Midway through “Dancing in Real Life,” the first major United States retrospective of Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis (1910–1989), on view at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, hangs the exhibition’s namesake: Dancing in Real Life and in Theatre. Completed in 1968 and inspired by Caravaggio, the panoramic oil painting is an outlier for Tsarouchis. The palette, earthy and muted, with few accents of light, contrasts with that of his buoyant watercolors and gouaches displayed throughout the galleries. The format is also rare. But the underlying tension between fantasy and life, and the diffuse erotic ambience, are trademarks of the artist’s dazzling oeuvre.
Darkness dominates the composition and separates the painting’s two male couples. Formally, the negative space enforces the antithesis implied by the title. Thematically, it suggests that the divide between reality and fiction is more like a deep metaphysical ditch. At left, two soldiers are softly spotlit. One holds his crotch while the other pantomimes an embrace, subverting his uniformed masculinity. (Intentionally or not, the soldiers allude to the prior year’s military coup that installed the Greek junta, though Tsarouchis often painted servicemen with homoerotic reverence.) To American eyes, they may appear punch-drunk, but they’re more likely performing the Zeibekiko, a Greek folk dance of improvised self-expression. This dance was a motif of Tsarouchis’s work from the mid-1930s, when he first witnessed it, until his death. For him, it provided an embodied link to Greek history, which he elsewhere evokes through references to the country’s rich traditions of mythology, shadow theater, and costuming.
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Indeed, at the opposite end of this canvas are two other men in theatrical attire—namely, the feathered belts Tsarouchis designed for a 1962 production of Aristophanes’s The Birds, an ancient comedy in which birds establish a utopia in the sky. One man holds up a mirror—or perhaps an empty frame—to the other, underscoring the work’s paradoxes of artifice and representation. Do these two figures enjoy the freedom denied their counterparts? Perhaps the soldiers actually represent the “theatre” of the title, modeling discipline and toughness but, as Tsarouchis signals, capable of grace when no one is watching.