To Vima, Thanasis Lalas, 03.09.1997

To Vima, Thanasis Lalas, 03.09.1997

The Umbrellas that eavesdrop on the universe

The sculptor George Zongolopoulos


George Zongolopoulos! Unknown, glorious Greek. A man of left political views who in less than seven years will have lived a century. Eyewitness of our century, exceptional artist,sculptor and painter whose name exists worldwide in all the dictionaries and art guides. Upon seeing him, he is like a delicious fruit possible because he was not exhausted by the media; maybe because he turned his back on them, not because he is rude but because he believes that ''art does not need advertising''. In Venice, a couple of years ago, he left the crowd speechless when he presented his sculpture ''Umbrellas'', a magnificent artwork that overcomes time and seems to come from the future and not from the past, the glorious past, of a man who could be said to be at the end of his career.

George Zongolopoulos! A great man aged 90-something years old who kindles with the freshness of his thought, who is not afraid to say that this artwork of Parthenis is not an original but fake and to submit his complements to Malevich, Kavafis, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse.  Unknown to the majority of people but maybe one of the most important sculptors of our era… If you don’t believe me, you can go to Thessaloniki which is the Cultural Capital, and take a walk on the esplanade…A quality will be seen. Zongolopoulos' "Umbrellas'' have been installed for over a month at the coast and send a message of the value of art in a ''deaf''  and ''blind'' era that is addicted to consumerism with an expiring date!

George Zongolopoulos! He said ''I am glad that my work was installed in its natural environment''. The Minister of Culture promised that the artwork will never leave from that spot! He will buy it and offer it to the city of Thessaloniki! ''Please'' he told me ''Do not write that…I would not like to make the Minister feel uncomfortable…maybe he changed his mind''… That person lives in Psychiko, goes around the world and exhibits his work but Greeks do not know him. It took me years to convince him to talk to me…And maybe he still wouldn’t have talked to me if Nikos and Yvonni, two friends of mine whom Zongolopoulos trusts, hadn't tried to convince him.  I thank them both… The conversation lasted many hours… It lasted as long as a dinner in excellent company… You, having no real food, enjoy the food for thought which satisfied my hunger a few days ago. God, if we only knew that we could go on living just by eating a vegetable every two days, life would be better.


I am happy that this time our conversation will be published.

''Let's see how it goes; maybe by the end of it, it won't have any interest''.

 Really, don’t you give interviews in newspapers, magazines or on-line?

''To say what?'' (laughs)

You could say a thousand things.

''Whatever I had to say I've said it with my hard work'' 

We live in an era where hard work is not enough for an artist. He also needs to communicate and present his work.

(Smiles) «I never wanted publicity».

Why? That is my question. Why did you not seek something that other people believe is necessary in order to succeed?  
«Firstly, I don’t care about success and I never did! (laughs) Not that I don’t enjoy it when people recognize my work. On the contrary, I really like it. It is just that I always believed that when something is worth discovering, it will be. It can't stay hidden.

Therefore, secrets remain hidden because they aren't worthwhile? (laughs)

"I am talking about art. Art does not need advertising".

When is advertising necessary?
«In cases of immediate consumption».

Art is not for consumption?

''Something strange happens in art: ''you eat with your eyes'' a painting that you might like or be inspired by and strangely while you satisfy your hunger the painting stays still, untouchable waiting for the next pair of eyes to ''eat'' it (laughs) In other words, that is an artwork: a human product with no expiration date! That is why it does not need advertising''.

Therefore, we advertising what cannot last in time.

''I cannot answer precisely to these questions. I am not a philosopher. I learned to express myself via my hard work''

Really, how many years have you been working for? (smiles)

"Countless! (laughs) Since I remember myself"

 Have you ever thought why we work?

''I release my worries by working. When I was young, I ran away  from school and went to Kolokinthou and worked, painted''

 Why there?

''I liked the place very much. There were some ponds with water that watered the vegetable gardens. I looked at the place and painted. That was my passion.''

At which age?

''I was a child. Of school age. Though I hardly ever went to school.''

And the absences?

''I had a teacher that covered for me. He paid me with his tolerance!''(laughs)

What do you mean?

