Newsmaker of the Month - Athanasios Katsaras
Embassy Of Greece
Greece In America
FB TW Pin Email
Follow Amb. Panagopoulos on Twitter
Embassy of Greece
2217 Massachusetts Ave
N.W.Washington, D.C. 20008
(202) 939-1300
Press Office (202) 323-2727
Greece on the web
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Visit Greece
Invest in Greece
Greek News Agenda
Image Alt Text
Athanasios Katsaras  Newsmaker of the Month
You are both a potter and a vase painter. Could you tell us a bit about your family tradition?
In my family ceramics were always present, as my mother was a ceramist and my father was a vase painter. They were not only present as decorative items, but also as utilitarian ones. We used to make and decorate our own items. I was close to art since I was a little child. My father was a vase painter as well as a multidimensional artist. He was a glass artist (we had plenty of my father’s glass art objects), and he was a guitar soloist too. Unfortunately, he was unlucky enough to be born before the war, in a period of time with very limited opportunities for talented people. I owe a lot to him. The fact that in my formative years I used to wake up hearing him playing guitar was much more important than my apprenticeship in painting. He taught me to appreciate beauty in all its artistic forms. 
Is pottery still alive in Greece? Which are the places that have kept this tradition alive?
Modern ceramics are blossoming in Greece. People are vividly interested in pottery. Many ceramists organize small workshops with very encouraging and even exquisite results. There is often a remarkable influence of our ancient tradition, mainly prehistoric, on the works of the students. I find this very moving.

There are also ceramists all over Greece holding workshops of modern Greek pottery, namely folk pottery, some of which have attained the highest level of aesthetic perfection. As regards my own work, there are only a few workshops left. This is partly due to market considerations (will one be able to sell?) or to the preferences of young artists.
You are using the same technique that was used more than two thousand years ago.
What I mostly love in my job is to observe an object. Visiting a museum may give me the opportunity to see something unexpected, an item that had escaped my attention before. An ancient object, no matter how simple and humble it may be, always fascinates me and entices me to decipher it. If it is a toy, I think that it must have given a lot of fun to a child. If it is a white ground lekythos, lament for the loss of a loved person comes to mind. I always try to find out how the specific item was created, the techniques that the ancient master used, the problems that he encountered and the solutions that he came up with. At the same time, I want to know more about the psychology of the artist and the historical moment of his creation. The whole process fascinates and drives me to inevitably use the same (as in ancient times) creative steps. It's an exciting adventure.

You are also very active in organizing educational programs, workshops etc. Does pottery appeal to children and people in general?
When a good friend of mine, who is a teacher, asked me to pay a visit with his class to my workshop, to talk about my work and show his students how to use clay and paint pottery, I had never imagined what an interesting experience this would turn out to be. There is something very direct, vibrant and even tender in the way small children express themselves creatively. Younger kids – and they are a lot of fun – learn how to make toys out of clay as well as Minoan or Mycenaean figurines, and how to paint early geometric motifs. Older kids may learn how to paint red-figure vases or even Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes. Then they take their work with them, which always excites them a lot. There is also a lot of interest on the part of adults, and this autumn I plan to organize a workshop for adults.
Your art work is called “Amasis,” who was an ancient potter. Tell us a few things about his style as well as the other pottery styles that we encounter in ancient Greece.
Amasis was one of the most distinguished artists of the black-figure style. His work has a delicate elegance and vigour and, personally, I like it a lot. The quality of his pottery is perfect, so are his brush strokes and his grooves. He mastered the sketch and he was also a virtuoso and a visionary, who dared to innovate when it came to the use of space and colour. His favourite themes were Dionysus and the wine harvest. Unlike other archaic examples, Dionysus is not a priestly figure, and his forms lack the statue-like monumentality, which characterizes those of Exekias; however, they have a certain kindness and a unique spirituality. Amasis’ Dionysian troupes are moderately demonic. To a large degree his work reflects the effort to incorporate the (dangerous) Dionysian cult in the order of the Polis.

However, let us quickly recount the painted pottery of the historic times, starting with the geometric period, which begins after the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces and the abandoning of settlements. This marks the beginning of the Protogeometric period, which lasts for more than 150 years, during which decoration consists of lines and arcs, while the depiction of the human form disappears. The great funerary amphorae and craters with the large narrative scenes, which we admire at the Metropolitan Museum and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, especially those with the prothesis scenes, belong to the Late Geometric period in the 8th century BC.

