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constantine ferreo ©1969-2022

Since childhood I wondered about the experience of death. I explained it as something cold and static, like watching the trees shed their leaves in the autumn. First emotion of the "Dance of Death". Trying to catch a butterfly I experienced the contact of death, I squeezed the life of the undefended insect between my fingers. First awareness: a clumsy act can cause loss of life. Years went by and the mind begun to rule my actions. Good and bad became conscience, life and death foreground. One day while playing with books, one of them opened and I was struck with another reality : the ghastly horror of dead bodies. It was the History of the Second World War. Among this horror stood the smiling faces of the rulers of that time displaying a clumsy game of power causing loss of life. But the life lost was not of insects. It was human, like mine, the threat was directed also at me. The instinct of survival gave strength to my hands, the surprise became resistance and the tension became excitement. I grabbed a fork stubbed violently photographs of the book uttering two words: good, bad, good,bad... The "Dance of Death" was growing. Time was flowing, years passed. A morning of April the sound of tanks rolling was heard in Athens. Dictatorship. In the spring I experienced autumn by being deprived the warmest gift that my country bore : the freedom of democracy. I felt getting squeezed in the hands of political oppression. I experienced the death of spirit, the spirit of my youth. I resisted but the strength of my hands was weak. Life ahead seemed larger. The "Dance of Death" was ripping. I took refuge to other places, lived many surprises, read books, went to schools, made a family, I saw, I heard, I was learning. I felt the world around me turning in a wild rhythm, political expediencies, dictatorships rising and falling, wars, upheavals and power struggle in the stock ex change... Nothing has changed. Good and bad are stuck together in the machinery of self-destruction. Like in my childhood, the instinct of survival lead to reaction : I chose sharp tools and begun to work on some images. By now my hands were stronger and trained while my mind was astute. Thus the "Dance of Death" as an artistic expression begun. I followed the clumsy parade of sociopolitical events and recorded my feeling about them. Whoever we are, whatever we do, someday we will observe our lives dying, like leaves falling from a tree in the autumn. Then, why not attempt to live with dignity in the spring of freedom and peace?
Experimenting with abstract concepts I felt alienation, a detachment from recognizing reality. I attempted portrait painting. But exploring the appearance of a familiar head I became aware of the impossibility to capture its existence. The image became distorted. The suggestion was one of decomposition and despair portrayed in the individuality of the depicted person. Leafing through the pages of an art-history book, my attention was caught by the Fayum portraits of the Hellenistic period in Egypt. I felt there was affinity between my portraits and the ones done by those distant in time artists, not visual but the intention. Most of the Fayum portraits were discovered in ancient cemeteries in El Fayum, Egypt, and they are considered as the only surviving easel painting samples of the classical world. They were found attached on the faces of mummies of that period. According to old Egyptian ritual, the face of the mummy of the deceased was adorned with a mask that signified the preservation of physical appearance, immortality. This custom seems to have changed its course during the Hellenistic period. The sculptured mask was replaced by a painted portrait in encaustic (tempera powder mixed with bee’s wax) on a thin panel of wood or sometimes painted directly on the shroud. The striking individuality depicted on each portrait suggests they were done in life, thus life attached to death. Questions were raised : did painting expressed higher spirituality than sculpture and thus replaced it, or is it that painting was considered more naturalistic than a 3-dimension object ? The intense accuracy of human representation and the extraordinarily large eyes with their visionary gaze to infinity, associated with death, also reminds Byzantine iconography. There is a strong resemblance between those portraits and Byzantine icon painting, symbol and link of the passage from paganism to Christianity. Encountering this form of art helped me realize a position I had subconsciously taken but with a difference: my portraits were not a truthful and flattering representation of an individual. Instead they are the portraits of persons who have died and on whose faces the drama of death and disintegration is taking place. My portraits meant to express the reality of death rather than the memory of life. I felt an urge to understand the Fayum portraits. I did not mean to worship death. I only felt a futile curiosity to comprehend it.
In Egyptian banquets a person carried around the table of the guests a coffin with a mummy exclaiming : "behold this image of what you will be; eat and drink therefore and be happy". In Aristophanes plays we encounter the descent of characters in the underworld where "equality prevails and all are alike and equal".For the ancients the depiction of death as a skeleton represents good and evil shadows of the dead that occasionally make their appearance on earth. With the acceptance of Judeo-Christian beliefs death assumed a terrific and horrible nature and is the punishment God imposed on human kind for its disobedience. Favorite and principal emblem of mortality is the "Dance of death" derived from grotesque and ghastly humor which changed in attitude and artistic or literary composition according to whims and notions of the artists. The pagan custom to profane temples of deities with indecorous dancing and ludicrous processions survived until the Middle Ages. In the well known Nuremberg Chronicle there are recorded incidents in which riotous peasants possessed themselves to exhibit, in the church-yards, their dancing abilities until were punished by divine will for such committed sin. Christian clergymen cannot,finally, abolish this custom and so they transfer it into decorous nature, for recreation and amusement but simultaneously with strong moral and religious highlights. Thus the dance or pageant of death was introduced. In churches of France there was an ancient show or mimicry in which all ranks of life were impersonated by the ecclesiastics, who danced together and disappeared one after another behind the stage. Death was, morally, the principal character. Such shows were part of celebrations enjoyed by the nobility as much as by the common people. Famous spectacle was the one taken place in the church-yard of the Innocents, in Paris. The political nature of the spectacle was evident. In the "Dance Macabre" the sinful have before their eyes the inexorable march of time with death ghoulishly guiding them to their everlasting doom. Literature with obvious religious contents was the base for the picturesque representation. Paintings and sculptured relieves in which living persons are depicted next to cadavers or skeletons appeared during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries on the walls and windows of churches, in the cloisters of monasteries and even on bridges especially in Germany and Switzerland. They also occur in the fronts of domestic dwellings as well as in manuscripts and illuminated service books. Poetry usually accompanied the images, in the form of dialogue between death and its subject. Famous was the celebrated painting at Basle, placed under cover, in a short of shed, in the churchyard of the Dominican convent there. The reason for the existence of this dance has been attributed to a plague. The significance of the Basle "Dance of Death" lies on the appearance, for first time, of real persons portrayed in the painting (Grand Council of Basle and citizens). The artist is unknown even though there was for long time the wrong notion that Holbein was involved with this painting. The painting was destroyed by a mob of citizens in 1806 but in the meantime it served as prototype for "Dance Macabre" imagery.