''He was very cruel. He had a stick which had metal on both sides! Terrible pain if he hit you with that stick. But what happened with me? The teacher could not draw or write clearly on the blackboard. Therefore, I undertook the responsibility of writing for him! And that is way he took care of me. I had bought off my freedom with my capacity in writing. He gave me a 'pass' for the next level without doing a thing. I went to Kolokinthou and he never complained. He pretended that he did not understand.''

Where were you born?

''In Deligiorgi Str.  in Omonia! In the centre of Athens. Maybe that is why I liked Kolokinthou. I liked the vegetable gardens!''

How did you become so passionate about painting? Did your family play a role in that?

''In my family everyone was a lawyer''

Then how do you explain your tendency in the arts?

''Exactly as you said: it was a natural tendency"

What is a tendency?

''I cannot explain it. The only thing that I can reassure you is that I never did childlike paintings. I never drew as children draw. From the first time, I remember that I drew as a grown up. I could precisely copy what I saw. I also copied images from books. I had that skill''.

You told me that you never drew like a child. Does that means something?

''I'm just mentioning it. And of course I'm not implying that I don’t respect the drawings that children do. I think they are great!  The famous painter Picasso used to say that ''I always look and study the children's paintings''. He suggested that every child's painting hides its own secret. A secret that if you find it in an adult's painting it is what makes it a piece of art! Picasso studied children's drawings, stole their secrets and made it Picasso!"

What else did you do as a child besides painting?

"Nothing else. When I completed my drawing, the sun had set and I was starving, as usual. To overcome my hunger, I stole a carrot or another vegetable. This is how my day ended"

You are one of the few people that have seen all of the 20th century. What do you remember more vividly from a century of life?

'' I remember when the English and French people came in 1914, when I was still a child. I remember a terrible image. They were attacked by the king's people. From a balcony at Ermou Str. I saw them with tied legs being brought like prisoners. This struck me . Also I would never forget how people starved during the Axis occupation of Greece. The century had many dark days. It is different to read the history and different to live it.

Do people get better after they have lived a war?

''Someone that has lived a war does not want war ever again. Except if war transformed him into a beast.  That is the danger of those who survived. I can still see human beasts from the war! But a person who is hard from a person who is a beast is only a step away. You have to be hard to survive, a beast to conquer! What do I mean? War can make you hard but some people discover hardness and it is like they discovered their hidden true self. From that point there is no turning back. After the war, after the catastrophe, I traveled by boat to Italy. There I met a judge. He was disillusioned. I asked him why and he told me " I am shocked with what I heard, with what people do to each other. Unfortunately, people will always be the same. Romans did the same things many centuries ago. We did not evolve at all!" I felt as if I had before me a prison breaker. He had escaped from a terrible situation. The people that survived through wars are runaways. We know far too much of humans and we escape so as not to think of them. Do you know what I wonder about?"


''How we survived? How we still exist?" 

And what do you think?

"I think that people can survive by having the minimum and not the maximum. Nowadays, if we do not have lunch we are starving,. God, if only we knew that we could continue living by just eating a vegetable every two days. If we knew that our life would be better! And people that know that, seem to forget it!"

Tell me something ''minimum'' that embraces the meaning of life?

Two friends that stroll all day long with ears and eyes open wide! The cost of having good company is zero and time is plenty."

Can you share with me an experience like that?(smiles)

"Many, but I will tell you a story that comes to mind now. I was 12 years old. A couple of friends and me took the road to go to Piraeus. Then there was a train that started from Acadimia, went to Falliro and then to Piraeus. When we disembarked at Piraeus we took the boat and went to Aegina. I always liked the countryside. We disembarked at Aegina and walked through the top of the island, at Panagias Monastery. When we arrived the sun was going down. The world was glowing! It never crossed our minds how we were going to return. When you are young you are not afraid. You are ready to go through everything in order to see something that you haven't seen yet or to live a new experience. Suddenly, a monk saw us and told us: " What do you want here?'' "We came here to see the view'' we answered. He gave us bread and told us to go. He was totally unfriendly. In the dark down at the port again. But we were starving. This kept on for two-three days. On the fourth day my friends returned but I stayed. There was a boat at the beach in which I slept in at nights. Terrible moisture, but a great will to live!"

Is a trip with no destination more charming?

"A trip always has its destination. Otherwise, it is not a trip"

What was your destination in the story you just told us? What was the reason for doing what you did?

