When Nikos Engonopoulos (1907-85) first presented a collection of poems in the late 1930s, he was accused of being insane. The initial reactions to his work as a painter were not much more flattering either. Yet the artist did not waver under such criticism, pursuing his creative bent without need for praise.
An exhibition that just opened at the Goulandris Foundation Museum of Modern Art on the Aegean island of Andros is ample proof that Engonopoulos’s critics were surely mistaken. The show presents 110 works – many of which are from private collections and have not previously been seen by the general public – and a selection of poems in an homage to a fascinating life and career titled “With the Colors of the Word and the Word of Colors.”
The exhibition begins with the introductions: a self-portrait of Engonopoulos as a young man and a chronology of the milestones in the life and work of the painter, poet and professor at the Athens Polytechnic, a man with roots in Asia Minor and an education from one of the best schools in Paris.
Another section of the exhibition shows us how Engonopoulos was influenced by his professors at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Constantinos Parthenis and Photis Kontoglou, who taught him the techniques of egg tempera and the secrets of icon painting, a skill that the artist later adopted in his hyperrealist compositions. Like his fellow student Yannis Tsarouchis, Engonopoulos studied beside great artists but developed independently of them and never missed an opportunity to march to the beat of his own drum.
The path he chose to follow is evident in the sections that concern the female figure as a muse and that on couples. As Engonopoulos’s figures are devoid of facial characteristics, body language and positioning acquire a vital role. The same applies to the objects which surround these faceless figures, objects that are just as symbolic as the backgrounds – no painting is without a cloud, or a fragment of sea on the horizon, a part of an ancient temple.
Greek history and mythology, in combination of course with his extremely solid educational background, constituted an endless source of inspiration for the artist, as viewers of the exhibition will observe. Gods and demigods, heroes in the Greek War of Independence and saints all served Engonopoulos as role models and form the core of yet another section of the show dedicated to his idealism and love of country. Engonopoulos was always proud to be Greek and this is reflected both in his paintings and his poetry.
Another fascinating aspect of this exhibition is how it sheds light on the artist’s relationship to architecture through the amazing depictions of buildings he produced thanks to time spent working with the architect Dimitris Pikionis. Engonopoulos was also active in the theater, designing sets and costumes for Linos Karzis’s productions at the Herod Atticus Theater, among others.
The Andros show, which runs through October 1, is curated by Maria Koutsomalli. It is accompanied by a 290-page Greek-English catalog that contains reproductions of the 110 works, published by Mikri Arktos and with texts written by Andreas Geordiadis and Vivi Garolymatou.