Jannis Kounellis

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 23, 2023

Table of Content


Jannis Kounellis (Piraeus, March 23, 1936 - Rome, February 16, 2017) was a Greek painter and sculptor naturalized Italian, a leading exponent of what critic Germano Celant called "arte povera."

The beginnings, 1950s

Born in Piraeus, Attica, after being rejected by the School of Fine Arts in Athens, in 1956, in his early twenties, he left Greece and moved to Italy, to the city of Rome: "I arrived on New Year's Day 1956, a date that cannot be forgotten." In the Italian capital he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts where he completed his studies under the guidance of Toti Scialoja, to whom he owes the influence of abstract expressionism, which together with informal art constituted the fundamental pair from which his creative path took its start.


He made his debut in 1960, still in Rome, setting up his first solo exhibition at "La Tartaruga" gallery. Compared to his masters, Kounellis immediately shows a very strong communicative urgency that leads him to the rejection of individualistic, aestheticizing and decadent perspectives and to the exaltation of the public, collective value of artistic language; in his first works, in fact, he paints typographic signs on a light background that allude to the invention of a new order for a shattered, pulverized language.

Dating from 1967 are the first exhibitions ideologically close to the arte povera movement in which the use of everyday products and materials suggest for art a radically creative, mythical function, devoid of concessions to mere representation. Also evident are the references to the Greekness of his origins. His installations become veritable stage sets that physically occupy the gallery and surround the viewer, making him a leading actor in a space that also begins to fill with live animals, contrasted with geometries constructed from materials that evoke industrial production. In "Daisy of Fire," fire also appears precisely, the mythical and symbolic element par excellence, generated, however, by a blowtorch cylinder.

In 1969 the installation becomes a true performance with the Horses tied to the walls of Fabio Sargentini's L'Attico gallery, in a sumptuous ideal clash between nature and culture in which the artist's role is reduced to the minimal level of an essentially manual industriousness, almost as a man of toil.


With the transition to the 1970s, Kounellis's volitional enthusiasm is charged with a different heaviness, the result of disillusionment and frustration at the failure of the innovative potential of arte povera, swallowed up in spite of itself by the commercial dynamics of consumer society, manned by traditional spaces of fruition such as museums and galleries. This sentiment is expressed by the famous door closed with stones first presented in San Benedetto del Tronto and then over the years, with significant structural variations full of poetic meanings, in Rome, Mönchengladbach, Baden-Baden, London, and Cologne. In 1972 Kounellis participated for the first time in the Venice Biennale; an event in which, in the years to come, he participated several times as in the Rome Quadriennale, beginning in 1973.


The years of bitterness continue with installations in which the vitality of fire is succeeded by the dark presence of soot as live animals give way to stuffed ones. The culmination of this process is perhaps the grandiose work presented at the Espai Poblenou in Barcelona in 1989, featuring quarters of freshly slaughtered ox fixed by hooks to metal plates and lit by oil lanterns.


In more recent years, Kounellis's art has become virtuously manneristic and has taken up themes and suggestions that had previously characterized it with a more meditative spirit, capable of interpreting the primitive propensity for monumental emphasis with a renewed awareness. Examples of this new direction of research are the 1995 installation Offertorio in Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples. Naples, year 1998 "Iron Mill" permanent exhibition in Piazza Ponte di Tappia. Made in the ancient courtyard of the central building of the University of Padua a monument for the fiftieth anniversary of the Resistance, in 1995, a splendid assemblage of wooden planks, collected in the vicinity of the city, to evoke the hard work and chorus of the Resistance, to which the University made such a contribution that it was the only site awarded in Italy with the gold medal for military valor.


Major exhibitions continue in South America, such as those in Argentina (2000) and Uruguay (2001). In 2002, the artist repurposed the installation of horses at the Whitechapel in London, and shortly afterwards, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, he built an enormous labyrinth of sheet metal along which he placed, as if they were as many landings, the traditional elements of his art, such as the "coal boxes," the "cotton boxes," the burlap sacks and the piles of stones ("Single Act"). In 2004 he made an installation in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, as part of the temporary exhibition Forms for David, created to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the creation of Michelangelo's David.

In 2007 he made two installations in Calabria: With Mattia Preti at the National Gallery of Palazzo Arnone in Cosenza, and A Touch as Light as the Wings of a Sparrow.... at the National Archaeological Museum of the Sibaritide in Sibari. In 2007 he worked on the realization of the 383rd fest of Santa Rosalia in Palermo designing the triumphal float of the Saint. Also in 2007 he inaugurated in Rome the Porta dell'Orto Monastico of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, an imposing iron gate embellished with chromatic elements made of glass stones. In 2009, Galleria Fumagalli and Museo Adriano Bernareggi (Bergamo) respectively dedicated a solo show and a unique installation made site-specific to the artist. The artist creates a special installation of works proposing a reflection on art and man, evidence of the poetic reflections that have always been at the center of his work and for which he was indicated as a possible guest at the 2011 Venice Biennale of the first pavilion of the Vatican City.

Also, in 2012, a famous work of his is exhibited at the Riso Museum of Contemporary Art in the city of Palermo. In an interview highlighting his Italian citizenship, he qualified himself as a full-fledged Italian artist: "Such I am and such I have always considered myself." In the same, on the subject of painting, although he almost never made "paintings" in the strict sense, Kounellis called himself a painter: "Because painting is the construction of images. And it is such if it is revolutionary, unrestrained by the imagination."


  1. Jannis Kounellis
  2. Jannis Kounellis
  3. ^ "L'arte povera ma coraggiosa di Jannis Kounellis" pubblicato su artslife.com/
  4. ^ E' scomparso l'artista Jannis Kounellis, legato a Spoleto con il progetto "Viaggiatori sulla Flaminia", su Tuttoggi, 17 febbraio 2017. URL consultato il 30 maggio 2021.
  5. ^ Incontro con Jannis Kounellis, cittadino italiano: «Roma? La amo» - Corriere Roma, su roma.corriere.it. URL consultato il 30 maggio 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Jannis Kounellis – Biography". Guggenheim Museum. Archived from the original on 11 October 2007. Retrieved 15 November 2007.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Stoilas, Helen (17 February 2017). "Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis has died, aged 80". The Art Newspaper. Archived from the original on 17 February 2017.
  8. ^ Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. Arte Povera. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999. 251. Print.
  9. ^ Jannis Kounellis. guggenheim.org

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