''To see. I will never forget the grey color of the boat in which I slept; a grey- deep blue. That magic color was the discovery of the trip; that grey-blue, which is so simple when the sun goes down that I can still remember it every time I draw. If I hadn't made that trip I wouldn’t have discovered it''

Finally, how did your trip end?

''One morning, exceptionally beautiful, the sun was bright and I was strolling around. I was hungry, I didn’t have any money but I was happy because I saw a fisherman cleaning the boat which I used as my bed at nights; and I liked that, without knowing why. At some point, he told me : 'Take the bucket, filled it with water and give it to me'. I grabbed the bucket and fill it with water. At the end, the fisherman gave me five drachmas, an old coin. It was wonderful.''

Five drachmas had some value back then?

''And value. I remember that I bought with these five drachmas bread and my peace for a while. Afterwards, I returned to Piraeus and that is how my trip ended.''

Your family was not worried? You were absent for so many days.

'' Great trouble. I was a very difficult child. My family was opposed to my wish to become a painter''

What was the profession that your family wanted you to follow?

''The only thing that should not happen was failure. Back then families could not accept that their children might fail. Children can do what they want but not to fail. I lost my father when I was seven and things got even harder''

Did the death of your father cost you?

''Ok. Let's not go into that. The unpleasant past is more tiring than the pleasant one. That is why I choose to remember only the good times. The bad memories are parked years back and away (laughs). I prefer some things to be eaten by dust and not these things to eat me! (laughs).  That is why when someone asks me about the bad memories I choose to answer with the good ones''

For instance?

''I skateboarded in Panepistimiou Str.! (laughs) The only road back then with no traffic. Panepistimiou Str. was our playground then. Also, I used to travel from one place to another with no ticket. I had a great time, also, during my military service. I went to the National Front. I needed the stripes and they made me sergeant. I went to the National Front with Kirou from Estia and Karadinos the architect. It was there that I met Karadinos and from there we spent a life together.  We worked together, we took part in architectural contests and we were awarded. Kirou, at the place that nowadays is the Red Cross, received an order which said not to go to the army, to skip it. (laughs) I have experienced many things like that.

If you could, would you do the same? Would you avoid war?

''I don’t know. I can't stand war but what can one do? Become a traitor? I don’t know. Nobody wants war but it is not a resolution to avoid going to fight''

Who influenced you the most in your life? Is there someone?

''My friends. Friends are everything in a man's life. What else could I do apart from becoming an artist having in mind that all my friends were artists? Pikionis, Mitsakis, Rousopoulos, Kontoglou, Papaloukas: these people were my friends, my influences! Although I was younger than them I always helped them. I helped much Pikionis to become a professor. I finished his designs. Gradually I worked with them and soon they acknowledged my abilities and so I worked for 15 years designing school buildings. I still have 11 personal designs that I never published.     

Have you studied architecture?

''No, no. But I took part in contests. I designed plans and my friends covered me with their professional signature. The designs were mine!''

How can that be? Someone pretending to be an architect without actually being one?

''I was an architect. I just didn’t have the typical proof that I was. Many people do not work because they don’t have the typical qualifications. I was very lucky! I fought for that. It is not enough to love something. You have to fight for it. I think that we, who lived wars, we learned that very well. My family did not want me to become an artist. I fought to become one. All great artists are fighters. Their passion made them fighters.  Therefore, an artist fights until he finds a fertile basis, the conditions that will give him the power of recognition.If you have something special and it is not recognized it is a kind of irony. But that makes you even more persistent. That led many great artists, greater than us, to isolation. Rodin went to live in a monastery. Did you know that? The Catholics priests, the majority of them, are very cultured. A priest told him: ''My son, you are a great artist''. Rodin's first artwork, the person with the broken nose, was made in the monastery. This is how Rodin was saved.''

Can an artist be lost?

''Never. If he has something to say, he will say it even if no one listens. It is known that the person that manages to reach the top of the mountain is the one that begins from zero altitude! If you are in a friendly environment that gives you strength and power''

Which person gave you strength and power?

''My wife, Eleni. She was a wonderful person. She encouraged me to leave the Ministry and to devote myself to sculpting. The environment plays a crucial role. An example is the sculptor Thodoris, who has great talent. If he had stayed in the village in which he was born then nothing would have happened. He went to Paris instead and that undoubtedly helped him.''

However, there is the rumor that in Paris you can be influenced by the external foreign trends. In other words, you can lose your basic artistic features.

