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People > Obituaries > James Agapitos. Fire, whirl and charm - such was his art.

People > Obituaries

submitted by Sydney Morning Herald on 08.01.2007

James Agapitos. Fire, whirl and charm - such was his art.

Sydney Morning Herald.

Page. 10.

January 9, 2007

James Agapitos, 1928-2007

COLLECTOR, benefactor, story-teller, stirrer, citizen, James Agapitos was a dapper, dazzling, pocket-rocket of a man who packed seeming centuries into his frail-aged frame.

There was a weariness in his dying last week in Sydney, after a long illness and 14 months shy of 80 years, though shy of nothing else. Few could guess how much weariness. Pride, abetted by suits from Vince Maloney, helped him keep up appearances. Failing pride, anger. No one could ramp up the wattage on choler like Agapitos.

Death waltzes some people away. Agapitos needed frog-marching. The last thing he wanted was to die. But the last thing catches us. Even Agapitos, life-affirmer, was short that final uppercut to the jaw when Lord Death came to Bellevue Hill. Across the way, the Opera House rang out a song of forgiveness and grace: Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

Born Dimitri James into the Greek diaspora in Cairo, Agapitos arrived in Australia in 1952. Well-educated, hard-working, hugely motivated, he moved from factory floor to retail, through the printing business and into property development, the source of his considerable if not limitless wealth. (Woe betide anyone who confused him with Croesus!)

Along the way, he cultivated lasting contacts, maintained familial duties and conducted himself according to a moral compass, which, while unconventional, was true. It would be tempting to cast him as a typical postwar migrant success, were he not so atypical.

He was averse to ghetto-isation, chary of nationalism and vociferously secular. He told the wickedest jokes about the clergy, sometimes in their presence. Contrarily, he numbered nuns, and even politicians, among his friends. His instincts were humanist, his affections catholic. If he liked you, he liked all of you, from earlobes to legs, both of which he pulled.

Such tactility can be offensive. In Agapitos, it acknowledged your uniqueness. He touched you to reach you. My, how he worked the room. Society mavens, gilded lasses and lads, corporate honchos, footballers, nurses, the haute monde, the hoi polloi, the gorgeous unwashed and dropkicks here and there succumbed to his charm. Just don't be lazy, a welfare cheat or fail to grasp the epic grandness of Australian citizenship.

Some write eternity on the pavement. Others engrave it in hearts. Perhaps Agapitos's only thwarted ambition was to be a builder. The monumentalism of the Greeks ran in his veins.

The collection of Australian surrealist art which bears his name is a structure filled with claustrophobic spaces, eye-popping perspectives and design ideas to set the teeth, and the imagination, on edge. A temple. A folly. A tomb. The house of surrealism gave Agapitos entre to the art world. It proved his natural element. He brought to this place of monsters and mumbo-jumbo far more than he took, though he took a great deal: pleasure, esteem, satisfaction, respect and an almost alarming tally of neglected masterpieces.

He entered it at the right moment; he leaves with uncharacteristic bad timing. Business nouse, managerial smarts, personal charisma, can-do cockiness and a roster of primal cravings including the thrill of the hunt and a bloodied prey, all came into play when Agapitos sat at the big table - elevated by a cushion or two.

His late-age transition from mere well-to-do-ness to mover-and-shakerdom was wonderful to behold. And scary. The expectations he placed on himself, and anyone in his supercharged vicinity, caused collateral damage. Little Dimitri could throw a tantrum if he had to, and, Greek-style, quantities of plates.

He never let these Callas-worthy crescendos rattle his professionalism. As a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation, and as fixer for the gallery's Friends of Conservation committee, Agapitos showed how to get things, and get things done.

As well as the AGNSW, to which he pledged a $10 million cash bequest from his and his partner's estate, recipients of his largesse include the National Gallery of Australia, the state galleries of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, New England Regional Art Museum, Maitland Regional Art Gallery and Queensland University of Technology.

