MAPÈH [MAPIA-ÈHPEÓIA] KANAKH – AËEÎHÓ AKPIÈAKHÓ – ÃIANNHÓ ÄOYBITÓAÓ
To Mr Elias Petropoulos, Paris
Neo Herakleio, Athens, June 1998
Dear Elias Petropoulos,
I called you once in Paris for an interview, but before I’d so much as got a word out, you said: “I know all your types, you journalists. What have we got to talk about?”, and I decided that you were a wanker and that I don’t want to know you. I wasn’t even a journalist, nor was I, in my humble opinion, a type, and you missed out on a positive presentation of one of your books, I forget which one - I just remember Giannis Douvitsas giving me your number and it being ‘89 or ‘90.
But I was just struck by something in that letter to Alexis from Paris I just read, something that makes me want to write you a letter; when it’s finished, I’ll decide whether to send it to you.
My first clear memory of Alexis is in Neotitos Street. He must have been…oh, I don’t know, thirty at most…and he was wearing white decorator’s overalls. I was with my father - a little girl at the time, I barely reached their shoulders - and they were joking around on the pavement. As we walked away, I asked: “Daddy, what does he do?”, and my dad, still laughing mischievously at some naughtiness or other, answered: “Alekos is a painter and decorator”. Neotitos was surrounded by trees back then, and we’d amuse ourselves going on trips into the wood nearby.
The last time I saw Alexis was a few months before he fell off the ladder. I’d gone round to his place to listen to some recordings of kids from a children’s radio programme. They’d listen to some classical music with their eyes shut, and then be asked - well, I’d ask them - to describe what they saw in their mind’s eye while they were listening. Music Fairytale Salad, the programme was called. I thought we’d have time to get the kids’ words down on paper and bring out a book with the music, the kids’ descriptions, and Alexis’ pictures. But the day was literally pissed away. There we were talking, and every five minutes he’d say “I have to go for another slash”, and I’d hear the clink of glasses? bottles? from the kitchen.
Mmm… He had to go and die on me, I’d think afterwards, every time I went past his house and saw the empty wooden shelves on the balcony that had once been chocker block with boxes of paint. “He had to go and die”, I said to myself one day, and his beloved cousin, Marthi, my best friend - for how long now! - who’d lovingly, tenderly cared for him until the very end, said “Let it go”, and we did. Marthoula went and died, too, a year and a half ago, even Alexis will have found that hard to swallow, and I lost it completely …
…and so I went to the exhibition one day with some friends…and went again one morning alone, and I gave myself a good telling off afterwards, What do you hope to find, for fuck’s sake? I said to myself, they went and died, get it into your head, but… I happened to go again one day with this mad friend of mine who knew nothing about Alexis. He didn’t know he’d lived, and he didn’t know he’d died. I’m sure Alexis would have enjoyed him. And Marthoula, too, who’d heard such a lot about this friend of mine, but never got to meet him. He was crazy about Alexis’ paintings, but I was happy, too. I’d left the exhibition in very low spirits the first time, a Sunday and the place was utter chaos, and I’d left the exhibition feeling depressed the second time, too - a curator, I won’t say who, was there taking a gaggle of older teenagers round Alexis’ works, and there was me imagining Alexis laughing that hi-hi-hissing laugh of his, saying “What are you talking about, man? That’s not her belly, it’s her pussy, her pussy, I tell you!”, him hissing away, Marthoula ticking him off, cigarette in hand, always a cigarette smoking away: “Alexis!” But on my third visit, my depression lifted. There was my friend unselfconsciously joking around and commenting on the works in a way that would have make Alexis happy and Marthoula laugh. It was a fine time we had!
Not a trace, I told myself on the way out, not a trace of Marthoula or the works he dedicated to her, not a trace of some old friend, a chance meeting from the past, a photograph of a familiar place, a name - only that “his beloved aunt Despina” at the end of his CV had spoken to me - but thank goodness for that hint of the naughty schoolboy, like in the good old days.
That’s what I felt the urge to tell you, dear Elias Petropoulos, having read that letter from Paris and thought you might not be quite the wanker you left me thinking you after that telephone call; of course I took it personally. Tell me, did you know Marthi? I’m just asking, out of curiosity, because as no one ever mentions her, I sometimes think only Alexis and I knew her. She’d be pleased, of course, she never wanted the others to know how fond she was of him, she’d even have scolded me for looking for her in the exhibition. “Have you lost your mind?” she’d say, and how could you explain to her that we, the survivors, sometimes search for memories in the strangest places?
Can you imagine that: in the National Gallery! Of all places.
