CHICAGO — Yannis Tsarouchis, the gay Greek artist-provocateur, was well ahead of his time. His mid-20th century paintings explored homoeroticism when such themes were still highly taboo. Dancing in Real Life, a comprehensive survey at Wrightwood 659, shines a much merited spotlight on the artist. Featuring over 200 works, it’s Tsarouchis’s first major show in the United States and makes a strong case for recognizing this modernist painter as a pioneer of queer art.

Born in Piraeus, Greece in 1910, Tsarouchis studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts while working as a stage designer. Among the exhibition’s highlights is the documentation of Tsarouchis’s work for theater and opera, including sketches for stage designs and photographs with the luminaries he collaborated with, including Maria Callas and Samuel Beckett.

Yannis Tsarouchis, “Youth Posing as a Statue from Olympia” (1939), pigments with animal glue on canvas, 69 X 99 cm (© Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation)

Tsarouchis’s painting influences ranged from Byzantine art and El Greco to Western modernism. In works like“The Thinker” (1936), and “Seated Dark-Haired Youth in Overcoat” (1937), he takes up Matisse’s ornamental approach. “The Thinker” also satirizes Rodin’s famous modernist sculpture. In Tsarouchis’s work, the sitter — a young dark-haired male in a blue striped suit — has a debonair rather than pensive air. The young man’s frontal pose and direct gaze suggest seduction, while the weightiness of the Rodin-esque hand supporting a massive head is transposed into a feather-like graze of an index finger against a cheek.

The Wrightwood show, which occupies three floors, is organized chronologically yet occasionally juxtaposes works from different periods, to stress Tsarouchis’s lasting commitment to portraying gay men. The sensuous gouache on paper, “Diadoumenos and Eros” (1970), for example, hangs alongside two pencil drawings, “Excursion by Car B” and “Excursion by Car C” (both 1937), in which Tsarouchis depicted a spontaneous jaunt to the coast. The latter’s unabashed intimacy — naked youths lounge around a car, symbols of virility — is a good example of the artist’s consistent push for frank depictions of sexual encounters.

Installation view of Yannis Tsarouchis, Dancing in Real Life, Wrightwood 659, 2021 (© 2021 Alphawood Exhibitions LLC, Chicago. Courtesy: Alphawood Exhibitions LLC, Chicago; photo by Michael Tropea)

Updating classical styles or themes was another recurrent theme for Tsarouchis. In the 1970s, for example, he queered a number of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Elsewhere, in his male nudes with butterfly wings from the 1960s, his toying with kitsch brings out the tension between the genre’s obvious sex appeal and the elaborate dressing up of its sexual content as ennobling classical allegory. Meanwhile, “Diadoumenos” likewise cloaks homoerotic content under the (very thin) guise of classical mythology.

Tsarouchis fought in the Greek military during the Greek-Italian war, and perhaps unsurprisingly explored taboos surrounding gay men in uniform. In his oneiric watercolor, “The Study for the Beach” (1962), bathers in various stages of undress linger in the shade of a large rock. The gleaming contrast of one man’s pristine white uniform against the vulnerable pink flesh of the others, brings to mind Susan Sontag’s essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” on sadomasochism and the complex role that fascist uniforms and aesthetics play in fetishistic fantasies.

Yannis Tsarouchis, “Military Policeman arresting the Spirit” (1965), watercolor and pencil on paper, 32.5 x 24.6 cm (© Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation)

In one of Tsarouchis’s most intriguing compositions, the large oil painting, “The Forgotten Garrison” (1956), three dressed down soldiers, their chests and buttocks alternatingly bared, lounge at the barracks. The composition’s dark, somber tones — one could call them Rembrandt-esque — belie the sexually charged atmosphere of their crisscrossed gazes.

Still, Tsarouchis’s boldness came at a cost. In 1952, one of his paintings was removed from an exhibition after the Royal Hellenic Navy denounced its portrayal of a sailor on a bed with a naked man as offensive. In 1959, the play featuring his set design (a staging of Aristophanes’s The Birds) was cancelled as the right-wing Greek government imposed harsh measures against homosexuality. After the military coup, in 1967, Tsarouchis lived in Paris, until 1981. Though he continued painting, and began visiting Greece again after the junta’s fall in 1974, the exhibit at Wrightwood nevertheless left me with a sense of a creative flow stymied midstream. Tsarouchis’s self-exile, in particular, made me wonder if his daring art would have been recognized more widely, or earlier, had his career not suffered disruption.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this review erroneously described Tsarouchis’s military career. He served in the Greek military during the Greek-Italian war, and did not serve on the Axis side during WWII. We regret the error.

Yannis Tsarouchis: Dancing in Real Life continues through July 31 at Wrightwood 659 (659 W. Wrightwood, Chicago, IL). The exhibition was curated by Androniki Gripari and Adam Szymczyk.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.