Yet was any major player in the rainbow-coloured realm of art so prone to blackness? Agapitos nudged nihilism. Even so, like El Greco's, his black was lit within by indigos, ultramarines, burnt sienna and the ineradicable ink of numberless Aegean squid.

Above all his achievements, Agapitos ranked his 40-year partnership with Ray Wilson, the man he called his bijou and to whom his daily devotions and less frequent barbs were directed. Conversations with Agapitos were incomplete without the mantras of this romance: "I am so lucky to have met Ray."; "I could do nothing, and have done nothing, without Ray."

The Agapitos chronicle is a love story. Early in their relationship Agapitos and Wilson became simply James & Ray, married by a matey ampersand. As their public profile gathered pace, so did their willingness to confront homophobia. They lent their names to gay causes with the same aplomb they reserved for Liberal Party fund-raisers. Their matching pink T-shirts at a Maitland opening marked a fashion mistake, but a promotional masterstroke. Where to pin their equally matching OAMs must have been challenging.

Dimitri James Agapitos is survived by Wilson, his sister Tassoula and brother-in-law Orestes Saducas, his nieces Joanne Dimarhos and Kathryn Saducas, and his nephew, Basil Agapitos, the son of his late, elder brother, Taki. A memorial celebration will be held at the NSW Gallery on January 22.

*Bruce James

[[Editor -

James Agapitos wrote the definitive article on, and helped make Kytherians around the world, aware of, and promoted Kytherian sculptress Marea Gazzard. ie he was always a powerful Philokytherian.

The Greek/Australian Superstar of Craft.

He also enunciated a suberb "philosophy of benefaction", which Kytherians would do well to adopt.

Benefaction 1. The Anointed Ones. Thoughts on the Art of Giving.

Benefaction. 2. Call of the Benefactor. It's in giving that we receive!

*Bruce James wrote the brilliant book on the Agapitos-Wilson collection:

Australian Surrealism, The Agapitos/Wilson Collection

By Bruce James, The Beagle Press, Hardback, 203 pp. RRP:$99.00,
ISBN 0 947349 38

Australian Art Review.

3 October 2003:

Ken Wach puts a new account of Australian Surrealism into a global perspective.

This book does at least one very important thing – it places Australia on the international Surrealist map. It is well produced, very well illustrated, and it takes seriously an aesthetic tendency that was much misunderstood and lampooned in Australia. Who knows how many Surrealist works were consigned to backyard bonfires by their owners or creators after the lamentable fiasco of the Ern Malley hoax of 1944? This query points to another of the book’s major achievements – it brings together paintings that would otherwise have been lost to history. Both James Agapitos and Ray Wilson are to be congratulated for not only amassing a collection of over 300 Australian Surrealist works, but also for promising the entire collection to a public institution. Such philanthropy is rare anywhere.

The Surrealist movement in art and literature was first formally constituted and conceptually defined in 1924 by André Breton, the young French poet, at his apartment at 42 Rue Fontaine in Paris. Surrealism and its Freudian-based theory insinuated itself rapidly into the consciousness of many contemporary artists and it tended toward a wholesale dissemination of ideas and attitudes that, for them, encapsulated a more psychologically insistent, more urgent and less restrictive aesthetic program.

The Surrealist aesthetic was one that attempted to go beyond Dadaist intractability and late Symbolist academicism. Through a plethora of practice and publication, it validated any artistic means that aimed for a installation of a new subjectivity. Surrealism’s aesthetic activities in prose, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture, photography, film and graphics aimed, somewhat grandiloquently, to uncover the revelatory and motivating functions of artistic introspection whilst picturing the cartography of creativity. Surrealism as an international phenomenon in art and literature emerged as a foster-child of French Symbolism and late Romanticism and, given the climate of Freudianism in the 1920s and 1930s, it is not surprising that it quickly developed both a popular and an intellectual reputation. What is surprising is that its influence reached as far afield as Australia, and that it affected Australian artists and creative thinkers so promptly - a mere twelve years after its formation in France.

