Late last year, an article of mine was published by John Maberry’s Eagle Peak Annual on the life of one of Greece’s best-known sculptors, Giannoulis (“Little John”) Chalepas. I’m sharing here with John’s kind permission.
Chalepas translates into “hardship” in Greek and I think you’ll agree that the man’s life lived up to his surname. And yet, Chalepas is widely considered the best sculptor in his native Greece, where he’s called “the Greek Rodin.”
An early talent
Chalepas was born in Tinos, an island considered the center of modern Greek sculpture. Walking on its picturesque cobbled streets, you meet at every point the signs of art and artistic creation or expression.
He grew up in an environment of dust, marble, and clay. His father was one of the greatest craftsmen of the island, whose artistic and business endeavors brought him all the way to Smyrna and the coasts of Central Asia, Mount Athos, Bucharest, Syros, Athens, and Piraeus.
Chalepas was the first of five children in the family. From a very young age, he stood out. He was sensitive, sensitive, and eccentric. Inside his father’s workshop, he realized he was a born sculptor.
However, his mother considered the life of a marble sculptor to be beneath him and had other dreams for her firstborn.
When one spring dusk her seven-year-old failed to return home, she went looking for him in his father’s workshop. The boy was sitting in a corner, invisible, intensely watching his father at work. His mother pulled him violently toward the house, where she gave him a merciless thrashing. He cried out in pain and tried to escape, but his mother held him tightly by the hand and continued to beat him.
This early trauma defined their relationship to the day she died. His mother was determined not to let her son become a sculptor. He was determined to follow his muse and defied her, visiting other local workshops, even if he didn’t go to his father’s one anymore.
The student years
In 1869, Chalepas was in love with his fellow villager, Marigo Christodoulou, and was making plans to get married. However, he had to leave, to attend sculpture classes at the Athens Polytechnic. He promised to return to her and was a star student at the Polytechnic, graduating with honors in 1872, barely twenty-one years old.
A year later, with a full scholarship from the Evangelistria Foundation of Tinos, he went to Munich, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. At that time, the classicism of ancient Greece prevailed and Chalepas exhibited his works, “Fairy Tale of the Beauty” and “Satyr Playing with Eros,” for which he was awarded the Gold Medal. However, he was plagued by constant problems with his scholarship. First, the Evangelistria Foundation cut it in half, then delayed it for a year, and finally stopped it altogether.
Return to Greece
Chalepas had no choice but to return to Athens, where he exhibited his award-winning “Satyr playing with Eros” in Zappeion. However, it received strongly negative reactions from an establishment wary of his talent.
Wounded, he returned to Tinos and visited his village to meet his beloved Marigo and finally settle down. His love for her had remained unquenchable, despite the distance, and her figure was always present in his mind. He promptly went to her house and asked for her hand.
Once again, he was rejected—this time by her father, who had other plans for his daughter. A few years later, Marigo married someone else. Her father and some relatives had seen to that.
This final rejection shook him to the core. Chalepas returned to Athens, where five years later, in 1878, he was still struggling to overcome his love for Marigo. One fateful day, a woman in black visited him in his workshop. She was the mother of Sofia Afentaki, a beautiful 18-year-old who had stolen the heart of every young man in Athens. However, she had rejected them all and had fallen in love with an Italian tenor, Mario Giovanni.
When her father forbade her from seeing him, Sofia poisoned herself. Upon hearing the news, Mario shot himself dead.
This modern Romeo and Juliet tale must have shaken Chalepas, given his own tragic love history. When he was entrusted with sculpting Sofia’s burial monument, he created “Sleeping Beauty,” a masterpiece of modern Greek sculpture that remains unsurpassed, and sits prominently at the entrance of the First Cemetery of Athens.
Once again, however, this stunning work was met with envy by his peers, who refused to acknowledge it in any way. This insidious prolonged silence surrounding his work was enough to make him question himself and his art. Chalepas turned increasingly perfectionist, destroying work after work. In the end, he abandoned his workshop and returned to Tinos.
The long, dark time of the soul
In 1888, after several mental breakdowns and suicide attempts, he was admitted to the Corfu Mental Hospital. Empty hours, fruitless days, artless weeks. His gaze was constantly empty and melancholic. His thinking was in turmoil, his world surrounded by vast darkness.
This apathy was broken by a letter from his mother informing him that his father had died. When he read it, he cried for a long time.
In 1902 he was finally released from Corfu and returned to his mother, who considered art to be responsible for her son’s illness. Whenever he tried to sculpt something, she destroyed it.
Broken and artless, Chalepas was reduced to the role of village idiot. The light of art had stopped illuminating his way. He turned to animal grazing and agricultural work and became an eerie figure, a shadow of his former self.
One year later, in 1903, his mother died suddenly.
At the wake, Chalepas stood silent next to his mother’s body, then quietly slipped away. His nieces found him a little later in the basement, where he had already begun to shape the clay for a new sculpture. “Shush,” he told them. “I’ll now get to work.”
Free from his mother’s influence, he felt confident enough to start a new, lonely life at his home in Tinos. For the next twenty years, he perfected his art. A 1923 exhibition in Athens was a triumph. In 1927, he was awarded the Excellence in Arts; Greece’s most prestigious award. At the age of 76, the great artist was finally recognized and accepted by an admiring intellectual world.
“Everything comes late,” he commented drily.
He moved back to Athens, where he stayed with his niece, Irene. In 1930, he decided to visit “Sleeping Beauty,” his first and most popular work, at the cemetery. An unexpected crowd gathered from all over Athens and made it impossible for him to enter the grounds until the police intervened and opened a pathway among his adoring fans.
Fifty-two years later, Chalepas would meet again his legendary work. He was visibly moved, to the point that his niece asked him if the rumors were true that he, too, had loved Sofia Afentaki. He replied that he had only loved Marigo.
The final years
Chalepas stayed in Athens with Irene for the last eight years of his life. His hands began to tremble, and old age and fatigue were evident. A stroke killed his right arm and in 1938, Giannoulis Chalepas drew his last breath, having his loved ones by his side.
In total, his surviving works are estimated at 150, including both sculptures and many drawings and sketches.
To Greeks, his ascetic figure is the symbol of the power of talent but also of the artist’s tragic loneliness. Chalepas experienced all the emotions an artist can expect, from rejection, frustration, and marginalization to universal recognition and adoration.
More than anything, Chalepas was a legend who dedicated his whole life to the art of sculpture.
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