THIS LETTER NEVER FOUND ITS WAY INTO ELIAS PETROPOULOS’ HANDS, AS IT NEVER LEFT MINE UNTIL NOW: FEBRUARY 2005.
by ELIAS PETROPOULOS
Alexis Akrithakis started his career in Thessaloniki, in 1963, and ended it in Thessaloniki’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I mention this, because his exhibition at the National Gallery is not, as its organizers would have, a first.
Akrithakis’ posthumous exhibition is accompanied by an admirable monograph edited by two graphic designers, Maria Stefosi and Nikos Kostopoulos. We owe the choice of material to Maria Kotzamani. Kotzamani was wise enough to focus on works, poems, and manuscripts by Akrithakis himself, though she does not steer clear of the blatherings of various self-proclaimed experts. Marina Lambraki-Plaka’s shameless declaration that “I did not have the good fortune to meet Alexis Akrithakis personally” is indicative of the quality and worth of the texts included. The lady in question would do well to learn that meeting artists is not a matter of fortune. Besides, I can’t imagine the highly dignified Lambraki-Plaka conversing with Akrithakis, who was in the habit of unleashing large gobs of spit as he spoke. Whatever the case, Akrithakis’ friends are absent from this publication. Fofi is the foremost absentee, who was so generous in the selfless support she lavished on the unforgettable Akrithakis’ life (and hence his work). I could not have included a text by the late Giorgos Makris among my demands, since the fellow committed suicide in time. Nonetheless, Kotzamani could have requested a piece from Poulikas (Dimitris Poulikakos), who writes superbly. The same holds for E.C. Gonatas, the poet and Alexis’ friend to the very end, and for several other members of the old gang…
I do not want to write an Akrithakis biography, nor a critical piece on his amazing works. Let the crows, who reserve their applause for the dead and they alone, undertake these tasks.
What I want to remember is our first meeting, in ’63, when Alexis was incredibly handsome and wore a bandana and a sports jacket (with leather patches on the elbows). They called him Alekos back then.
I want to remember the feasts we had back then at the Klimataria in Thessaloniki, when I introduced him to “Fatty”, otherwise known as Christos Ioakeimides.
I want to remember him in my little roof-top flat (9, Odos Patriarchou Ioakeim), when he’d come round in ’66 with those bums his friends to smoke, pissing themselves laughing and giggling away.
I want to remember him in my next house (32, Odos Dimokritou) in ’67-’68, when he’d come round and filch every lump of hash on my shelves, gifts from an assortment of bouzouki-players.
I want to remember him round that same time drinking with us at the Elliniko, with Giorgos Makris, Manto Aravantinou, Anna Vafia, Christos Ioakeimides, and Tachtsis, who he’d met after me, sitting around him in a circle.
I want to remember him during the dictatorship, subletting a room in Tachtsis’ house (3, Odos Automedontos, beside the old Olympic Stadium), where I’d wind up after midnight and the clouds of hash smoke would give me a headache. That’s when he gave me a big, long, narrow drawing (it was of a torpedo boat) which I left in a taxi.
I want to remember him in ’73 as we strolled along the beaches of Northern Evia, beachcombing for the materials with which he’d make his famous suitcases. That’s when Giannis Sakellaridis photographed us. It was a peaceful time—Akrithakis wasn’t drinking at all.
I want to remember the visits I paid him in his basement studio in Neo Irakleio (Odos Neotitos 10), which sometimes ended up lasting days.
I want to remember the drawings he sent me for Apokalypsi, which came out in ’75, shortly before I left. And the letters he sent me in Paris, which he’d embroidered with more drawings.
I want to remember a drawing (“Love’s knife”) which he did in ’76 for my book, The Underworld and Karaghiozis.
I want to remember the time he was there to meet me at Berlin airport in January ’81, and those car journeys we made round that time. It was Berlin that did for him - it was there he started on the drugs. But I’m not saying a word. Akrithakis was a drug addict, like Papadiamantis was a drunk.
I want to remember the series of collages he did me in ’81 for my albums The Balcony (an illustration prize for Alexis), and The Window, about both of which Kotzamani remained silent as the grave.
I want to remember when he came to Paris a little later and we went crazy. Akrithakis asked me for money. I gave it to him. He went out and bought heroine. Takis, the sculptor, rang me, raging, as though I were responsible for Alexis’ choices. I think Akrithakis was being put up by Dimitris Analis at the time.
Kotzamani studiously ignores Analis’ poems, which Alexis illustrated in ’76. The book contained a poem about Akrithakis, too.
I don’t want to remember our last telephone call. It was in late June, 1992. I rang to tell him that Apokalypsi was out again. Alexis - fucked up on dope - couldn’t understand what I was saying. But I understood, and said to myself: “Akrithakis, kaput…”.
Translated by Michael Eleftheriou