iannis kounellis

the metamorphoses of apollo

Kounellis likes to pose an Odysseus, who, having left Ithaka against his will, and relentlessly striving to come home again, only becomes entangled in never ending adventures. Let us follow him on his wanderings…


Kounellis begins his career in 1959 with paintings that no longer showed an image, but – as a late echo of Klee – mere letters, numbers, arrows, and mathematical symbols. As if he wanted to provide an illustration of the semiotic view of that time - defended in Italy by Eco* - that art is not more than a (sign) language.

When we hear of him again in 1966, there is no longer question even of signs. Kounellis has adopted the then popular idea that art should be replaced by life itself. This time, reality itself is shown - albeit no longer on the canvas, but in a gallery. Reality is represented by burlap, iron, cotton, a parrot, cactuses. The painting seems to undergo a metamorphosis: canvas turns into steel panel, brush into cutting torch, paint into burlap; the frame is first replaced by a painted frame or an iron construction to eventually be wholly omitted. Real objects come to be placed before the iron plates, or just against a wall, if not on the ground. Or to sit, like the parrot on its stick: the painting as a mirror is laughed off as a business of parrots. The choice for a parrot is telling: it speaks! Unlike Narcissus, who looked - speechless - at his own mirror image.

Kounellis’ anti-mimetic/anti-painterly gesture comes to its apogee in 1969, when he exhibits real horses in the galleria l’Attico. Horses as such are no statues, nor signs referring to reality, but reality itself – smell and sound included. But Kounellis’ horses are not grazing in a pasture, nor resting in the stable: they are exhibited in a gallery. Precisely therefore, they cease to be reality and are transformed into signs: according to Fuchs (1981) they refer to the horses of the Parthenon, of Saint Marc in Venice, of Ucello and Leonardo, of Géricault and Delacroix, and of Picasso (p. 32). But that does not prevent the direction of the reference to be reversed: whereas the ‘imitations’ of academic art were supposed to refer to the real world, Kounellis’ real horses refer to art...

Reference, then, restored, but in reversed sense. And, through the exhibition of reality in a gallery, also the mirror - rather: the parrot - is reinstated. Whereas in Kounellis’ first paintings ‘verisimilitude’ was replaced by reference through abstract signs, he now uses lifelike originals as signs. Kounellis’ burlap, metal, coal and wool are, just like his parrots, cactuses and horses ‘icons’: the term borrowed from Peirce by which the then current semiotics designated signs that resemble their own meaning. And is there any sign that does more - even more than an imitation - resemble its meaning than the thing itself?

Both reversals - that of the direction of reference and that of the ‘abstract sign’ to ‘the icon’ - are the heralds of a new practice: the formulation of statements in ‘icons’ – iconic language. And since the then popular theoreticians equated art with philosophy and science, via the equivocal word ‘world view’**, this new practice could easily pass for art. The term ‘icon’ itself provided an impressive credential: it linked this ‘iconic language’ with the icons of the orthodox church - even with Malewitsh.

The images on the canvas, first equated with letters on paper, are in a second move replaced by the ‘iconic’ antipodes of the latter: real objects in a gallery. As Fuchs phrases it in no uncertain terms: ‘These diverse elements are the morphological fragments of a lexicon that substitutes the art of painting’ (Fuchs 1981, p. 27). In those times, also other artists developed a language of their own: it suffices to remind of Beuys, who did not use wool, burlap or steel, but fat, felt and copper.


Once their credentials established, the icons begin to act more rashly. To be sure, in the beginning they continue to refer wisely to art. The parrot on his stick is soon joined by the iron plates with oil lamps before them: in person the very light that traditional painting could merely suggest. Or of a candle before the same iron plate – Georges de la Tour’s candle light live! Or of windows and doors filled with stones: the painting as a window on reality literally barricaded by tangible reality itself. Or of real smoke on the wall of the museum, suggesting that something has been burned – with the Futurists in mind we surmise: the paintings that were hanging on the wall….

