Nonda the artist and the man

When in the early 1950s, a young artist by the name of Epameinondas Papadopoulos, later known as Nonda (1922-2005), exhibited a series of large-scale nude paintings at the (back then famous) Athenian gallery Parnassos, he was charged with offending «public decency.» The show closed the day after the opening night and reopened only after the young artist had placed fig leaves on the genitalia of the painted nude figures. The controversy made Papadopoulos a news story, sending crowds and even the royal couple to visit the show. Although the incident probably reveals more about Greek society at the time than it does about Nonda’s art, when seen within the context of the artist’s bohemian life, it also becomes a reflection of his fiery, unconventional personality. Referred to as «the volcanic Greek» by French author Jean-Paul Crespelle in his book «Montmartre Vivant,» Nonda lived and worked with a passion that often led to provocation, to imaginative and grandiose projects, many of them defying the art establishment of postwar Paris. Nonda left for Paris on a scholarship in 1947 and spent all his creative years there. Considered to be part of the Ecole de Paris (a term that denotes an early 20th century movement that was crucial for the development of modernism), but a rather distinctive case on the margins of the art establishment, Nonda, unlike other Greek artists who made their careers in Paris, is not that well-known to the Greek public. «Nonda, Six Decades of Art – 1940-2000,» a retrospective exhibition held at the Pireos Street annex Benaki Museum reveals the full scope of his work for the first time to the Greek public (a smaller exhibition was organized by the City of Athens in 2003). Curated by the artist’s daughter Joanna Papadopoulou – the project’s soul – and Natassa Karaggelou, it also faces historians of Greek art history with the challenge of appraising the work of this «newly discovered» Greek artist of the diaspora. The essay by Manos Stefanidis which appears in the exhibition’s supplementary catalogue is a first approach to the work of Nonda written with penetration and sensitivity. Also in the catalogue, Stephanos Papadopoulos unravels the artist’s life in Paris and draws the image of a distinctive, strong personality. Nonda’s art cannot be fully appreciated if seen apart from his life and personality and this is where the essay becomes a useful guide. The early nudes and portraits capture his admiration for female beauty, an erotic, almost animal-like beauty that Nonda found in the cabaret dancers and in Parisian nightlife. The drama and eroticism of «Women with Hats,» an early, large painting which shows a cluster of nude female figures, is one of the best early examples. Nonda liked to work on large canvasses probably because it was with expansive surfaces that he could better express a feeling for passion and monumentality. «I am instinctive – expressions, interpretations, messages: I am opposed to all that,» he used to say. In those early days, Nonda was a striving artist who lived in dire conditions to make ends meet. When, in the early 1950s, Nonda met Dimitris Galanis, the well-known Greek artist who was part of the Parisian artistic scene, and Francis Carco, a great French poet, things started to change. A solo exhibition in 1956 was the beginning of one of the most prolific periods in his work. The author and poet Georges Picard became another great supporter of his work, while the great choreographer Serge Lifar who at the time was head of the Paris Opera Ballet asked Nonda to paint him seated on a horse and dressed in a Byzantine emperor’s costume. In the late 50s, Nonda began to turn away from the gallery scene. His canvasses were too large to have commercial appeal, yet Nonda refused to change his style. He became the own manager of his work and organized one of the most unusual projects in his career: He asked Andre Malraux, then France’s minister of culture, permission to organize a 24-hour-long, one-man show on the banks of the river Seine, under the Pont Neuf Bridge – the oldest standing bridge in the city. This was his way of making art more accessible to the public but also of creating an exhibition that was also both an event and a performance piece. The huge, mural-like paintings with the grainy surfaces and fresco quality date from that period. They are monumental works made to be shown in large spaces. «Homage to Francois Villon» from 1960 is one of the most impressive. The bare-chested female figures that are featured in the banquet scene are a recurring motif in his work. For his fourth Pont Neuf exhibition (the solo shows were spread throughout the early 1960s), Nonda constructed the «Trojan Horse,» a construction made of steel tubing, wood and newspaper. Nonda lived in that horse for the duration of the exhibition. He met with visitors and discussed his work, which had in the meantime attracted the attention of the press and the Parisian public. «The Trojan Horse» marked the beginning of Nonda’s work in monumental sculpture. After a brief visit to New York and several years into his marriage, he moved to Athens where he devoted himself to working on massive sculptures. «An artist must change, an artist who finds his formula of success is dead,» Nonda used to say when he was still a young artist. Throughout his life, he lived up to that belief, constantly presenting himself with new challenges. The Benaki exhibition is a tribute to his work and personality, his stamina and commitment. It introduces the Athenian public to a Greek artist of the postwar period but, in an indirect way, also reminds us of the importance of living one’s life with enthusiasm and appreciation for everything that it gives to us. «Nonda, Six Decades of Art» at the Benaki Museum at 138 Pireos, tel 210.345.3338, to February 18.

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