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Jannis Kounellis (born 1936)

Matthew Gale, Head of Displays at Tate Modern, discusses the work of Jannis Kounellis, a variety of which forms part of the ARTIST ROOMS collection jointly owned by National Galleries of Scotland and Tate.

[Duration 3:06]


Jannis Kounellis was born in Piraeus in Greece and has lived and worked in Rome since 1956. He was a seminal contributor to the radically and internationally influential Arte Povera group.

Often epic in scale, Kounellis’s work possesses a grandeur that reflects his frequent choice of themes and ideas from the past and particularly from Ancient Greece. Kounellis began his career as a painter, inspired in part by the work of American abstract artists of the 1950s.

However, during the 1960s he abandoned traditional painting in favour of a host of everyday materials with which he created sculptures and installations, using wool, coal, iron, stones, earth, wood and even, controversially, live animals. Ordinary objects and natural matter held a directness and immediacy for Kounellis who was seeking to establish more concrete communication between the viewer and the artwork.

The works in ARTIST ROOMS span Kounellis’s career and represent the rich diversity of this artist’s work. The rare and important early painting of 1960 from the series in which the artist drew freehand the basic elements of written communication, letters, numbers and arrows to make paintings and drawings on paper or thin canvas, and then filled in with black enamel paint. In the poetic Untitled (1971), Kounellis painted an extract from the score of Bach’s St John Passion on a dark green canvas and had a cellist playing music from the oratorio in front of it on the occasion of its first exhibition. The collection also includes Kounellis’s well-known Arte Povera work Untitled (1969) which comprises sacks containing lentils, rice, peas, corn, beans, potatoes and coffee.

Kounellis is known for his combinations of antithetical materials such as sacking, beans, cotton, metal and wool. The group of multiples in ARTIST ROOMS, conceived of as small contained sculptures produced in editions, draw together the most significant media and signs found in Kounellis’s practice.