But soon the icons feel called upon to really conjure up a world, just like art itself. That already manifests itself in the unstoppable expansion of the lexicon of icons. From 1969 onward, burlap, iron, cotton, parrots and cactuses are joined by stone and wood, coffee, fire (from a candle, oil lamps, a cutting torch), plaits of hair, eggs, rope, rats, beetles, crows, beans and all sorts of grain, gold, smoke, mattresses and sewing machines. With this expanded lexicon Kounellis begins to concoct more complex combinations, in an obvious attempt to tell us something. A random selection: a mattress with a cutting torch; a woman wrapped in cloth with a tongue flame on her heel (1970); a yellow canvas, a sewing machine, the needle of which pricks the silhouette of a woman and a frame of photographs (‘Manifesto for an utopian theatre’, 1973); the self-exhibition of the artist with a mask of Apollo, sitting on a table upon which the fragments of a cast of the statue of the ancient god, and a flutist playing Mozart (1973). Thus, the short ‘one-icon-statements’ are replaced by veritable narrative installations, or ‘one-acts’, as Kounellis prefers to call his ‘installations’.


The problem with these ‘one-acts’ is that the icons do not belong to a conventional language, such as heraldry or Christian symbolism. There is no room here for an iconography à la Panovsky: we have to do with an newly invented personal language (Froment, 1990, p. 29) – in technical jargon: an idioticon. The beholder is supposed to play the role of a Champollion: he has to decipher the stone of Rosetta. As it is customary with signs, all these objects begin to organise themselves in oppositions. Some discern the opposition between the organic and the inorganic. Others prefer the four elements. Moure (1990) sees an opposition between organic and artificial, itself embedded in a broader range of opposites (p. 15). Roelstrate (2002) mentions the oppositions between ‘man and nature, reason and feeling, man and woman, crowd and individual, life and death’ (p. 38).

Many a commentator contents himself with such elementary organising of the signifying material. As if we already understood a verbal communication by merely stating the fact that its acoustical materials belong to a system of oppositions. Gloria Moure (1990) holds that we have to do with ‘accumulations of evocative relations’ and sees in the impossibility to grasp a meaning with ‘linguistic exactitude’ a critical potential (p. 13). Which does not refrain her from filling in the lexicon: ‘Verticality means: consistency; stratification: history; weight: contingency and affirmation; fire: behaviour; gold: lay worship’ (p. 13).

Man cannot help to descry meaning wherever he can. That is why many an interpreter does not resign when faced with the resilience of Kounellis' signifiers. The entire literature on Kounellis brims over with interpretations, most of the time on the basis of free associations on isolated elements. Take, for instance, the traces of smoke on the wall. This reminded me of the Futurists – after all, they cover a brush and a palette or an etching of Hamburg. But Fuchs (1981) links them up with Hephaistos and Prometheus – after all, Kounellis is a Greek. Moure replaces Hepaistos’ forge and Prometheus’ flame with the ‘Heraclitean fire’ (p. 66). And Roelstrate (2002) transforms this Heraclitean fire not only into the oven of the alchemists, but also into the ‘exchange rate of life and death, destruction, salvation and resurrection’ (p. 22).

In short: there are probably as much interpretations of this iconic language as there are interpreters. Since all those interpreters borrow form their predecessors, their comments develop like glosses on the Talmud. In the end, that cannot fail to produce something like a canonical lecture.


In their pursuit of meaning, all these interpreters give their thoughts free rein. But this is merely the epiphenomenon of a process that - apart from every attempt at interpretation and as its very breeding ground - is unleashed by every installation: many an object does not so much ask for an interpretation, but rather conjures up images in the mind. The alienating combination of commonplace materials only fuels this process, all the more since the attempts at interpretation are doomed to failure.

