“I have painted so many angels in my life. Soon, I will be one of them. You will see, this could be my last summer on Aegina...”
Yiannis Moralis had a gentle and disarming way of talking about death. He was not actively awaiting it, but was fully aware that, until his departure, he would relish every breath. That was also his final piece of advice: “Life can never be constantly pleasant. You should see to it that you have a journey full of many, small happy moments. Be sure your suitcases are full before your departure.”
Such a happy moment stands out in my memory, back in July 2008, when I interviewed him at his workshop on Aegina. The sea was bright with the merciless afternoon light that turns everything dramatically black and white. Along with his guide, Paschalis Nasioudis – “Mister General” as he teasingly called him, because he helped the artist manage all the important and not-so-important things in his life – he took us out to lunch.
He enjoyed boiled wild greens and fresh fish and rested his gaze on the sea. He served us the best portions and told stories and jokes with subtle hints that his time was nearly up. No matter how much we insisted – “No teacher, we will be here the next summers” – he smiled shrewdly. He knew.
He left us last Sunday, aged 93. It was as if he had been waiting for the exhibition organized in his honor by the Athens School of Fine Arts students to end on Saturday. With his departure, the curtain dropped on an entire era.
He was not just one of the last representatives of the 1930s generation, but also one of Athens’s last noble men. His elegant way of dressing, his gentleness, dignity and love of beauty make one wonder how in just a few decades that spiritual, gentle and modest Greece has disappeared. We are now living in another country, a pale reflection of the homeland that people such as Yiannis Tsarouchis, Nikos Nikolaou, Christos Kapralos, Manos Hadjidakis and Yiannis Pappas had loved. All of them fellow-travelers of Moralis, they all left before him, leaving the heavy burden of “Greekness” to rest on his shoulders.
Moralis thought that his choices were inevitable. “Every artist paints according to their era. I do not understand those who talk about the ‘Greekness’ of my works. It is as if I paint upon decision... I am Greek, I was born and I grew up here, I like Greek nature so I automatically paint like this,” he had said to Fani Maria Tsigakou, to whom he related his life story on the occasion of the Benaki Museum’s 2001 retrospective exhibition and publication “Angels, Music, Poetry.”
Over the past few years, he experienced a deterioration in his health but refused to give up. He still went to exhibitions of work by his students. He was the only teacher, along with Panayiotis Tetsis, who always supported his students and who always left his door open for young artists. Despite his difficulty in walking, he stubbornly continued to take his daily stroll in Kolonaki, to eat at the Filippou restaurant, to drink a coffee at the Zoumboulakis Gallery (his second home) and to enjoy the company of friends like Dionysis Fotopoulos. Cheerful and elegantly dressed, he always wore his favorite ring and held onto a single bead for good luck, ready with teasing and jokes.
With a tireless enthusiasm and thirst for knowlege reminiscent of much younger temperament, each day he pored over his Kathimerini – “the newspaper is a habit, child, there is no way you can stop it,” he said. He read many books, literature and poetry. In his last summers on Aegina, reading was his greatest comfort. His doctor, apart from allowing him some small pleasures such as a small glass of whisky in the afternoon, had told him he wasn’t allowed to paint, something that caused him a lot of grief. His final work, a geometric composition in pink and black titled “Periskepsi,” was presented on Andros in the summer of 2008 as part of the Moralis retrospective organized by the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
He had weakened over the past few months, but he left calm, serene and full of life. Poet George Seferis’s verses come as a last farewell: “Here come to an end the works of the sea, the works of love.”