The Australian incorporation of Surrealism, no doubt, owes much to our English heritage and to the general climate of Anglophilia in the 1930s, as well as to the numerous Australian expatriates in London in the late 1930s and 1940s. There is also little doubt that Australia’s nervous embrace of Surrealism was prompted by the first English translations of Surrealist theory – those of Edouard Roditi in 1927, Jacob Bronowski and Samuel Beckett in 1932 and David Gascoyne in 1935. At the time, in England, Surrealism was promoted as an intellectual movement that was blithely unconcerned with conventional behaviour and morality, with the strictures of humanist tradition or the oppressive orders of classical formalism. Sir Herbert Read, a member of the Surrealist Group in London, consistently argued that contemporary standards of conventionality were based upon intellectual concepts that suppressed growth and dynamism, being often inextricably connected to particular class values and a seemingly irredeemable social oppression. According to Read, what was needed, to rectify this, was an unshackled and liberating freedom of thought - a liberation that sought new parallels and new metaphors for a post-Freudian age.

Never before in the history of art had such a call for freedom been heard so often. What Surrealism called for, in art as in life, was an exultant emphasis on a new, cohesive, dialectic interaction between the objective world and its sensate phenomena and the interiorised cognition - the “irrational” gifts and focused individualism of the poet. Emboldened by the theories of Sigmund Freud and galvanised by the writings of André Breton, Surrealists turned to upsetting the comfortable certitudes of bourgeois life and tipping the artistic balance towards the depiction of life as lived in the mind. A poeticized emphasis and quest forms much of the abiding psychological motivation of all Surrealist artists and writers. Their social objectives and distrust of rationalism were made all the more earnest by the recent fall of Spain and the incremental advance of Nazism in Europe.

Surrealism’s exciting conflation of exhibitions, writers, influences, aims and antecedents was of considerable moment for Australian art. From our vantage point, after the horrors of World War II, the work of Australian Surrealists seems to tabulate the tremulous search for new bases for hope, for new shapes of perceptual focus, and a new visual language for interpreting reality. In its orientation, style, content and composition, from the late 1930s onwards, much contemporary Australian art seemed to be motivated by this new spirit; especially in the work of those artists of a more courageous and recalcitrant bent, who searched for a creative locus beyond realism and the restraints of rationalism.

If readers seek for clear explanations of Surrealism they will not find them in Bruce James’s text. Nor will they find an analysis of the undoubted uniqueness of Australian Surrealism. This becomes all the more apparent through comparison with Dawn Ades’s elegant examination Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago of 1997. Such a comparison is not altogether improper in that the Bergman Collection too is the result of a private passion, as are the two collections published as Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections in 1999. This massive study is complemented by the quality of more modest publications such as Elizabeth Cowling’s The Magic Mirror: Dada and Surrealism from a Private Collection of 1988 and William Jeffett’s Surrealism in America during the 1930s and 1940s: Selections from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection of 1998.

The authors of all these texts grapple with the meanings and local adaptations of Surrealist art and theory. After all, Surrealism was not an artistic style but an attitudinal approach and a school of thought. Breton’s injunction that Surrealism promises “a vertiginous descent into ourselves” calls for an examination of individual and collective uniqueness. This call awakened a poetic, existentialist and liberating yearning in the minds of refractory Australian artists, unimpressed with the chauvinistic and nationalist admonitions of the time. Surrealism always called for regionalist uniqueness and individuation. However, what proliferates throughout James’s text is an overly hyperbolic thread spun with the author’s “responses” to the works (for example in speaking of Klippel and Gleeson (p. 71): “Their cosmos seethes only with the hurtless writhings of metamorphosis”); and his personal and carefully nuanced justifications for the inclusions of the works in the Agapitos/Wilson collection. Given that the author was the advisor for the purchases it is little wonder that there is a circuitous inevitability to these justifications and his occasionally effusive, overly-adjectival outpourings. Surrealism is voiced-over and its own sonorous lyricism is all but drowned out. Not only does this do little for the public understanding of Surrealism, but also it prolongs the unfortunate idea that Surrealism is whatever viewers, collectors, critics or curators think it is. Fortunately, it is much more than this.