When they conjure up images in our mind, assemblages of icons come to resemble the verbal signs used in literature: also in poetry do signs conjure up images – albeit that these images are here far more strictly determined than in Kounellis’ iconic idioticon. From the ashes of the art of painting, doomed to death, a new art form arises, a kind of ‘iconic poetry’. The art of Kounellis is not so much a way of painting with objects on the museum as a canvas, but rather a kind of poetry that does not use letters on paper, but objects in a space. Overnight, the painter has become a poet.

But also the image, banned from the canvas, comes back through the back door: not as a real object in the museum, but as a representation in our mind. The real objects have only been the catalysts in this metamorphosis of painting in iconic poetry. The irony of the whole proceeding is that precisely the real object, the very cornerstone of arte povera, disappears behind the representation it conjures up, not otherwise than the paint or the canvas behind the image that they make visible. A sweet revenge of the ‘mirror’ on those who were so stupid to think that one would look in a mirror when the real thing stood right before his nose.

That does not prevent this dimension of the whole process to escape from the artist’s consciousness. Kounellis continues to emphasise that he is a painter! His works continue to be exhibited on the floors and the walls of the museum and on steel plates that borrow their measures from an academic drawing sheet. This cannot but betray a bad conscience about his betrayal of painting. Some consciousness of the metamorphosis of the painter into a poet seems to shimmer through in Kounellis’ flirting with theatre and opera: as when he calls his ‘installations’ ‘one-acts’. But this insight is immediately eclipsed in that he understands the metamorphosis in terms of ‘integration’: it takes more to create a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ than add the smell of the horses to their sight! If not in terms of the replacement of conjured up space through real space – from the painting as a window on reality to the museum as a stage – or: an amphitheatre for a Greek tragedy.

Also art critics and philosophers continue to stress the link of Kounellis' installations with the art of painting. Fuchs can not help to join Kounellis in an ever changing series of ancestor painters. Many a commentator continues to deliver one or another variant of the highly intelligent assertion: ‘Coals are to Kounellis, what potatoes are to Van Gogh’.

Anyway, with Kounellis the art of painting turns out to be not so much a Greek tragedy as veritable ‘litérature’ pur sang. However much Kounellis - in the best tradition of abstract art - may continue to deliver his works with the caption ‘untitled’, not only the comments on it, but also the representations on it are without any doubt highly narrative. Despite the fact that Kounellis demonstratively sealed his lips with silence’s gold, no parrot’s babble can possibly surpass the tittle-tattle rattled by his entire host of iron plates … The funny thing is that the same modern art, that owed its credentials to its anti-narrative, anti-literary pathos – in an effort to equal the example of music supposedly ‘referring’ to nothing – eventually turned out to produce in its most radical forms the most coarse narrative, referential art one can possibly imagine: sheer allegory! And it is Fuchs himself (1981) that reminds us of that on occasion of the exhibition of a chimney in the museum: ‘The Ciminiera of Kounellis is an allegory of progress’ (p. 42). The umpteenth return of the repressed: a veritable ‘Geburt der … Literatur aus dem Geiste der Musik!’.


But there is more.

In ‘Unitled’ (1971 Castello di Rivoli) we see a chamber wherein a bunch of gas cylinders with gas tubes ending up in gas burners spitting virulent tongues of flame in the same direction. Before our very eyes those industrial paraphernalia are transformed in a quasi mythical procession of fire-spitting monsters attacking something with their fiery tongues. In ‘Untitled’ (1985) we see the same tubes with tongues of flame aimed at the shaft of a cross. Before our same eyes the same industrial paraphernalia metamorphose in burning arrows underway to the body on the cross.

Burning torches turning into fire-spitting snakes or in burning arrows … again we have to do with a metamorphosis. This time the real objects do not disappear behind the representation they conjure up, but behind the image that appears in their stead. Does that not makes us think of another metamorphosis: paint that suddenly evokes the image of a parrot? Is this not precisely the very ‘mimesis’ that modern art so desperately tried to ban? The finesse of making the materials speak included: just as Van Gogh gives impetus to the flow of his cypresses through the tormented movement of his strokes, just so Kounellis lends his arrows an extra sadistic dimension through letting them burn like a burning torch. Granted, we have to do with a rather primitive business: rather than of a Titian, it reminds us of the Egyptians trying to save the deceased bodies from decay: the mummy as the predecessor of the statue.

