Man’s tragic fate captured in tortured vision of a dark reality

Coming out of a hypothetical stroll in an art museum’s European postwar exhibition halls, there is one point that both specialists and laymen ignorant of art matters would probably agree on: That European art during this period, whether abstract or figurative, was the expression of some kind of angst and depicted a world still suffering from the aftermath of war. How else can one account, at least upon first impression, for Giacommetti’s wiry figures and ravaged faces in both his sculpture and painting – for many the perfect visual metaphor of existential man – Bernard Buffet’s images of despair, the dramatic gestures so typical of tachist art (the European equivalent of abstract expressionism) or better yet, Francis Bacon’s gruesome images of convulsed humans. Although in differing degrees, a feeling of alienation and menace is always there, even in something as alluring as the pubescent eroticism which is the recurrent subject matter in Balthu’s paintings. John Christoforou’s work has its origins in this post-war angst. Like many of his contemporary artists, Christoforou witnessed the ravages of the war and was caught in the same existential questions that consumed most European intellectuals. This is where his art springs from and, in this sense, his large retrospective show currently on at the Athens School of Fine Arts takes us back in time, reminding us of a crucial period in both European history and culture. «Man: The Fallen Angel,» the title of the exhibition which is curated by Marilena Karra, contains works that Christoforou (an artist born of Greek parents in London) made from 1947 when, in his mid-forties, he ended his military service with the British Royal Air Force. The exhibition spans his entire career – most of which was spent in Paris – until the present. Considering the broad time span covered in the exhibition, what strikes the viewer is that certain motifs remain unchanged in Christoforou’s works. Throughout, the artist seems obsessed with recounting a tragic vision of man. His almost deathly, disfigured images of human beings, painted in an intense color palette from which black is never missing and in thick, agitated brushstrokes, speak of pain, inner turmoil and despair. The mood remains unchangingly dark from his early, more figurative works to the later, more abstract paintings; in the 1948 «Woman with a Fan,» for example, the woman’s black eye sockets are hauntingly emotive, an effect which recurs in «Femme Affolee» (1998), where the image of a distorted female figure is now painted in an abstract style. Christoforou’s paintings are all about the human figure – an aspect of his work which, at least in its early phase, can be attributed to the resurgent figuration that swept across European postwar art – but about an inhuman world. Images of massacres, warriors, scarecrows, hooded executioners, crosses and martyrs make up the morbid picture of a world coming to an end. Christoforou’s pessimistic aphorisms (some printed in the exhibition’s catalog) confirm the dismal impression his paintings create: «Man will no longer be what he used to be in the past. His soul has somehow been distorted, his balance shattered. This is the tragic history of our century,» he is quoted as saying a year ago. «Wandering in the necropolis of the soul, the artist discovers the infernal machine in the flesh. The history of art is the history of mankind. Life is an experience that is both fabulous and fearsome. I attempt to paint not the image of man, his picture, but the image of his emotions,» he also said at the same time. Beneath these words, one can trace the scars of the postwar period. Christoforou’s woeful vision of the world is an echo of the general existential angst, which, as a young artist in Paris, he must have experienced. Like other artists of his generation, Christoforou was engrossed with the inner being, with man’s absurd and tragic situation. The existentialist streak so prevalent in his work is what places Christoforou at the crux of European postwar art. But how pertinent are these issues for a contemporary audience? At times Christoforou’s painterly drama seems a little too exaggerated. But there is also a timeless sensibility about it; for while it is true that the contemporary audience may not easily relate to the collective drama that fueled much of postwar art and which possibly forms a large part of Christoforou’s vision of the world, he will relate to a more «personal» drama, which involves issues of human alienation, entrapment, freedom and mortality. This is what makes «Man: The Fallen Angel» a poignant and – despite its darkness – a warm exhibition. It also provides the occasion for the Greek public to view, for the first time, a large representative sample of Christoforou’s work, exhibited only once before in this country in the artist’s small solo exhibition at the Athens Gallery in 1997. As is often the case with many artists of the diaspora, it often takes a long time before their work is shown in the country of their origin. It is also true that when this happens, their Greek origins are stressed more that they should be, leaving unexamined the true impact of their contribution on either Greek art history or the art history of other countries. «Man: The Fallen Angel,» a retrospective on the work of John Christoforou, at the Athens School of Fine Arts, to November 30.