''It is a huge mistake to ignore the environment's influence. That xenophobia, not to lose our identity, is funny. The issue is what the artist has to say. If there are things to be said nothing can be a negative influence. Even in your home you can be influenced. You don’t have to go to Rome, Munich or Paris to be influenced by something."

When you said that your wife encouraged you to leave from the Ministry what do you mean?

"When I came back from Paris, the Ministry offered me a 5.500 salary to work with them again as an architect. Back then that was a lot of money. But Eleni told me:"Things have changed now. You shouldn't go". And she told me that when that we didn’t have enough money to buy our food. I will tell you something. It was then that I sold my jacket in order to buy some food but I didn’t go to the Ministry. That saved me."

Is architecture related to sculpting?

"A building is a sculpture!"

What have you learned from architecture as a sculptor?

"The sense of scale. This direct relation between architecture and scale benefited me the most. I believe that few Greek sculptors have that sense in their sculptures. Moralis and Lappas are some of the exceptions.

Why did you go to Paris?

When I got married I went there for a honeymoon for 16 days. It was in '38 or '39 I don’t remember, my mind is stuck. In Paris I saw amazing things!"

Although you belonged to the left political parties you were never influenced by socialistic realism. That impresses me.

"I always disagreed with Makris on that. I couldn’t endorse these beliefs. It is a personal feeling. I don’t agree with the ideas. All of my friends belonged to the left political parties. I was always supportive. In 1944 they came to my workshop and threw the guns on my sofa but I didn’t want to take part in that. Generally, I never liked guns"

Why? Even if used for your freedom?

"Generally, if you put a gun to my head and you were ready to shoot me I would shoot you first if I had a gun too. But I would never be the first who will point a gun at someone's head. And to be honest, I think the further you are from guns, the better. Often the victim becomes the victimizer."

Would you kill in order to impose your beliefs if you believed that they were right?

''Many crimes have being committed in the name of ideology. In reality you must be a murderer in order to kill and not an idealist. Public revenge, however, exists and will always exist. Because oppression and injustice can transform people in something that they are not. That is very dangerous."

Were you a fan of Russell?


I ask because your light-powered sculpture have Russell's sign on them.

"I am always influenced by some ideas or facts. Elements of these influences one can be found in my sculptures. That doesn’t mean that I am this or that! A few years ago I took part in a contest with the theme "Auschwitz". They sent me all the documents in order to inspire me. I was shocked. I exhibited my work in Venice. There were flags that moved with water. On the flags there was the Jewish sign (the triangle) that Germans used to distinguish the Jewish people. A long time ago a man phoned me and told me:"You supported the Jews that destroyed Greek art?".  At the beginning I thought that he was a fool. But then I understood that he had identified me with one of my artworks. I explained that with my artwork I supported the Jews of that era. I don’t know if I would support them nowadays. maybe the Jews transformed to Hitler, because that is life, unfair and complicated. I will carry on supporting them. I think he understood my point; but the problem remains when we identify the artist with his artworks' meaning"

However, seeing the total of your artworks, someone would not characterize you of left political beliefs.

''I do not accept that. For me, someone who endorses the left ideology is someone who thinks freely and does not act on purpose. Picasso expressed himself freely. One of the facts that inspired him was the Spanish war. Guernica was a spontaneous work. He belonged in the party and he made fun of them. Picasso made things that if other people had made them they would have been murdered. But he believed in them. He was an artist. An artist is able to change points of view in order to see things differently. An artist isn't a monk or a religious person and doesn’t believe in dogmas. "

You don’t believe in God?

"Neither the living nor the dead Gods. Besides, faith in God didn’t lead anywhere. In 1968 people yelled :" Viva Mao Che Tung!". Sacrifices were made, crimes in his name. What was the result? Tell me. I don’t see a reason why all these things happened. Likewise, the case of the existing socialism. Exactly the same.  Power is the same everywhere even if it is called Mao, Hitler or Stalin! There are just periods that people think that they don’t have other options to survive but power, whatever that may be. These periods are followed by periods of shame for humans!"

Therefore Gods are a human creation in difficult times.

"Yes, a creation that finally leads to shame! And not to exaltation and progress! Only art can lead people to progress and exaltation. You know why? "


"Because in art there are no Gods. Art's purpose is to uncover the gods. On the one hand, that offers redemption and on the other hand it is also tragic. Unfortunately, god is always a target, a vision that when we reach it we understand that we made a mistake"

Art is the only window with a view on perfection and not on the mistake?