But we are nevertheless saddled with pure mimesis! The self-denying painter, after having flirted with signs and icons, and having courted poetry, eventually finds himself in front of the old mirror reflecting an inexistent world… After so long and evasive lingering – and like Oedipus: unwittingly – Odysseus, at last back home with good old Penelope!


Burning torches fired at a crucified body… Is it not surprising that all those trains of thought spun around Kounellis’ oeuvre leave the most obvious themes undiscussed? Or should we rather say: burry them under the weight of tons of coal and steel?

In the context of crucifixion and piercing, how should we understand the persistent appearances of Apollo in Kounellis’ work? It will certainly not suffice to oppose the plaster of an academic cast to the raw materials of industry. Let us in our turn give our musings free rein…

Never does Apollo appear in the full radiance of his beauty: we only get to see the fragmented statue, buried under layers of earth, through which it seems to try to trickle upwards. That results in the metaphor of the lost ancient world, buried under the weight of industrial society. Not so much a Marxian utopian view, rather the romantic longing for ancient Greece, as with Heidegger or… Cavafy***.

An echo of the idea of the fragmented body can be heard in ‘Untitled 1970’, where a cast of Apollo’s statue is cut in pieces laid out on a table. The artist is seated behind the table and holds Apollo’s mask before his face, as if he were a actor in an ancient tragedy. On his right side sits a flutist playing Mozart and on his left side a crow. The artist himself poses as Apollo! This ‘one-act’ irresistibly reminded me of the story of Martias and Apollo. Martias challenged Apollo for a duel on the flute, and when the god lost out to the satyr, Apollo had him skinned – as can be seen on the magnificent painting of Titian.

A skinned satyr hanging upside down on a tree… Does that not remind us of the equally skinned, but this time also chopped up carcasses (of beef), hung up by Kounellis against a series of twelve steel plates in Barcelona (Untitled, 1989). Carcasses not only are skinned and chopped up: also the head, the hoofs, the genitals and the entrails are removed. The entrails remind us of the canopes, wherein the Egyptians preserved their mummies – they only left the muscles and the skeleton, just like Kounellis, whose carcasses in Barcelona, however, were not mummified, but left to decay. An echo of the canopes can be heard in the amphoras of ‘Untitled 1981’, one of which was filled with blood. And we suddenly understand where the idea of a chopped up body stems from: not Apollo’s body, but Osiris’ was chopped up and spread to the four winds – his penis was never recovered. Behind the beautiful body of Apollo, not only the skinned body of Martias, but also the fragmented body of Osiris shimmers through.

The penis is laid out in multiple on the rather impressive catafalques (‘Untitled’ 2000, Castello Colonna) – one the better ‘mimetic’ works. No mummified muscle here around a skeleton, but man-sized phalluses, covered with a shroud serving as foreskin. And the metal shaft – more or less like Fontana’s canvas – fiercely ripped.

It is not only the intestines removed from the carcasses that resurge here and there in Kounellis’ works, but also the hoofs. In ‘Untitled 1985’, on a series of ten iron plates we see a beam, that turns out to be the lower part of a cross, where the hoofs/feet of the crucified belong. And that brings us, from Apollo, via Martias and Osiris, to Jesus Christ. It is well known how the mutilated body of Christ has been oincted by myriads of women through Maria Magdalene. Also by myriads of men, albeit that they preferred another mutilated body: that of Saint Sebastian. Only this further metamorphosis of Christ can explain the presence of eight tongues of flame, mounted as eight arrows fired at the body that is supposed to hang on the cross. They are the descendants of the spear that pierced Christ’s ribs, the retroactive echo of which is to be heard in the cuts in the shaft of Osiris’ penis – through the beak of Horus, which in his turn attends the laying off of the fragmented body of Apollo in the guise of a crow…

