Artist Christos Papanikolaou, metro painter

He did the paintings for the metro station at Aghios Dimitrios; he lightened up the gray of Attikon Hospital; one of his works hangs in a prominent position at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a gift to Patriarch Vartholomaios when he received an honorary doctorate from Thessaly University. He created 40 large-scale paintings for the Orthopedic Clinic at Larissa University Hospital. He allowed a painting of his to be given to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but refused the same for former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (for reasons he will not disclose), which made headlines in Italy and Greece. And he will represent Greece as an artist at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet Christos Papanikolaou doesn’t think of himself as a painter, even though he teaches fresco and icon painting at the Tirana School of Fine Arts. He sees himself simply as a searcher who moves at his own pace and creates works when he wants to. We meet at a hotel in downtown Athens where he has made an installation for a medical conference. He rarely speaks in public: He’s not used to it, doesn’t like it, doesn’t think it necessary. He thinks artists should be judged by their work alone. He was born 39 years ago in Larissa to parents who were teachers, his father of theology, his mother of English. He was a boisterous child and his mother used to give him pencils to draw with so as to calm him down. «When I started painting, I hated the Byzantine style. In my mind, I had images of paintings in churches in my town and elsewhere in which I could see no art. They were simply copies, decoration at best, kilos of plastic paint used to cover space, a strictly commercial process that had no connection with the history of art. There were no new ideas in ecclesiastical painting. At one point, while I was a studying at the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASKT), I went up to Karyes on Mount Athos and studied Manuel Panselinos, a 14th century Byzantine iconographer of the Macedonian School. I was amazed; that’s when things fells into place.» He still doesn’t quite understand how he ended up at ASKT, studying frescoes, when his childhood dream had been to set out on a cargo ship and travel the seas. «As a kid, I was crazy about the sea, and later I wanted to do my military service in the navy. They accepted me and that satisfied my desire to go to sea. The dream evaporated and I was left with [the works of sailor-poet Nikos] Kavvadias and my other love, painting.» Papanikolaou pursued his study of drawing in Italy, at the Academia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. In 1994, he exhibited works in the Sala di Piazza San Marco on the occasion of the World Council of Churches taking place there, earning critical acclaim. Archbishop Anastasios of Albania heard about him and invited him to teach art at one of the newly established university departments in Tirana. His meeting with the archbishop 10 years ago was a landmark in his life. «The situation in Albania at the time held me back. It took two years to decide to say yes. Seven years later, I am very happy with my decision. «Archbishop Anastasios is the most significant person I have ever met. I remember his words when I first went to meet him in Tirana. At that time, with the air of the successful ‘savior’ who was going to bring culture to underdeveloped Albania, I started making various demands. «He listened attentively, and then turned to me and said: ‘When I first came here, it was not just zero, but below zero. I never wanted to bring the leftovers of world culture; I always want the best.’ There was nothing I could do. I realized that I would only gain from the experience.» Metro paintings Papanikolaou is very proud of his work at the Aghios Dimitrios metro station. «It was a significant architectural challenge for me. The works are not a canvas in a frame, but an installation in the space, which would extend 150 meters if you saw them side by side.» He talks calmly and modestly, saying that art is something that saves him and fulfills him. «Before we met, I was shut up in the studio for 24 hours. I’m in one of the best stages of my life because things are emerging from within me. You know, if you see time as a cycle, the productive phases in the life of an artist are very few compared with the periods of crisis. So when those moments come you have to make the most of them.» Though he believes every human act should be art, he does think there are other important things in life, such as family and human relationships. «I have studied two things in my life, people and brushstrokes. For me the issue, apart from the pictures I paint, is to be able, through effort and struggle, to build a relationship with a person. When I approach someone visually, I can see something deeper in that person and that sparks an interesting train of thought. Some people might call that twisted, but for me it’s the most important thing in life.» As a teacher he does not ask his pupils to follow faithfully what he teaches. Besides, he describes himself as anti-academic. He would prefer them to question him, even reject him; for him that would be proof that he is a good teacher. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly supplement K on November 11, 2007.