A deathbed request from the former premier singer in King Farouk’s orchestra leads a Cairo-born Greek painter to rediscover his roots.
When his mother’s last wish to him was that he return to the country of his birth, Vranas Georgiadhis was not sure what to expect. He had been born in Egypt but had spent his adolescence in the United States and his adult life making a living as an artist in twenty-six different cities. Under the stage name of “Barbara King,” Vranas’s mother had been the premier singer for King Farouk’s orchestra. Before she passed away of cancer, she told him that while her Egypt was gone, “go back one day to find your Egypt.” Although he initially didn’t understand what his mother meant, Vranas first returned to the chaotic city of his birth in 2003, deciding to stay temporarily at a hotel near the “fascinating and pictorial” Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
The Greek painter’s childhood memories of his grandparents’ penthouse apartment in Heliopolis and of having ice cream at Groppi during the reign of King Farouk were of a city and a people that couldn’t have changed more than they did during the fifty years since he left the country as a ten-year-old boy with his mother. A few weeks following his return, he took a train trip to explore the country more widely and discovered the city of Aswan, where he was so entranced by the scenery, the Nile, and Upper Egypt’s rich history that he stayed there for five years. He tells me in retrospect over a decade later, “As soon I got off the train, saw the view from the western side of the Botanical Gardens with the desert in the distance and the Nile in between, a gigantic felucca sailed right past me…that was the discovery of ‘my Egypt’; I identified with the people there; their way of life was very simple. Remember, my mother wasn’t a Greek from Greece; she was a Greek from Egypt—there used to be five hundred thousand Greeks in this country, now there are under a thousand.”
Vranas and his mother left Egypt for the United States when he was barely ten during the 1952 coup d’état, but the mainstream music scene in North America proved incompatible with her experience singing in eight languages at a royal court. At the time, East Coast music performance venues were more interested in jazz and rock and roll than in classical performances. Coincidentally, she met an acquaintance who had attended some of her shows in Cairo and who later turned out to be the police chief of Washington, DC. When he offered her a job to work as an undercover policewoman, she decided to accept it. “You’re so incredibly beautiful, that no one would ever suspect,” she was told when she first took the job.
Remember, my mother wasn’t a Greek from Greece; she was a Greek from Egypt.
She wouldn’t begin singing again until they moved to California over a decade later, where she got a job singing at Hollywood’s Masquers Club. Vranas says Americans are “notoriously known” for not speaking a second or third language, but by the 1960s some musicians had begun to use a few foreign words in their lyrics, most commonly Spanish. The torch songs, or sentimental, dramatic love songs that “Barbara King” had spent her younger years performing became more popular, and she found a space for appreciation of her work in the elite circle of Hollywood producers, actors, directors, and writers. Although her Greek name was Varvara Vasilaya, American audiences, just like their Egyptian counterparts, knew her simply by the name “Barbara.”
Like his mother, Vranas’s talents won him attention from the politically powerful when he was quite young. He sold his first painting at age fourteen to Robert F. Kennedy, the United States attorney general at the time, and brother to President John F. Kennedy. When I suggest how impressed I am with this accomplishment, Vranas says humbly, “It was all very unusual. It just so happened that the woman who was a secretary to the US attorney general was a friend of my mother’s, she brought the painting into the office, he saw it, had it appraised by the curator of the National Gallery of Art [Ronald Lyon], and then he purchased it.”
The young artist left his mother’s home in California when he was barely eighteen to study at the School of Fine Arts in Athens, Greece. He ranked second out of an incoming class of only fifty students accepted to the prestigious arts academy from three thousand applicants. Despite his outstanding performance as a student, the contemporary style of painting taught at the academy didn’t suit the young artist at all. Vranas tells me how he came to apprentice privately with Andreas Georgiadis, a former senior instructor at the academy who shared Vranas’s passion for realism and traditional painting.
One of the models [for a drawing class] who had been with the ballet, told me, “You don’t belong here, you need to meet the professor who used to be here for almost forty years…he’s very old now, he’s in his eighties.”