The phenomena and full significance of Surrealism, its aims, its works, its characteristics and its theoretical development, can only rightly and adequately be appreciated through an analysis of the original primary source literature, aesthetic theory and the art of its members and followers. The spirited contents of the experimental texts The Magnetic Fields (1919) and The Immaculate Conception (1930), form the original perimeters of the technical and theoretical bases of Surrealism. Within these two original and elegantly drawn boundaries works such as Breton’s important expository essay “The Automatic Message”, the two Manifestoes of Surrealism and the two journals, The Surrealist Revolution and Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution, give valuable insights into the range of the movement’s artistic techniques, aspirations and cultural practices.

Surrealism is definable and its principles are demonstrable – which was part of the point behind the twenty-seven official Surrealist group exhibitions held between the years 1925 and 1965, in Paris, Zürich, Hartford, New York, Brussels, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Prague, Santiago and Milan. It is also part of the point behind the bulk of Breton’s forty-seven expository writings. Surrealism was a phenomenon that prompted art to move toward locating and recording non-rational predispositions towards the unconscious, dreams, trance states, memories, evocations and psychopathological associations. Above all, Surrealism remained avowedly self-referential. Surrealism rooted itself in an iconoclastic dialectics of paradox and contradiction rather than the traditions of mimesis and positivism. It was highly individualistic, and was the first artistic movement that was about personal content rather than visual style. Consequently, it conjured up personalized aims that evinced a vitalized world purportedly beyond class barriers, beyond cliché, beyond “talent” and beyond the straight-jacketed and outworn conventions of hidebound society.

Breton put it succinctly in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1930: Surrealism is for “those who refuse to knuckle down”. These goals and attitudes seem almost tailor-made for Australians, yet James’s book adds little to a deeper understanding of Australians’ adoption of these paradigms and approaches. In saying of Surrealism that “plurality was in its methodology” (p. 25) James confuses its effect with its cause. Plurality was an unavoidable outcome of Surrealism’s state of mind and internalised focus – its methods called for much more than mere variety. Whether Surrealism and its principal concept of “pure psychic automatism” were seen as supplying personal keys to a collective unconscious, to a seemingly indifferent universe, to a world of random events or to an intimate self, inaccessible to the conscious mind, they remained firmly anchored on the shore of artistic indeterminacy. The sustaining energy of this aesthetic indeterminacy allowed Surrealist artists, whilst maintaining self-referential aims, to proceed inwards towards a undiscovered private centre, and then to progress outward to the world with the artistic depiction and communication of uncovered personal mental events. It acted for them as a perceptual and psychological “U-turn”. In this sense, the authentic Surrealist artistic act traced the outlines of a personal journey. The constantly over-written patterns of this journey, in turn, when captured in a work of art, graphed the interwoven shapes, content and location of a previously unmapped private space.

The 203 pages of this unindexed book contain very valuable biographies of 42 artists and 157 illustrations of works selected from the Agapitos/Wilson collection. Most illustrated works come with a commentary – some like that on Donald Friend’s The Secret Weapon of 1942 (plate 31), are excellent. Others, like James Gleeson’s The Attitude of Lightning towards a Lady-Mountain of 1939 (plate 35), are slight. The painting’s Dalí/Magritte amalgamations, its anamorphic inspired fluid forms and its anthropomorphic and geological associations are worthy of extended comment. Nothing like this painting exists in Australian art, yet James gives little indication of its significance and uniqueness, despite the fact that Gleeson’s other paintings are given a very sympathetic airing.

