Sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas was born on August 14, 1851 to a family of marble cutters in Pyrgos on the island of Tinos. A bright student, he studied at the School of Arts in Athens under Neoclassical sculptor Leonidas Drossis and then, on scholarship from the Panhellenic Holy Foundation of the Evangelistria of Tinos, at the Munich Academy, under another Neoclassical sculptor, Max Ritter von Widnmann.
Chalepas’ work even early on showed a rare maturity. The impressive monumental works from his first creative period which survive intact, Affection (1875), Satyr Playing with Eros (1877), and the legendary Sleeping Female Figure (1877), demonstrate an extraordinary maturity for an artist only in his 20’s.
The exhibition catalogue Yannoulis Chalepas by Marina Lambraki-Plaka, Professor of History of Art and Director of the National Gallery – Alexandros Soutzos Museum was published in 2007. The book includes photos of the artist’s work included in the retrospective exhibition at the National Glyptotheque also in 2007 and wonderful insights into the work.
The exhibition curators, Alexandra Goulaki-Voutyra- Professor, School of Fine Arts, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and Artemis Zervou, Curator, National Gallery of Greece edited the volume.
Chalepas suffered a nervous breakdown that interrupted his extraordinary artistic career. Admitted to the Mental Hospital of Corfu, he spent 14 years of inactivity, 1888 to 1902 without producing a single work of art. After the death of his father, his mother moved him back to Tinos.
She blamed art for her son’s mental illness, prevented him from creating any artistic works, and destroyed anything he did create. Chalepas grazed sheep and ran errands while living on the island until his mother passed away in 1916.
He soon began sculpting again and from 1918-1930 gradually returned to the world of art.
Chalepas more frequently interacted with his contacts in the intellectual circles of Athens during that time and the public soon took notice of his work.
Distinguished personalities of the art world visited him, including Thomas Thomopoulos, member of the Academy of Athens, and Zacharias Papantoniou, director of the National Gallery. In 1925, an exhibition of Chalepas’ works was organized by the Academy of Athens, and in 1927 he received the Academy of Athens Award for Excellence in Arts and Letters.
In 1930, thanks to his niece, Irene Chalepa, he moved in with her family in Athens. He spent the rest of his life, until his death in 1938, in an atmosphere of general admiration, which he hardly noticed, however, as he desperately struggled to make up for lost time with his work, as Lambraki-Plaka noted.
She refers to the two phases of Chalepas’ creative output identified by scholars. The first phase is from 1918 to 1930 and corresponds to his years recovering on Tinos, and the second spans the remaining years of his life, from 1930 to his death in 1938.
“The innovative and groundbreaking element in his post-sanity period did not lie in his subject matter, but in the freedom of interpretation which the artist sought and attained; characteristically he said, The new [elderly] Chalepas has surpassed the old [young],” Lambraki-Plaka writes.
About Chalepas’ sculpture, she notes, “In these works, the pagan world of antiquity blends harmoniously with the Christian world. Scales and hierarchies are eliminated, enabling the small scale side by side with the large scale, what is conventionally deemed as important with what is considered as trivial. Dream, imagination and reality know no boundaries in Chalepas’ post-sanity works. They become communicating vessels. The continuity of time and place is abolished. His compositions are closed, without projecting limbs, as they are modelled around a stereometric core. Modelling is cryptic, decisive, in distinct planes. It is not an accident that during this period the artist explicitly stated his preference for antique art before the Phidias era. The question whether Chalepas was familiar with, and inspired by, modernist developments remains open for scholars.”