Yannis Tsarouchis was born in 1910 in Piraeus “…where the light is silver and gold”, and spent his childhood there. His first experiences, which later set their mark on his work and aesthetic, were of the neoclassical houses and the karagiozis shadow theatre.
In the years 1925-1928 he practised painting, doing small studies from life, landscapes with houses, still lives, portraits, and a few experiments in a post-cubist style. He presented a stage design in the exhibition of Unschooled Artists at Nikos Velmos’s Art Asylum in 1928, and in 1929 he exhibited water colours in the group exhibition entitled The houses of Old Athens, again at the art Asylum. During his visits to museums he copied examples of decorative and applied art and architecture from the so-called folk tradition (embroideries, houses from drawings of interiors, functional objects, etc.).
In 1928 he undertook his first professional work in the theatre, creating the stage designs and the costumes for Metterlink’s Princess Malena, staged by Fotos Politis at the National Theatre school. Throughout his life, alongside painting, he was to work as a stage and costume designer, and collaborated with the most important actors and directors of his time:
Yannis Tsarouchis with Christina Tsingou and Samuel
Becket in Marousi, 1967.Photo (c) Marina Karagatsi
He studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts from 1928 to 1933, and his teachers included Dimitris Biskinis (decorative art), Thomas Thomopoulos (sculpture), Yannis Kephallinos (engraving), and also Epaminondas Thomopoulos, Giorgos Iakovidis, Dimitrios Yeraniotis, Vikentios Bokatsiambis, Spyros Vikatos and Konstantinos Parthenis (painting). In his final two years at the School he studied at Parthenis’s workshop, at the urging of Pikionis. He graduated with distinction from Parthenis’s workshop.
From 1930 to 1934, as well as attending the School, he studied under Fotis Kondoglou and, as his assistant, was initiated into Byzantine painting. Fotis Kondoglou taught him the technique of Byzantine icons, fresco and printing.
During this period, Tsarouchis developed various interests, with emphasis on stage design. In 1930 he collaborated with Elli Papadimitriou, who was director of the Folks Arts store, with the aim of supporting folk craft industry, and made drawings for textiles, furniture, ceramics, and so on. He met Angeliki Hadjimichalis and studied folk costume. He learned Byzantine chant and the same year copied Fayum portraits in the National Archaeological Museum.
From Eva Sikelianou he learned how to weave on the loom and studied and copied examples of Coptic textiles. In 1934, along with Karolos Koun and Dionysis Devaris, he founded the Laiki Skini , which was dissolved in 1936. The first work on which he collaborated with Koun was a production of Chortatsis’ Erophile, for which he designed the costumes and stage sets. In 1934, he began to write surrealist poetry, an occupation that was to last until 1937.
In 1934-1935, he produced a series of abstract paintings, most of which e donated to the National Gallery. In 1935-6, having first visited Constantinople, he went to Paris for a year (September 1935-September 1936) and studied the Renaissance and the 19th century, in the Louvre and Manet and the impressionists in other museums. He enrolled in Hayterres’ atelier, were he learned engraving, with Max Ernst and Giacometti amongst his fellow students. He painted cyclists dressed as evzones and did surrealist drawings. Through Teriad (Stratis Eleftheriadis), with whom he formed a strong friendship, he came into contact with the paintings by Theophilos in the Teriad Collection, which were later to be put on exhibition in the Theophilos Museum on Mytilini.
In 1936 he returned to Greece via Rome and Naples, where he made an acquaintance with the painting of Pompeii. The paintings of the years 1936-1939 are clearly influenced by Matisse, though the colours used recall the colour scale of the posters painted by Spatharis and Dedousaros. In 1938, two years after his return to Greece, he held his first individual exhibition, with paintings of the years 1929-1938, in the Alexopoulos store in Nikis Street, Athens. These are paintings in which his personal style, the result of his studies and aspirations, begins to be apparent. He also participated the First Panhellenic Exhibition in the Zappeion, and designed the sets for Xenopoulos’s Stella Violandis at the Kotopouli Theatre.
In 1940 he fought on the Albanian front. During the German Occupation, he worked mainly as a stage designer and also as a conservator and decorator in order to earn a living. He worked as the permanent stage designer at the Katerina Theatre. In 1946 he designed the sets for Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at the National Theatre and held an exhibition of preliminary drawings for stage sets and water colours at the Romvos Gallery. He was a founder member of the Armos Group (1949), which held its first exhibition in the Zappeion, in which he participated with eight paintings from the years 1938-1948. After this, he also participated in the Armos exhibitions of 1950, 1953 and 1954.
In 1951 he exhibited in Paris for the first time, presenting paintings of the years 1936-1939 and 1948-1950 in the Gallerie d’Art du Faubourg; these works also went on display in this same year in the Redfern Gallery in London. In 1952, the British Council in Athens held an exhibition of his paintings from the years 1932-1952, including stage designs and drawings.
