Ruins, revenge and abandonment in the mansion owned by gallery owner Andy Warhol | culture
She called herself Maria Callas. Like the Greek mythological figure Medea, she unleashes tragedy with her revenge.
It happened in 1985. Gallery owner Alexander Iolas fired Callas on charges of theft. He employed the trans woman as an assistant in his Athenian palace. After her dismissal, Callas began accusing him of drug trafficking, pedophilia, and smuggling antiquities. It was announced in the popular press that the gallery owner had held a “Roman orgy” on the property. “Iola is rotten,” the opening chorus announced. The hatred these newspapers aroused for the man was so great that when Iolaus died only two years later, the anger had not entirely disappeared. Instead it was directed to his famous art collection.
Without protection from the authorities, the gallery owner’s residence – located on the outskirts of Athens – was looted and vandalized. One day, intruders set fire to one of his Egyptian antiquities. On another occasion, they burned his catalogs. The palace was sprayed with graffiti. The furniture was chopped up. However, despite all this – as with all sites of martyrdom – over time, Villa Iolaus (as it began to be called) also attracted some devotees.
“I visited (the house) a few years ago and found Iolaus’ phone book. He wrote down the numbers of (Marcel) Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, (René) Magritte… He was a wonderful man.” The secret visit inspired many of his works.
“Iola’s house was an avant-garde mecca in Greece (that was) full of mediocrity and homophobia,” says fellow Greek artist Angelo Plessas, when speaking about his own visit. “I was a child, but I remember well the severity of the press attacks and slander that led to his ‘fall from grace’.”
The decline of Iolaus’s palace became a symbol of its collapse. However, before the last years of his life, it was a symbol of his greatness. Eleni Koutsoudis – the gallery owner’s niece and heiress – explains in the documentary Villa Iolaus (2017) report that it was Iolas’s father, an Egyptian cotton merchant, who began building the house in the area of Agia Paraskevi, northwest of Athens, in 1950. By then, the name Alexander Iolas was already well known in the art world. Like the Macedonian king who inspired him, he made many journeys.
Iolaus was born in Alexandria in 1908, and his parents named him Constantine Koutsoudis. As a teenager, he befriended Constantino Cavafese, the great Egyptian poet of the city. It was he who encouraged Constantine to move to Athens, the place where he learned to play the piano and took his first steps as a dancer, with the encouragement of the distinguished conductor Dimitris Mitropoulos.
In 1930, he left Greece to study dance at the School of Tatiana and Viktor Gsowski in Berlin. But the rise of the Nazis – and the beatings he claimed to have suffered from a group of them – brought him to Paris. There, he had his famous encounter with a painting by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. “I had never seen a modern painting,” Iolaus recalls. “The repeated visits I made there (planted the seeds) of my desire to become a gallery owner.”
In 1935, his ambitions followed him to New York City, where – with his new name and a decade with the ballet companies – he left dancing and began managing the Hugo Gallery, which was patronized by the aristocrat Maria de Principe Ruspoli (who was married to Victor Hugo’s grandson). This is where Iolaus’s commitment to Surrealism led to him showing important collections, such as those of the famous De Menil family of Houston. Iola exhibited artists such as Magritte, Max Ernst and Leonor Fini. In 1952, he saw Andy Warhol’s depiction of Truman Capote. With these drawings he compiled the artist’s first exhibition. Eolaus Warhol discovered: the two men shared a taste for the marginal and the grotesque.
“Andy adored Iola,” writer Bob Colacello recalls in his memoirs of his years working with Warhol. interview magazine. “With his extravagant turquoise and emerald satin suits, and matching upholstered shoes, he succeeded in choosing one of (Warhol’s models).”
The golden age came in the 1960s, with the expansion of the Iolaus Gallery. Now owner, he has begun expanding into a variety of locations around the world. He opened galleries in Paris, Milan, Geneva and Madrid, as well as in Athens, where he returned every summer. As his success grew, his palace changed. He did not simply add a second floor in 1971, or expand the roof area to 35 times its original size. Behind the house’s carved bronze gates (believed to have been designed in part by Dimitri Pikionis, the architect of the modern touches of the Acropolis) were countless works of art and antiquities – unparalleled in Greece – filling the various marble rooms. A visit to Iolaus’ kitchen became a great lesson in art. From a room dedicated to ancient Greece, one moves to another filled with works from the Byzantine era, or to a room displaying paintings by Picasso.
As a result of Max Ernst’s death in 1976, Iola closed his galleries. The artist promised that when he was gone, he would retire permanently to Athens. However, as Eleni Koutsoudis explains, her uncle did not know how to be idle. So, he began running the palace as if it were a new gallery, filling it with works by Warhol, Niki de Saint Phalle and other artists he worked with. “I’m tired of paying $700,000 in storage costs,” Iolaus joked in 1981, downplaying the various pieces in his home. But the excuse was not enough when he invited artists like Marina Carella to create new works there, or when he designed stunning spaces like his bathroom covered with a golden ceiling. “The house was the best gallery of all the houses he ran,” sighs his niece.
The great mistake that Iolaus made was to open the doors of this avant-garde kingdom to the Greek public, through an interview conducted at his home in 1983. He boldly expressed his views on his country’s society and, in particular, on the rise to power of President Georgios Papandreou. . The government in Athens was not amused. It made him feel uncomfortable inside Greece. Two years later, his former employee Maria Callas threw a match on the fire.
Alexander Iolas died of complications from AIDS in a New York hospital on June 8, 1987. He supposedly hoped that his house would become a museum that would help restore his name in Greece. His niece denies this.
“My uncle did not care what happened to the house. He used to quote Louis The blame for its negligence lies with the municipal authorities of Agia Paraskevi. The local government has owned the property since 2013.
“That the house remains in ruins shows how Iolas – even in Greece today – is still marginalized,” George Vamfakidis laments over the phone. He is the co-founder and director of the Educator Gallery in Athens. “For new generations of Greek artists – and especially for those who are gay – what happened to the house represents not only a lost opportunity to see his collection, but, on a symbolic level, (a lost) place where they could feel heard, seen and celebrated.”
But perhaps the palace is not the place where young artists should honor Iolaus. At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, you can visit some works from the series that – in 1984, perhaps foretelling how traitors would get to him – Iolaus commissioned his friend to create: a pop art version of a Leonardo da Vinci painting Last Supper.
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