After first seeing samples of Vranas’s previous work, Andreas told the eager, young student that he was welcome into his home anytime he wished to watch him paint. Although Vranas and Andreas coincidentally both share a last name, the two artists aren’t related. Andreas Georgiadis, who signed his paintings “Andreas Georgiadis, The Cretan,” died in 1981. Vranas calls himself Andreas Georgiadis’s “last protégé.” The Cretan painted portraits for the royal family in Greece, and from floor to ceiling in every room of his house were “some of the most amazing paintings [Vranas] had ever seen,” including figurative paintings, portraits of gypsies, and studies of works by the Old Masters, the most recognized European painters of the period between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. Vranas says of his mentor that he “painted like El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, a sixteenth-century sculptor and painter) and Rubens (Sir Peter Paul Rubens, a seventeenth-century Flemish Baroque painter) combined. He was really a classically trained painter; in fact, I later found out that he studied in Egypt as a teenager.”
Vranas’s work focuses on the ethnic people of the world. He paints people in the streets; people dressed in traditional clothes, and occasionally, murals for the walls of high-end restaurants as well as biblical, historical, and religious subjects. His previous subjects include paintings of street life in Hong Kong, dancers in Bali, Chinese immigrants in Hawaii, daily life in Irish pubs, flamenco artists, and Spanish gypsies. With the growing popularity of abstract painting, Vranas’s realist artwork stands in stark contrast with that available in the mainstream market, a space he finds elitist and not inclusive since it only values “minimalistic” art. In Egypt, he tells me he has been criticized for “painting poor people; who wants to have that on their wall?” although he has yet to meet a young person who isn’t in awe of his work, since younger generations are less likely to be classist. He faces difficulty selling his paintings sometimes, and explains, “If a subject becomes too representative of the real situation of their own country, [traditional audiences] shy away from it.” He remains convinced that one “should never let the public determine [their] art, if they like it, that’s fine, if they don’t that’s fine as well…but no one else should decide what you paint or write…what’s the point of being self-expressive if you’re going to let other people decide what you paint?”
During his time living in San Francisco in the late 1980s and 1990s, he gathered 122 realist painters, sculptors, and photographers for a membership guild he founded, the San Francisco Art Society and Gallery, exhibiting the work of artists and craftspeople who are not part of the abstract gallery system. He also created the Center of the Nine Muses, an arts and cultural event venue and rental space. The success of both in San Francisco has led Vranas to consider initiating similar models here in contribution to Egypt’s art scene. He says, “Since I came back [to Egypt], I have discovered that a lot of artists now want to be part of the international art scene, including the modern art scene, and they’re not as interested in painting what I would call the ethnic people of their own country. I have met some artists who still paint these subjects, but the difference is that I was trained in an academic tradition and I tend to paint very realistically; I’m not part of a modern school. I like good craftsmanship in painting, and to use the best materials; I’m not an experimental artist—I see something that touches me, sort of like Rembrandt when he went into the streets of Amsterdam, and I take from that.”
Vranas moved to Cairo’s Zamalek Island early in 2013, as students at the Luxor Academy of Art had referred to the district as “where the art [in Cairo] is happening.” He occasionally teaches art courses privately. Since drawing human anatomy is not instructed at the Institute of Fine Art, graduates are often fascinated by Vranas’s realistic painting. During his time in Cairo, he has been approached by numerous young artists requesting that he teach them to draw the figure and face as in the academic traditions of Western painting. Human anatomy is commonly taught at art academies as part of undergraduate degrees that can take as long as six years to complete, although not in Egypt. He tells me about how he came to realize the need for him to teach Egyptian students,
“When I came back [to Egypt], I noticed that a lot of art galleries exhibit paintings in extremely decorative styles, and I didn’t see any good artwork of the human figure. It took me a while to realize that the Institute of Fine Art, maybe since the time of Sadat or even earlier, no longer taught artistic anatomy and that it was considered haram to paint a live, nude model, whereas in art academies around the world, students are required to paint, or at the very least, draw the human figure and face before graduating.”
For years, in Cairo, San Francisco, and other cities, Vranas met and mentored young students, his only fee being a cup of coffee. He has been able to make a living as an artist in numerous countries around the world during his career, but feels it a duty and a personal mission to contribute what he can to the country of his birth.
When asked about the source of his inspiration in an often stiflingly chaotic city, Vranas tells me, “If you look carefully at the streets or the Nile or the villages… people are everywhere, but I don’t see that many artists painting these people except in stylized, almost decorative fashion. I look for what makes humanity real; sometimes that could be someone who leads a very difficult life. I think one of the most fascinating subjects here in Egypt is mothers and their children. Egyptian kids have such beautiful expressions, their liveliness, their sense of humor—you could spend a lifetime painting that.”
Some of Vranas’s work is below.