In 1953 he took part in the Panhellenic exhibition on the Zappeion and after this in the group exhibition at Armos. In this same year he exhibited portraits and landscapes at the Payne Gallery, and signed a contract with the Iolas Gallery in New York. His agreement with Alexander Iolas gave him a steady income in return for the works he painted at that period (1953-1957), which allowed him to paint some of his best works, such as the Neon, Parthenon and Mavrokephalos Coffee-houses, and Forgotten garrison. His paintings, which he had submitted as a candidate for the Guggenheim prize, were exhibited in the 1958 in the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris and then at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the same year he participated, along with Andonis Sochos and Yannis Moralis, in the Greek stand at the Venice Biennale.
In 1958 he went to the Dallas Civic Opera in Texas and designed the sets and costumes for Cherubini’s opera Medea, directed by Alexis Minotis and with Maria Callas in the leading role. This opera was later performed in Covent Garden, London, at Epidavros and at La Scala, Milan. For the entire period 1958-1962 he worked mainly as a stage designer (Bellini’s Norma, with Maria Callas, at Epidayuros, and Oedipus, directed by Alexis Minotis at the theatre Olympico in Vicenza). In the years 1960-1962 he taught stage design at the Doxiadis School and was artistic adviser to the Commercial Bank of Greece. He designed the sets for Thais at the Dallas Opera House, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. In 1961, he held and individual exhibition in the Zoumboulakis Gallery, which included paintings on the subject Flowers from St Jean Cap-Ferrat in France, and also the stage designs for the operas Medea and Thais. In 1962 he made the sets and costumes for Aristophanes’ Birds, directed by Karolos Koun at the Theatre of the Nations in Paris
In 1965 he created the sets and costumes for the Trojan Women, directed by Michael Cacoyannis at the Theatre des Nations, and for the Persians, directed by Karolos Koun at the Aldwych Theatre, London. This same year he exhibited some of his “imaginary landscapes” in the Meziki Antique shop. In 1966 he exhibited paintings done in the years 1965-1966 at the Merlin Gallery and held a retrospective exhibition in the Astor Gallery with paintings of the years 1918-1940. At the invitation of the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris, he painted a portrait for a group exhibition which included a number of important artists (Bacon, Braque, Chagall, Giacometti, Modigliani and Picasso).
When the dictatorship was imposed on Greece in 1967, he moved to Paris, which he finally left in 1983. From 1967 to 1975, although he collaborated on only a few plays, he made stage designs for his ideal performances. At the same period, along with the stage designer Lila de Nobili, he founded a kind of academy for teaching drawing, which attracted occasional French and Greek students, who studied drawing from life at no fee. This academy was to close in 1970.
During the period 1972-1973 an exhibition of his works from the years 1938-1959 was held at the Zouboulakis Gallery, the paintings for which came from the Iolas Collection.
In 1974 an exhibition of his work was organised at the Il Gabbiano Gallery in Rome, part of which was then transferred to the Forni Gallery in Bologna. The Il Gabbiano Gallery also organised an exhibition of his work in 1980 at the International Modern Art Fair in the Grand Palais, Paris, and another after his death in 1989. Paintings by him were displayed in the exhibition Four Painters of 20h century Greece: Theophilos, Kontoilou, Ghia, Tsarouchis held in the Wildenstain Gallery in London as part of the Greek Month in 1975.
From 1975 to 1983 he lived between Athens and Paris. In 1977, he staged Euripides Trojan Women in a n open-air parking lot in the centre of Athens, translating and producing the play and designing the stage sets himself. All his life, he also worked as an illustrator, translator and author of books of art. In 1978, Zygos Gallery organised an exhibition of his drawings. In 1981, the Macedonian Museum of Modern Art organised the only major retrospective exhibition of his work in the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
In 1981, he created the Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation, which is housed in his house at Maroussi, with the objective disseminating and encouraging the study of his work. In 1982, this opened as the Tsarouchis Museum, and organises annual exhibitions on particular themes from his entire oeuvre.
In 1982, he held an exhibition of paintings at the Zouboulakis Gallery entitled Zeibekika. The same year, Yannis Tsarouchis staged Aescylu’s Seven Against Thebes, which he translated, produced and designed the sets himself, in a theatre he made at Moschopodio in Thebes. The play was subsequently performed at Elefsina and in Lykavitos Theatre in Athens.
In the years 1983-1989, a series of exhibitions were held, of which those in the Zygos Gallerie, Gallery 3, and the Skoupha Hall may be mentioned. In 1986, an exhibition of photographs of the Tsarouchis’s stage sets was organised by the Thretre National du Chaillot, to accompany the performance there of the Electra, directed by Antoine Vitez, to stage designs by Yannis Kokkos, and with Yannis Tsarouchis’s painting Piraeus from Gionis’s House as a backdrop.
In 1987-1988 a major exhibition of models of his stage designs was held in the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art. He continued to work as a stage designer to the end of his life.
In 1989, he was preparing to stage Euripides’ Orestes, translated, directed and with sets and costumes by himself, when death intervened on July 20th.