SOPHIA VARI: UNEARTHING THE ELEMENTAL
Based between Monte-Carlo, Pietrasanta and Evia, an island that’s easy to reach from her birthplace, Athens, artist Sophia Vari spends her year chasing the light.
Having exhibited her paintings, sculpture and jewellery (“portable sculptures” she calls them) in more than 100 solo shows around the world – from Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, to numerous shows at the Nohra Haime Gallery, New York, and Athens, Colombia and Paris to name but a few – Vari has reached a point in her storied career where she is happy calling herself a sculptor first.
After a childhood raised in Switzerland during the second world war, Vari returned to poverty-ravished Athens at nine years of age. “People were dying in the streets,” she said of that time. “There was not enough to eat or drink – the context was the biggest shock a child could have. I got a depression at that time and I learned a lesson early on in mental strength to overcome it.’ Aged 17, Vari went to Paris to study painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, later living between the French capital and Greece with her first husband, travelling widely all the while.
She carried on much this way for 20 years – creating dynamic watercolours and relief collages that explored spatial presence in the 2D frame, she pushed the medium to its limit and created a body of work that, in hindsight, was a natural precursor to finding her calling in sculpture. During those first two decades of her career before she entered sculpture proper, her pieces were exhibited in the UK, Germany, France, Sao Paulo and New York. Today it is the field she is most readily identified with: just a quick Google search will yield a bounty of images of the artist, barefoot in a sun-drenched studio, a hand rested on the smooth contours of one of her hulking creations.PRESENCE NUE DE SOLEIL — POLISHED BRONZE, 36.8 × 35.6 × 17.8 cm, 2015
Her experimentation is vast. Vari’s pieces span both scope and material: from monumental to miniature (many fit around the wrist, or hand elegantly from the earlobe); from bronze to marble and silver. And yet, regardless of their surface or stature, each retains a certain precision and rhythm: masses of swooping shapes that intersect, emerging seemingly from nowhere – they are at once organic and corporeal, but clinical in their geometry. Birth (2011), a matte white marble carving approximately half a metre high sees German Expressionist-like blocks ducking and diving into one another. Its arcs are soft, born of the earth then finessed by hand, like slow slices of avocado.
But they are otherworldly too – urban, robotic, the stuff of Fritz Lang movies – the Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi once said that Vari “humanises geometry”. They are entirely enticing in their duality. “I must say I’m much more a sculptor than a painter,” Vari tells me by phone from her studio in Monte Carlo. “I think it’s because I like to touch – I’m very physical. Sculpture gives me peace with that. I can really work with my hands.”BIRTH— MARBLE, 47 × 44 × 52.5 cm, 2008
Sculpture runs in Vari’s blood: her second marriage is to Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero (“I would not think to be at the same level as he!”, she exclaims of his talent), with whom she shares a mutual joy in art. The other half of her heart belongs to Athens. It was after all, the acropolis that inspired her to paint directly onto marble – in black patina and white paint – the ruin looming over her city that inspired her first contemplations of pediments and friezes and her initial interest in relief. She describes the application of colour as highlighting “the rhythm of a sculpture” – revealing that which is hidden.
Of course, decreed by its own nature, sculpture’s physicality – its spatial awareness, its interaction with its own environment, its presence – is key, but for Vari it’s innate to her approach too. One of her three sun-filled studios is located in Pietrasanta, a small medieval town near Florence frequented by Michelangelo in the 16th century. The artist travelled by foot and mule from the city to the small town, known for its pure marble sourced from the nearby Apuan Alps. Today the town brims with his legacy, as well as marble foundries, bronze workshops and the happy buzz of fellow sculptors. It’s here that Vari travels by bike from her home to her studio and the local foundry from which she sources her materials.VARI'S STUDIO IN PIETRANSANTA, ITALY
In this material, Vari seeks a beautiful marble “that could stay forever and not be destroyed – to be there through time and weathers,” she explains. And while she flits from location to location, marble to bronze, one can’t help but wonder whether her work is informed by these changeable elements. But besides the practicality of being able to check in with the foundry (which she can also do via a three-hour drive from Monte Carlo), her purpose comes from deeper within; it is merely highlighted by the conditions of her surroundings.
When the weather is good you work with the light of the day – and your eyes are not so tired. But then you can see the forms, you can see everything better because the light is very important.
Nothing changes with the place I’m in. I have an obsession, a conviction, for what I want to do and what I want to say and the environment won’t change anything.
Starting every piece in clay, Vari never knows which material it will eventually be realised, nor whether the form she is creating will be monumental – by this she means ideologically, not size, since even small pieces can be monumental in proportion, heft and gravity she says. Clearly her conviction is not effected by her environment, nor altered by the medium, Vari derives her aims directly from the physical experience of creating – that which cannot be seen, only felt as it is being excavated.SOPHIA VARI AT HOME IN PIETRANSANTA, ITALY
“You begin with the forms and everything, you begin with the composition that you have some rules, because you have to think that you have the clay and nothing else. The clay is something ugly, horrible, eurgh, and from that you have to do something that has to be beautiful, peaceful, modern, elegant.” It’s the most difficult moment, the beginning, she explains, when you try to give life to something until suddenly, “something is happening, you are not alone any more. You are with your sculpture. And the sculpture is telling you things, it’s just how to know how to read it, to understand it and to hear it."
When you begin a sculpture or painting you know about 10% of where it’s going, beyond that, the piece of work will tell you what to do.
The variation in her work is fascinating – both wide-ranging in physicality but concise in message. There are other works – Le Roi (2000) and Le Reine (2006) (translating to The King; The Queen) – which come in great swathes of black bronze, trimmed with red, and Presénce Nue Du Soleil (2015) (Presence of the Sun) which hums in a glossy, gold polished bronze.
LE ROI & LE REINE BY SOPHIA VARI — 2000 & 2006
Each speaks to something elemental, of the earth, of man, of civilisation. And of course: “I am Greek!” she says – a response she offers to numerous questions. Just as there’s an innate truth she seeks from the process and from the medium, it’s that same rudiment she seeks from herself. All it requires is eight hours a day, every day, and a little sunlight to find it.
TEXT: Sophie Bew
PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of Sophia Vari & Catherine Panchout