"Art has nothing to do with right or wrong. Art is the treatment of a life. It teaches you to live making the right and the wrong thing. I don’t know if art is a window. If it is a window, the artist must find the power to open it and to close it! Unfortunately, there are artists that open that window and leave it open for ever. The soul gets cooler if the window is open during summer but can freeze during winter! (laughs) That is why the artist must know when to open and when to close that art window. The transformation is the artist's god."

Why do some artists forget the window open? (laughs)

''Because they are far from the centre. An artist must always be in the middle of things. If he wants to be transformed. If Picasso hadn't gone to Paris, he wouldn’t have become the artist he is now. The artist must go to the centre, where the fire burns. You can't turn your back because they offer you a house or a big salary. The artist didn’t come to this life to succeed. He came to learn, to speak as a correspondent of fire. The artist is a piece of paper that is thrown into the fire, is burnt but its whiteness lives forever!"

Give me examples of artists like these.

''Malevich. The man that made a square incredible.. Do you know what were that man's last drawings were ? Himself, his portrait in fresco renaissance. Primitive. From the absolute geometry he ended there … He transformed based on quality. His work quality is so spiritual that I am speechless. " 

What do you mean by quality?

"Take for example another great painter and you will recognize it. We feel the quality, we cannot analyze it. You see Argiriou and there is nothing. Whereas, you see Parthenis and is full of quality. And Parthenis died very poor. He ate vegetables to survive. He was an exceptional man, I knew him in person. He was an introvert but really spiritual man. And very poetic. After he got ill, he slept on a mattress on the floor and tightened his pants with a string. Abjection…and others were academics"

He was offered a position but he refused.

"That was his nature. But they had to honor him even if he refused the position. We have to honor some people for us and not for them. Honoring these people we honor ourselves. And not only did they not honor him but also they left him to live with 500 drachmas per month to eat vegetables. Strange things. "

I know I'm tiring you but I would like a clearer answer to what quality is. You know we live in an era where we hear that quality is something that drives people away; whoever has quality is alone, is not in the market. Many try to describe quality as a disease that people avoid.

" Quality is a black dot which when seen closely, it becomes a blue sky, a sea. Quality is the cause of a dialogue. Quality is the cultivation of the eyes, of the ears, of the senses. Only in that way one can conceptualize the novelty. The things that you said above are words of 'dead' people even if they are still alive. Dead is someone who conforms, who becomes part of the whole, who loses his individuality. Nowadays, a terror exists.  We have to have the same tastes otherwise we are doomed in loneliness. The majority of people resist in everything new that is worthwhile"

Is our era separated from quality?

''As long as the music of Vivaldi, the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse  exist, quality will be present and powerful to meet the souls that move."

Where is quality found, the soul or the mind?

"The mind can help the quality to come out of the soul"

Is there anything that you want very much?

"To become a child again"

When did you stopped being a child?

"From the moment that you feel responsible, you stop being a child. A child has no worries and that is why it is free. Children have no limits. As people grow old obstacles get bigger and feels like it is impossible to overcome them. The only obstacle of an adult is his selfishness. When we focus on our 'ego' we become hypocrites. "

Don't you need a strong ego to create something big?

"Maybe. But at the same time you have to throw away your ego as Cezanne did with his artworks: he threw them out of the window and sometimes the gardeners collected them. Fortunately, the French gardener had and has always had the sense of art! (laughs) However something strange happens with ego. On the one hand, ego is creative and on the other it is catastrophic. That is why you have to take it seriously and after that to make fun of it. Maybe that is a solution"

What is the thing that inspires an artist?

"What is unexplored and what already exists. What kind of inspiration is that? A cause, nothing else. You see an artwork and from there you create something new. This is the reason why I like what I do. Because I don’t feel alone. I exist because other things exist too. This is my only cause. I don’t believe in anything that comes out of nowhere, but only in what moves around me and with me. I will tell you something that still happens. I am tired, I don’t have the spirit and the mood to do anything. At some point, because I am bored and I don’t want to do anything I come close to my sketching board and suddenly everything changes. Organically I feel brand new. Maybe this is art: a pill that makes me happy but I don’t think of taking it until I take it! (laughs)"

Thank you.

''Me too"