By the end of the 8th century B.C. Corinthian potters, vigorous, innovative and refined, introduce new elements such as the contour, which gradually becomes an element of a new way of painting: the figures are black and the details are given via grooves. This is the well-known black-figure style, created in the workshops of Corinth. In the same period, Athenian artists were in a state of confusion, gradually abandoning the geometric styles. This confusion is reflected in the so-called Proto-Attic style (the large proto-attic amphora in the museum of Eleusis, the city where I live, is a typical example). Corinthian painters created what is known as the Orientalizing style during the 7th century BC. They painted lions, sphinxes, griffins, chimerae and other real or demonic beasts, and made masterpieces such as alabastra, arivalloi (perfume containers), skyfoi, olpae and oinochoae. However, the black-figure style, although invented by Corinthians, came to be known as the Athenian black-figured style, because it was the Athenians who used it to paint narrative scenes: the Olympian gods, their myths, events from the Iliad and the Odyssey and, finally, scenes from everyday life.

The Archaic era is a time of awakening and individual consciousness. Mythos (the myth) gradually retreats and numerous factors contribute to the dominance of Logos (logic, the pragmatic mode of thought). This is also reflected in vase painting, and is clearly expressed through the red-figure style. As the Archaic period reaches its end, a new way of painting comes to life, the red-figure style. Essentially, it is the technique of the contour, according to which, after drawing the figure’s contour with a thin brush, they painted the background black, while the figure kept the red colour of the clay and the details were made with a thin brush. Thus, the folds of the clothing, as well as the anatomic details were rendered in a better way. Athenian clay, through the effects of fire and oxygen, acquired a red colour since it’s heavy in iron, thus known as the red-figure style. We have wonderful depictions of the interior of houses with women chatting in the gynaeconitis (women’s quarters), the teenage vacillation with young girls conversing with Eros (love), Athenian workshops and feasting scenes. Harmony, cosmopolitanism and rationality. Then, during the Peloponnesian war (431–404 B.C.) the famous white-ground technique acquired its unique character when it was used on funerary lekythoi especially for young men who had fallen in the field. We can see them painted, lying on the steps of the grave as an offering to the youth who died defending the ideals of Democracy. With a few simple and often rush brush strokes the artist achieves the ultimate degree of emotional expression of the gloomy atmosphere of the time. Real masterpieces, covered with an air of sanctity, which often never crossed the borders of Attica.

After the Peloponnesian war, Athenian vase-painting starts declining. Revival efforts, using multiple colors and new compositions for instance, had little success. Athenian vase-painting had reached its peak, in the most elaborate and amazing way, by the middle of the 4th century B.C.
What can one learn from the various vases and their long journey through the ages?
All researchers of the ancient world use the study of vase-painting in tandem with the written sources, in order to document and analyze antiquity. However, apart from their importance as carriers of meaning for the understanding of antiquity, ancient Greek vases have immense value as actual works of art. They are creations of a civilization of great sensuousness, which, at least originally, had not separated the worldly from the sacred. It is difficult for the non-expert to comprehend the high level of expertise and empirical knowledge achieved by ancient potters during the Archaic or Classical times, as well as the complex procedure for a vessel to take shape from the gathering of the clay, until its firing. In fact, I have serious doubts whether some of those could be replicated today with an adequate level of quality. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, often, the harmonic attachment of the handle to the rim or the body of a vase is an act of great artistic value, and I do not mean the big, extravagant “red-figure” volute craters, but, for example, the humble “red-figure” oinochoe with Dionysus, Pompe and Eros, display exhibit #25190 of the MET (I stood in front of it for long just looking at it in awe…).