Likewise, Ivor Francis’s painting Growth of 1941 (plate 25) is given scant attention. Francis’s meditation on the principles of universal growth, caught in cotyledon images that link plant and animal life, air and earth, sea and sky, are as noteworthy as those Salvador Dalí gained by looking at biology books in his father’s library. Some of James’s commentaries are perfunctory and others seem misguided. Francis’s impressive paintings Investigation, Scientific or Otherwise of Matter without Form of 1943 (plate 26) and The Potter of 1943 (plate 27) are not analytically unfolded. The former is a highly significant meditation upon the implications of the analogy of Plato’s Cave, and the latter a fluid, abstracted version of God as the Divine Potter – either way Francis’s philosophical temper is glossed over. It’s not, as James claims, that Francis invented a modified version of Surrealism called “Apocalypticism”, it is that he was aware, more than most, of the literary movement of the same name in England (which included Henry Treece, J. F. Hendry, Dylan Thomas and others) and, encouraged by Max Harris, applied its credo to an interpretation of the anxieties of the new Atomic Age – anxieties that were soon made more palpable with British atomic testing to Adelaide’s North in the deserts of Maralinga and Woomera. Looked at in this way, Adelaide’s many intellectuals and Surrealists were not nervous ninnies interested in the “irrational”, difference and “plurality” but earnest environmentalists with anti-colonialist and anti-militarist leanings – just like their French counterparts. Their paintings were not merely captious but grew naturally from deeply held philosophical convictions.

Avoiding theory and relying on one’s “responses” leads to other curiosities such as the short commentary on Adrian Feint’s The Lighthouse of 1943 (plate 21) where an overly sexualized interpretation is allowed to suffice. The old saw of sexuality is dragged into service once again, when the chances are that the reality is much less salacious. Feint’s painting is a visual mix of the living with the dead; oceanic and calcified forms are transposed with living forms in a window dressing aesthetic - a picture postcard Surrealism, that attempts to localise Lautréamont’s famous simile of the umbrella and the sewing machine. This is no more than what was happening in St. Ives in Cornwall, with the found objects aesthetic of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. That Feint was heading in the same direction becomes more apparent in the juxtapositions to be found in Untitled of 1948 (plate 23) and Fantasy in Pink and Green – The Poor Relations of 1949 (plate 24).

Like all Beagle Press publications this text is almost devoid of typographical errors – Compte (sic) and Maldaror (sic) are minor oversights. An index would be useful for reference purposes but this may be expecting too much of a commercial press. The text has a very fine overview of sources (p. 40) and places an appropriate emphasis upon the importance of the available literature of Lowenfeld, Ellery, Freud, Read, Wilenski (p. 39) and the impact of immigrants and their insights. The footnotes are excellent but the bibliography is restricted to texts, so relevant “little” magazines and journal articles do not get a listing. Unfortunately, the text ends rather than concludes and one cannot help wishing for a summation that does fuller credit to the artists’ insights, the collectors’ passion and the writer’s perceptions.

This book reminds us just how important Surrealism was in dragging Australian art away from the grip of the dead hand of pastoralism and tradition. It is easy to forget that the subsequent development of local writing and criticism of Surrealist persuasion, particularly by Ivor Francis, James Gleeson, Bernard Boles, Max Harris and Albert Tucker, tended to supplement and validate a trend that by the late 1940s was to be seen constantly in advertisements, in magazines, in photography, in book illustrations, in stage sets, in store window dressing and later even in music and imported popular films. The absurdist, concatenated and fractured aesthetic of some of this could only be contained and expressed by a lexicon of Surrealist techniques. Within a comparatively short time, narrative discontinuity, dream imagery, decalcomania, frottage, poem-objects, juxtaposition, biomorphism, found objects, assemblage, collage, chance and automatism were permanently added to Australia’s artistic repertoire.

Ken Wach is Associate Professor, Art History, School of Creative Arts, The University of Melbourne.

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