Polygnotos Vagis

Polygnotos Vagis

Greek / American
1894 - 1965


Polygnotos Vagis was born in the village of Potamia, Thassos, in 1894. He started engaging with engraving and sculpture when he was a child because of his father, who was a wood carver and a carpenter. In 1911, he immigrated to New York and, in 1917, he enrolled in the sculpture faculty at the Cooper Union, a school he soon left when he enlisted as a volunteer in the US Navy during World War I. Two years later, he enrolled at the Beaux Arts Institute in New York where he studied sculpture for three years under C. Boulgon and F. Aitken. During his studies and until 1930, he produced realistic sculptural works which were initially made of clay and then molded into plaster or transferred to copper. With themes borrowed from ancient Greek mythology and history, the Bible as well as modern Greek history, he created human forms, symbolic groups and animals that stood out for the harmony and rhythmic “articulation” of their volumes. At the same time, he created portraits on which he experimented with impressionist elements, such as My Grandfather, which became prominent in the 1922 exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. His admiration for ancient Greek culture and his love for nature constituted a major source of inspiration for his work, which would soon be established in New York's competitive artistic circles. In 1932, he was awarded a scholarship from the Whitney Museum Club and, in 1933, he settled and worked in Bethpage, Long Island, NY. Since then, he abandoned the figurative details of his earlier works, without becoming totally abstract, and after rough processing, he focused on rendering simple, clear and naturalistic forms that emerge from the material itself. Without mockups and by using granite blocks he came across in the Long Island area, he proceeded in the direct carving of the stone, organically harmonizing its original form with the shape he desired to give them. He also utilized wood, cement or paint. His subjects continued including human figures, animals as well as mythological, poetic and allegorical figures. However, unlike his earlier creations, his new work emitted ancient spirituality and monumentality, while also reflecting primitive styles and elements of Greek archaic art. Typical examples are the artworks Sleep, 1931, Circle, 1932, Moon, 1940, The Snake, 1942. In 1950, he designed the World War II Veterans Memorial in Bethpage, Long Island. In 1958, he was awarded the Audubon Artists Gold Medal and, in 1962, the Golden Cross Order of the Phoenix. In 1963, he traveled back to Greece for the first time after many years. He died in New York in 1965 and was buried in Greece. Before he died, he bequeathed his work to the Greek Government for the construction of a museum and a library in Thassos. The Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs inaugurated it in 1981 under the name of Polygnotos Vagis Museum. Vagis exhibited his work at numerous solo exhibitions in New York, in venues such as the Painters and Sculptors Gallery (1932), the C.W. Kraushaar Gallery (1934), the Valentine Gallery 1938, the Hugo Art Gallery (1946), the Iolas Gallery (1955, 1956, 1960) and participated in many group exhibitions in institutions and museums such as: the National Academy of Design (1920-1931), the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1932, 1938) in New York, the Museum of Modern Art Gallery (1939) in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1942, 1952) in New York, the Buchholz Gallery (1945) in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (1936, 1945, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1960 – 1963) in New York. His works can be found, among others, at the National Glyptotheque in Athens, the Kavala Municipal Museum, the MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel. In 1977, his retrospective was held in Kavala.