Ancient Greek vessels combine practical value with artistic form in a formidable way. However, nothing was granted from the start: the creator had to be able to harness a demonic element, fire, in order to keep it from ruining the labour of weeks and to exploit its effects to render the colours; but first of all he had to devise the form. That is why the work of the potter is a primary poetic procedure, as is the case with all creators, like the singer or the carpenter. A vessel could take so many different forms. It is of no small importance that Daedalus, the protector of craftsmen, was the son of a certain Metion (which implicates resourceful thinking as the basis for craftsmanship) or a Eupalamus (which indicates the skilfulness of the hand, meaning the ability of materializing the conception). Furthermore, his mother is Phrasimide (she who conceives the plan) or Iphinoe (powerful mind). But how can one discuss ancient Greek pottery without first speaking about the culture in which it was born, and how can you discuss culture without speaking of space, location, the Greek geography? The Greek world is the Greek land. It is the land of low hills, of lakes and dense forests. On every tree lives a spirit, a Melia, an Hamadryad. In the lakes and on the tree-covered mountains dwell the Nymphs and, on a night with a full moon, the goddess Selene, parts with her winged tethrippon (four-horse chariot) for a while and indulges in jumping on the backs of goats and sheep, while they lazily move around. It was under a goat that Pan sneaked up on and lay with her, as she kept running from him. The ancient Greek fable, the immaterial, is just one of the wonderful ingredients of Greek pottery. The material requires special mention. Dimensions in the Greek land are small, closer to the measure of man: small bays, small seas, small valleys. Whatever you can see, you can also reach. The weather is sweet and the succession of seasons smooth. This is the reason the Apollonian is in balance with the Dionysian. In the autumn, when Apollo left the sanctuary of Delphi, Dionysus would come to make his home there. When the Paean ceased the Dithyramb would sound. In the Greek world, all the aspects of human nature lie in harmony. In the heart of austere Sparta stands the statue of Gelos (or laughter) while Zeus (on a red-figure vessel) throws away his scepters –the symbols of his power- and chases love partners on Mount Ida. On the iconography of the vessels, as we leave the Archaic era, which enjoys the representation of myth and the heroic deed, and enter the Classical times, we find scenes from the lives of real people: we see Smikros, who painted himself and his friend Euphronius in a feast that actually took place. We even have examples of self-reference or self-consciousness, like that of the crater of Caltagirone, on which the potter depicts his humble art, with his protecting goddess throwing him a swift and tender condescending glance. Aren’t we tempted to remember Velasquez who, some 20 centuries later, drew Art itself with a homologous act of self-reference and emancipation in his famous painting? Ancient Greek painted pottery is not a simple decorative art. It is an observation of the history and the spirit of antiquity, from the beginning to the decline and ultimate death of the ancient world. It outlines to us the Greek anthropological type, the one the West boasts of having as a model. All in all, what the reading of the iconography of ancient Greek pottery offers to those who take the trouble to read it, is the feeling of the human nature of man, which, in reality, is very far from the opening sentence of modern times, when Descartes told us that the real is the measurable. It is a reminder of our nature, our limits and our destiny.

During your recent visit to the United States, you took part in workshops, met with museums, art galleries and educational programs. What is your takeaway from these contacts?

My work is very much appreciated by the American audience, as I already knew well since the times of my Amasis-Ariadne Gallery on the island of Santorini, Greece. But recognition is always a very welcome feeling! Both the attendance and the response to my recent workshops on the East Coast were amazing, and I must say I’m thrilled, and already looking forward to the next round of workshops, since the interest is there. Moreover, designated items from my collection (from the Minoan and Mycenaean eras) will soon be available at a museum store in the US.

The experiences I had in my recent trip to the US were wonderful, and I feel I owe a huge thanks to all those who welcomed me and embraced my work, but especially to the genuinely kind and helpful people at the Greek Embassy in DC.

About Athanasios Katsaras
Born in 1965 to a potter mother and a vase painter father. The ceramic tradition of his family can be traced back to Asia Minor, the land of Aeolia, in the beginning of the 20th century. He studied Sociology and Physical Education in Athens. He lived and worked on the island of Santorini in the 90s, where he set up Amasis-Ariadne Gallery and Ceramic Studio. Athanasios works with galleries abroad, and crafts replicas of frescos for use in houses and hotels. His work is exclusively by hand. Just like painters in ancient Greece, he uses thin brushes to paint red-figure and white-ground vases or thin needles to engrave the details to produce black-figure vases.
Copyright © 2014 Embassy of Greece All rights reserved.
Unsubscribe from this list | Update subscription preferences | Forward to a friend | View this email on your browser

Design: 2yolk | Design Management: Designlobby | Web Development: Spiros Martzoukos