to adulthood, he clashed with his father, insisting to become a sculptor; the family reluctantly allowed him to go to Athens, to study under professor Leonidas Drosis. Three years later he graduated with honours and he was awarded a scholarship from a foundation from his birthplace to study in the Academy of Arts in Munich, under the master classicist Max Von Ritter Windmann. Giannoulis worked hard and showed great talent and maturity for his years. He was awarded the highest prize already in his first year at the Academy.

Suddenly, after only two years, his scholarship was terminated. He was shocked and was affected emotionally. Some of his biographers believe that his father arranged that, pulling some strings at the island where his contributors were. He tried to stay abroad to complete his studies and to remain closer to the centre of European arts movements of his time, but he was barely surviving.

Eventually, he returned to Athens, where people and the press awarded him the nickname “The Greek Rodin”, because of the beauty of his works and his classical style. He was given a lot of commissions, resulting in an exhausting twenty hours daily work schedule.

He desperately wanted to make a name for himself, fearing that by losing his scholarship he was deprived of the opportunity to live and work abroad, where the conditions were far better than his newly independent from Ottoman authority country of origin, where with little means and high aspirations the modern state of Greece was being formed. As it often is, newly established countries do not prioritize arts; being aware of the situation, he pursued other scholarships for Italy, but in vain.

He started making sculptures mainly for funeral monuments. He was following the wishes and commands of his patrons, while letting his own mastery piece by piece to emerge. At that time he concluded one of his masterpieces, the “Reclining Woman”, a funerary sculpture of a young lady that died out of tuberculosis; it is until today together with “Satyr and Eros” which he made fourteen times, his most famous sculptures.

He was reaching his peek at the early age of 27. But the critics in a country that has fallen behind the art movements of its time and the lack of understanding art of a different calibre from the members of the society who could commissioned his work, where creating a dry field for his unconstrained creativity. Once more, he had to face mediocre and poor reviews for his “Reclining Woman”, a piece that was restored into art’s history memory in the last decades of his life. Those days, he started doubting his ability to succeed or that he was worthy of being a sculptor.

He began to feel a suffocating pressure on his art, the pressure that usually is experienced by a person who is an artist at heart before anything else; who is asked by life to bring forth the unspoken subconscious forces of man’s idiosyncrasies and give them forms that not only describe and define them but also inspire, move, and stay within one’s purest heart-breaths. He was feeling the pressure of having to bring to people all the advanced form that he could already see and realize into the marble but for everyone else a foreign element of life that it would take years to comprehend. So he knew like all great artist that he would probably not be embraced by his own era, which also meant he would probably have a difficult life, both financially and socially.

He returned to his island, where he fell in love. Unfortunately, he was not accepted by the family of his beloved woman and he started experiencing the onset of his psychological breakdown, isolation and depression. Feeling that he has failed at his work and at the matters of the heart, he started working twenty hours again to redeem his soul. Eventually he was burnt out and he started to destroy whatever he was working on. He attempted suicide three times and begun talking to himself.

His father’s business went bankrupt. The family sold everything, including his works for nothing, just to survive. His parents decided to send him to a psychiatric clinic on another Greek island. It was the same year that Van Gogh and Nietzsche were having mental breakdowns.

During his fourteen years of stay at the mental hospital he was not allowed by the doctors to sketch or do anything with art. He was secretly making things and hide them in fear of them destroying it. Once his authoritative father died, his mother took him back to the island. He was now fifty years old and he had to face again poverty and his mother’s oppression. She was instructed to tear apart his sketches and destroy his clay. She blamed his art for his mental illness and she allowed him no artistic expression. He tried in vain to secure some of his works at different places, but the locals ridiculed him. He became the village idiot and no one was seeing him as a functional human being. His mother turned him into a shepherd and a running errands adult.

Five years later his mother dies and Yiannoulis experiences freedom from his family for the first time in his life; no one forbids him to make his art any more. Instead of mourning for her loss, he goes out to the fields where his mother was throwing the clay he was working on, he collects the broken pieces and immediately starts working on them.

His second career had just started. He resumes working systematically from memory. Unaware of what has happened to his craft the last twenty years, he unconsciously gives his forms a new style. He is not following the classicist movement any more, he is not following wishes or demands of patrons, he is expressing all of his suppressed soul; he is letting all the silencing take a voice at his clay modules. He starts working on the same theme over and over without listening but his voice, his own guts. And oddly he is in tune with the avant-garde quests to be encountered in expressionism, cubism and surrealism.

His locals still keep laughing at him but some amateur journalists discover him, creating his profile with this turbulent past in the papers; soon artists and intellectuals began to raise awareness of his work. One of the sculptors of the time and professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts proposed that the clay models be made into plaster and presented to an exhibition in Athens; curiously Halepas was awarded the prize for artistic Excellency.