Reading a local newspaper I was confronted, with a new surprise: the portraits of predominant personalities of our community advertised in the report on business section. What I noticed in those contemporary portrait photographs was the proportions, in scale very similar to the sizes of the Fayum portraits. Obviously the use of these sizes is accidental but for me it meant this particular significant coincidence I needed to indulge in the pursuit of new creative inspiration. I accepted those photographs as a link between past and present awkward circles that society has traced over the centuries. Following my interest and research in Byzantine composition of icons I combined those "report on business" photographs with the studies on the Egyptian funerary art to conclude in a statement about the social-political life of my immediate environment, highlighting my feelings on the roles that society has build to support its functions. Functions which, I find, separated from the essence and principles of our true needs. In today's, but also previous communities everything is bought and sold in the market place. An individual is constantly asked to make a decision : be either for or against. I am against this political and social absurdity of human behavior. I am against the ignorance of those who "think" they know and who project it forcefully into action. Perhaps this is what I was painting : arrogance and greed reflected on a human face. I am impressed but feel helpless knowing that solutions surfaced throughout mankind's troubled history and yet they were not realized. The image of contemporary portraits opened doors to new studies : the "Memento Mori". During the Middle Ages the subject "death" was a popular one in literature and art. Large scale epidemics, wars and pestilence developed a unique understanding of death that got associated with religion. Artists of this period developed a style of painting, the "Memento Mori"(Latin for "remember your death") in which the depiction of a living person in the presence of a skeleton, scull or other symbol of death, served as a reminder of human mortality.

In the introduction of books on woodblock print making I found references to Hans Holbein's "Dance of Death ".Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), a native of Basle, although is known today as a superb portraitist, in his own time was also famous for a series of 41 grim woodcuts, the most celebrated treatment on the traditional "Dance of Death" motif. They first appeared in book form at Lyons, France, in 1538 and they are distinguishable for their quality of design as for their execution, which was done by a collaborator Hans Lutzelburger. Pacing slowly over each of his miniature size woodcuts I got inspired to rediscover the coincidence of my previous unrest linked, as if by a string of fate, to this same subject. So, I left the impulse become one more version of the "dance of death". In the beginning with mixed feelings, doubting my discipline to carry to its end such a large work, but later on confident by the desire to further understand myself and the sociopolitical environment of my time through this challenge. I defined my inspiration within the boundaries of tradition, which at first seemed restriction, but doing so I felt a challenging excitement to expand those guidelines. I kept the tradition shown by using the Latin quotations below the images, cut on the woodblock, the same as those appearing in the 1538 edition of the Holbein woodcuts. Jean de Vauzele, Prior of Montrosier, who also wrote the text of the French quatrains that accompanied the images, selected these biblical quotations. I was fascinated by the polemic and radical attitude of his verses so I decided to have their English translation accompany also my woodcuts. I find the reforming contents or these poems rebellious for their times.
One of the technological achievements in Europe during the middle ages and the renaissance was the exploration of printing methods introduced together with paper from the Far East. The technique widely used by artists of this period was woodblock printing. This technique implies that the design of an image is transferred or drawn directly on a flat board of wood, areas of the design are cut away with knife and gouge living the drawn image in relief on the block. This raised in relief image is coated with ink by rocking a leather covered wooden tool, called dabber, or by means of a roller. A sheet of paper is next placed over the inked block. The inked image is imprinted on it by means of pressure applied by a vertical press or by hand rubbing with a wooden tool on the back of the paper. The finished print is then peeled from the block. The results this technique can offer is clarity of line that can be achieved and the power reflected when the image is in high contrast. I decided to express my emotions by using this technique. First block i carved was the image of four rows of six portraits, each one from the report on business of the local newspaper. I decided that instead of drawing I will paste the photos directly on the block and cutting through them create the image on the wood. The experience of this creative process was magnified by the complexity of attempting to bring together various cultural events and traditions and compose them with "Byzantine" eyes. The size of my woodcuts, 10 x13 inches, was determined accidentally by the composition of the images from the newspaper photos. The construction of the compositions is suggesting icons and seems to fulfil a task that the artists of Byzantine tradition did not undertake. I printed them by hand, with the aid of a wooden spoon on oriental paper.
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