born 23 March 1936 in Piraeus, Greece; died 16 February 2017 in Rome
Jannis Kounellis, sculptor and installation artist, died little more than a month before his eighty-first birthday. He was one of Greece’s most internationally acclaimed artists, yet he left his home country in 1956 to study art in Rome. After fairly conventional beginnings as a painter, he turned to making installations and sculptures from everyday substances, like his friend Joseph Beuys. Employing such ‘poor’ materials as coal, iron, wood, burlap, tar, rusty metal, earth and fire, he created works that frequently evoked his upbringing in a harbour town and marked him out as a pioneering exponent of Arte Povera. Kounellis soon achieved recognition in Germany. His Tragedia Civile (Civil Tragedy, 1975), for example, is on permanent display in Kolumba, the art museum of the archdiocese of Cologne. In that installation viewers see their shadowy reflections in a wall of gold leaf. In front of the wall is a clothes stand with a shabby coat and a hat hanging on it. The flame of an oil lamp flickers from a side wall. These enigmatic pointers to the transience of human existence are set off against what seems like the golden glow of eternity.
This use of plain, but powerfully evocative materials to address the Last Things predestined Kounellis to accept an invitation from Har-El printers and publishers of Jaffa, Tel Aviv, to produce prints illustrating the Gospel of Thomas. For these twelve works on paper he used sand, a commonplace material that nonetheless possesses immense symbolic significance in a biblical context. The Har-El studio devised a method of making prints with sand – the terragraph process.
The Gospel of Thomas is an apocryphal text – i.e. not recognised as a book of the Bible – and was not discovered until 1942, in the Egyptian desert. It contains 114 Coptic translations of sayings by Christ written down by Didymus Judas Thomas in the second century BC. Har-El translated the gospel into Hebrew and printed the works in four groups of three. Kounellis drew in the sand, generating simple, enigmatic images featuring everyday objects, cosmic symbols and kabbalistic ciphers alluded to in the gospel text. A disc, for instance, is inscribed with the names ‘Tomas’ and ‘Jesu’ and a line separates ‘corpo’ and ‘anima’, body and soul. Various abstract signs represent the mind and soul, while a fish, some birds and a tree symbolise life. Jacob’s ladder and the Little Bear constellation, as cosmic signs, contrast with evocations of the human world in the form of a house or a petrol lamp spreading light and knowledge. The final print shows the heads of the twenty-four prophets in Israel who foretold Christ’s coming.
In this way, the twelve mysterious images, drawn in sand taken from the desert where the scrolls bearing the text had lain buried for centuries, encompass the entire cosmos, heaven and earth. The Art Council of the German Bundestag acquired a copy of the portfolio of prints in 2012 for the Art Collection of the German Bundestag.
The Gospel According to Thomas, 12 signed original prints, 21/ 38, red sand, screenprint and terragraph. Hand-printed by Nissim Ben-Nun and Rachel Haelion-Meseritz in the Har-El studio in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, 2000.
Text: Andreas Kaernbach, Curator of the Art Collection of the German Bundestag
translated by the Language Service oft he German Bundestag, in cooperation with Michael Foster