Being older, at the age of 79, his niece insisted that he moves to Athens to stay with them. At his arrival, he was treated like a rare celebrity. The day he went to see the masterpiece of his youth “Reclining Woman” at Athens’s First Cemetery, after fifty years, he was accompanied by a huge crowd. Being unobstructed to create and under the tender care of his niece, he keeps on working. He tends to create double sided portraits of Christian saints at one side and mythological figures at the other; he created “Medea” over and over and many other themes from Greek tragedies. Some of them he explained are about his own state of being and his family past life. The critics praise and refer to him as “the luminous symbol of artistic creativity”. He believes that “the new Halepas has surpassed the old”. He passes away at 87.

“I do my work. I get the messages from inside of me. I got rid of nature. I was freed from imitating her. So, I can reshape nature with the rules of art. With the rules that I have discovered myself. With my experience and my reflection”, he said in one of those rare interviews of his time.

Halepas is considered to have an unusual life even for an artist. Although classically trained and like many artists of his generation, inspired by classical Greek mythology, he is usually referred to as “a modern artist who defied the academic canon”. He also had an unusual understanding of ancient Greek sculpture as upon visiting archaeological museums, he could tell the original and later parts of a sculpture, often correcting archaeological data.

His “Reclying Woman”, which was one of the first artistic conversations about death in his newly formed modern country, is a calm exuberant outpouring of animated life; the clarity and the position of her head, the movement to her body and her bedding is an open invitation to meet her now. Halepas did not hide away his sensitive human heart. Working on marble, that possess no fluidity, he gave us a work about an actively flowing still posture of a beautiful woman that is resting; she is not to wake up but we believe in such a miracle owned to the grace of her gentle sleep and the promise of her youthful smile.

Halepas reveals the paradox of life; how death is about life, how a mythological tragedy is a balanced act between pain, a revengeful Satyr, and love, Eros; he takes us further though, reminding us that our perception of reality is not evolved to see it all; we are stuck to believe in that that does not include all of it; his Satyr has the playfulness and the seductive force of Eros while Eros has the vain face of a Satyr.

Yannoulis personal life seems extreme and rare but it runs parallel to Van Gogh’s haunting themes (love rejection, artistic challenges, madness), with whom he was only two years apart and has strong similarities with the life of other great artists like Nietzsche.

Regardless, Yannoulis’ human side is the side we all share; his demons had a greater demonstrating power but they are common. A lot of children are born into families where their talents and grace cannot be understood or tolerated. These children grow up as orphans within a full family of parents and siblings. With everything around them but the voice, the permission to create from their own soul. Yannoulis was always an artist even when he didn’t have a way to express his art to the world; or is it that when an artist cannot express his craft in any form, one can no longer be consider an artist?

Confined to a life outside art and inside all the social norms of his era which by modern standards would be considered totally contrary to human therapy, he reminds us of other known cases of imprisoned souls who emerged strong; the length of his imprisonment did not silence the authentic need, the urgent demand for the realization of a life within the intrinsic vision of wholeness, personal mastery and authentic artistry.

Yannouli’s need to chizzle the marble was emanating from the purpose of his life; next to his  mundane need to succeed and secure for himself better life conditions, his primary focus was to serve his talent and not his patrons. At an early age, while he hasn’t yet perfected his reflection ability, he was drifted from the phenomena of his time, until he established a more clear understanding of nature; free from imitating life as it was shaped by his peers in his closed community, from which he derived his sense of “normal”, he reshaped the rest of what was his. And paradoxically once more, although much of what was left may not have been a lot of his life time, he became part of the greater narrative of human history, inspiring far future generations even if he remained unknown and untouched by his own.

Halepas was never ill as he kept his urgency for his artistry by any means he could find alive and present, despite all odds and the castrating effect of his community. His isolation or his neurotic mumbling was another one of his improvised peculiar ways to listen to his own sounds, to keep the connection with life, to self-remind him who he was. He knew he had an urgency to live. He was kept alive by his own urgency.

The excessive anxiety of our life, our common inability to stay calm and take control, will not offer an easy time to our tormented spirit. That does not equate failure or psychological traumas. It indicates an urgency to live and the ability to offer to ourselves and humanity affluent, luminous creativity. In search of our creative means, via our investigation and reflection and according to the true lived rules of our personal artistry, Halepas, as all great artists, forges a way to our means; to look for more interpretations than the apparent ones. His works and his life was a consistent looking in and beyond the form.

Yiannoulis Halepas story is alive resting on a funeral monument at the Athens First Cemetery, outliving his physical life. His common misfortunes took a form he could not see at his time. It let us do our work, to get our messages inside of us and to get rid of our imitations. His smirk like Satyr-Eros calls us to investigate the reality of the nature of all and urges us to know what the rules of our soul presence are. Only those that are discovered and lived by our means would reveal the higher purpose of the urgencies of our lives. If we are lucky, an extraordinary life-death composition is being carved for us too.