A poet’s paintings of the world

In 1945, the great surrealist poet Andreas Embeirikos wrote a passionately rave review on the work of the slightly younger, fellow poet Nikos Engonopoulos. Published in the art review Tetradia, this long exultant praise was followed, in the next chapter, by another praiseworthy article that art critic Alexandros Xydis had written on Nikos Engonopoulos, the painter. This was essentially the first time that the work of this creative and distinctive artist had received unreluctant admiration. Engonopoulos (1907-1985) was nearing his 40s and had already published two important but controversial collections of poetry («Do Not Disturb the Driver» in 1938 and «The Clavicembalos of Silence» a year later) as well as the famous epic poem «Bolivar» (in 1944). He was an accomplished poet and a highly innovative painter, yet on the whole his work remained unappreciated and was treated with reservation by the greater part of the Greek «intelligentsia.» Both his poetry and his paintings were seen as too daring and were perhaps too modern for the local art scene. Strange as it may seem today, it was really not until the mid-1950s that Engonopoulos gained broader acclaim. His participation at the Venice Biennale in 1954 (it may be that Engonopoulos was selected to represent Greece because that year’s biennale focused on surrealism) and the awards that followed helped establish his fame. However, apart from some specialists, the wider public remained unfamiliar with his work; even today, Engonopulos is more known as a poet than as a painter. Engonopoulos kept his own distance. During his lifetime, there were only seven solo exhibitions of his work, the first four spread out over the course of 40 years. The National Gallery held a retrospective on his work when the artist was 77 years old. Twenty-five years later, and on the occasion of the centenary of the artist’s birth, a large exhibition on the paintings of Engonopoulos opened in the late fall at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum. The exhibition, which is open for a few more days, includes roughly 150 works (paintings, illustrations and religious icons) and is the first to present the costumes that the artist had designed for the Greek Chorodrama troupe. A catalogue raisonne, written by Katerina Perpinioti-Agazir, has also been published by the Benaki Museum to coincide with the retropective. In the main exhibition hall, excerpts from the surrealist poetry of Engonopoulos have been printed on the wall. In her essay, Perpinioti-Agazir quotes Giorgos Houliaras in saying that Engonopoulos was one of those few artists who excelled in two artistic domains. Although, neither the exhibition nor the catalogue analyzes the connection between Engonopoulos’s poetry and painting, it is commonly understood that in both, he remained a consistent surrealist throughout his life. In fact, he is the only well-known surrealist Greek painter. However, Engonopoulos never felt part of any particular art movement and used to say that both surrealism and a passion for painting were not learned but inherent to him. He strongly admired Andreas Embeirikos and Giorgio de Chirico – a seminal painter for the surrealist movement – and was also indebted to his teacher Fotis Kontoglou and Constantinos Parthenis for inspiring him and helping him find his own artistic path. His work shows their influences. As in the work of de Chirico, there is enigma, mystery and the recurring motif of the mannequin. From Kontoglou, Engonopoulos learned the secrets of Byzantine religious painting. The powerful colors, the techniques he used and the precision with which he drew his subjects suggest that influence. Engonopoulos was deeply appreciative of Greek history and culture and constantly made references to ancient mythology, the Byzantine period or the 19th-century revolution in his work. In some of his paintings, such as in one version of «The Minotaur and Theseus» (pictured here), he also mixed different periods together. «The years have taught us that the more local a character an art has, the more globally interesting it is. That the more personal it is, the more it has significance for all humanity,» he noted in 1938. In the work of Engonopoulos, Greece’s cultural heritage coalesces with the avant-garde. It is actually this combination that the so-called Thirties Generation of painters (among them Yiannis Tsarouchis and Nikos Nikolaou, both close in age to Engonopoulos) is credited with. Although Engonopoulos did not believe in classifications, he is considered one of the generation’s exponents. Among them, Engonopoulos holds a distinctive place as the sole surrealist painter. He was never part of the French movement, but had a deep understanding of it. When the surrealist manifesto was published by Andre Breton in 1924, Engonopoulos was a high school student in Paris. Born in Athens, he spent his early childhood in Constantinople where his family moved in 1914, then Paris and, from the late 1920s on, he lived in Athens. His parents wanted him to become a doctor but, driven by a passion for painting, the young Engonopoulos finally enrolled at the Athens School of Fine Arts (later in life, he became a professor at the polytechnic school in Metsovo). In 1940-41, he fought on the Greek-Italian front in Albania and was caught by the Germans. As a soldier at the time and as an artist throughout his life, Engonopoulos fought for freedom, both mental and artistic. Poetry and painting were his means for attaining it. «If my life is devoted to painting and poetry, it’s because painting and poetry both comfort and amuse me,» he once wrote. Engonopoulos believed art to be a solace to man. «A work of art should help lift our feeling of loneliness. A work of art should give us comfort,» he once said. Both his poems and his paintings provide that rare solace of which Engonopoulos was speaking, that sentiment of comfort and liberation that only great works of art can communicate. «Nikos Engonopoulos (1907-1985) ‘I am a Painter and Poet,’» at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos, 210.345.3111, to January 20.