Apollo/ Martias, dissolving in Osiris in the past and in Christ and Sebastian in the future: that lends a new dimension to the romantic longing for ancient Greece. It turns out to be the longing for the shameless cult of the foremost male body accompanying the equally shameless bloom of mimesis in ancient Greece – ànd in the Renaissance. The taboo on mimesis also affects what appears in the mirror: through Apollo the fine arts as well as the body beautiful are aimed at.

But it also sheds new light on the violence unleashed against the body of Apollo – the way in which the mimetic taboo is implemented. The first targets of this violence are objects: steel plates cut by the burning torch, burlap sacks crushed by steel beams, coals burned, coffee beans grinded, not to mention everything that has been hanged on hooks. But in other cases it is clothes that are maltreated: jackets wrung around steel beams, coats crushed between the sharp edges of steel plates. And via the clothes we arrive at man himself: the needle of a sewing machine pricking in the drawing of a woman (Manifesto for an utopian theatre, 1973), the sharp blades threatening to attack the beholder, the knives skinning the carcasses and the chain saws chopping them up, the cuts in the bodies/penises on the catafalques, the tongue of fire spitting from the heel of a wrapped woman, the same tongue of fire protruding from the mouth of the master himself, the burning torches aimed at Saint Sebastians body… That compels us to change our interpretation of the ‘industrial’ violence unleashed in Kounellis’ forge: we rather seem landed up in Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’, where torturers are performing their sinister proceedings in dark corners. To equally protect ourselves behind a metaphor.

Victims are the canvas as well as the beautiful body that so dearly wanted to appear on it. After all, it is not only in Apollo that art and the beautiful body are united, also Kounellis links up the body with art: his steel plates have the size of drawing paper, if not of… a double-bed. Behind the steel plates not only the canvas is concealed, but also the skin. Burning, crushing, grinding, hanging, piercing, cutting, skinning, chopping: granted, these belong to another order than the smooth brushing of oil paint on the canvas and the caressing of the skin. It suffices to read back from the marks to their creation – as with Pollock, whom Kounellis admired – to understand how creation has been debased to a crude sadistic orgy. In the skinned carcasses, rather than in coal and steel, is spoken out the secret of Kounellis’ oeuvre: after skinning has removed the beautiful skin and laid bare the gory (and smelly) flesh, the body is chopped up with a chain saw.

What Kounellis is supposed to scorn, has in fact penetrated the inmost core of his whole being: the artist himself as the ultimate mirror of reality.


Not only the manipulations are characterised by violence, also the dimensions partake of the sledge-hammer. Not to mention composition, that never is more than the roadroller of repetition. Our feeling of being overwhelmed is only enhanced through the literal weight of all those heavy works and the violence needed to transport them, let alone to have them hanged on the walls. Let us hear what Kounellis (1999, 12) himself has to tell about the latter:

Bam Bam Bam, the soldiers enter through the left door before the iron plate called ‘Arbeit für Budapest’.
Bam Bam Bam, the infantery had penetrated the territory of the iron statue called ‘Arbeit für die Psychiatrische Krankenanstalt’.
Bam Bam Bam, the cavalry comes within the view of the big iron with the white paper called ‘Arbeit für den palazzo Reale’
Bam Bam Bam, the partisans of art enter through the right door, and, after a fierce battle man-to-man, crash the armies of the enemy and erect the statue anew …

The sovereign artist as a pre-Greek pharaoh laying the lash over the slaves doomed to erect his pyramid…

The drone of soldiers boots, that cannot fail to shock me deeply…

© Stefan Beyst, May 2002.

* See 'Danto' and 'Goodman'
** See: Are Rubens and Beuys colleagues?
*** See: Cavafy: surviving immortality

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