Nikos Engonopoulos

Engonopoulos Nikos
© Contemporary Greek Art Institute Archives

He was born in 1907 in Athens where he died in 1985. The fundamental proponent of the Surrealist spirit in Greece. He studied at the School of Fine Arts in Athens (1932-1938) under Constantinos Parthenis and attended art schools in Munich, Florence, and Ravenna. He worked in higher education and was appointed professor of freehand drawing 1967 in the National Technical University of Athens, where he taught until 1973. He was a member of the Armos art group. He was an exponent of Surrealism in poetry, too, his publications including: “Clavichords of Silence” (1938), “Do Not Speak to the Driver” (1939), “Seven Poems” (1944), “Bolivar” (1944), “In the Valley of the Roses” (1978) et al. His works have been translated into French, English, and Italian. He gave lectures and published essays on art, he illustrated books and was involved in stage and costume design. He received the Greek Ministry of Education’s First Prize for Poetry (1958) and George I’s Gold Cross (1966).

Works

Solo Exhibitions

2017

With the Colours of the Word and the Word of Colours Retrospective exhibition Museum of Contemporary Art – Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Andros

2007

Benaki Museum – Pireos Str. Building (138 Pireos St.) Athens

2002

Astrolavos Art Galleries Athens

1999

Astrolavos Art Galleries Athens

1997

Municipal Art Gallery of Thessaloniki Thessaloniki

1996

Zoumboulakis Galleries Athens

1995

Tribute to Nikos Engonopoulos Skoufa Gallery Athens

1987

Nikos Engonopoulos, Painter and Poet French Institute Athens

1987

Aigina Art Gallery Aegina

1985

Painting 1975-1985 Galerie 3 Athens

1985

F Gallery Thessaloniki

1985

Zita-Mi Art Gallery Thessaloniki

1984

Zoumboulakis Galleries Athens

1983

Retrospective Exhibition National Gallery – Alexandros Soutsos Museum Athens

1983

Kochlias Gallery Nicosia

1981

Zita-Mi Art Gallery Thessaloniki

1981

Polyplano Gallery Athens

1981

Galerie 3 Athens

1976

Moraitis School’s Society for the Study of Modern Greek Culture and General Education Athens

1963

Doxiadis Schools Athens Technological Institute Athens

1954

27th Venice Biennale Venice

1939

The Home of Nikos Kalamaris Athens

Press

Couples

A man and a woman in the center of a composition. The ambiance, the clothing, the positions vary but one thing remains immutable: the couple. Engonopoulos made it a central theme in his work, representing the couple more than sixty times.1 Almost half of them are known, springing from mythology or literature: Odysseus and Penelope, Odysseys and Calypso or Nausicaa (1982), Orpheus and Eurydice, Jason and Medea, Hero and Leander (1980), Hector and Andromache, Thetis and Peleus, Erotokritos and Aretoussa (1969)… The other anonymous figures are not characters from some well-known story. If the title chosen by the artist refers to their presence, they are soberly denoted like “The Poet and His Muse”, “Marriage”, “Engagement”, “Idyll”, or simply “Couple”. These paintings share several features in common: all the figures are depicted full-scale; faces, sometimes replaced by objects, are not in the least recognizable; the bodies are young and slender and do not touch, only modestly with their hands. The role of the woman is just as important as the man’s: they face each other as equals in ardour, play, struggle and the everyday life that unites them. Their bodies are similarly disproportionate: elongated thighs, feet, arms; extremely narrow waist; accentuation of the man’s musculature and the woman’s bust, hips and thighs. As the years advance, the colour of the man’s complexion becomes more matt as if to set off the woman’s lily-white skin.

Whatever image one forms of the couple, it is undeniable that here Engonopoulos is setting an ideal before us. The score that these two figures write together, arranged as such, belongs to no one but them. We are but spectators of their harmonious coexistence, voyeurs of their conjugal life that proves to be a happy one, at least most of the time. Discord certainly may arise, often with a subtle shaft of wit like we find in “Here” or in “Jason and Medea”. Yet they betray the inevitable wear and tear of time on the early passion. Despite the absence of raw eroticism,2 the cohabitation of bodies is plainly sensual, carnal, and sexual. Engonopoulos explains himself humbly in this regard: “I like the nude better than the face. A face can lie. The nude never. That’s why I am not interested in faces. I only paint the body. I like the body because it is the cup of life. Expressive like life when tired. Sparkling like life when new.”3 In other words the body does not lie. It reveals its desire or indifference, its attraction or repulsion, its fervour or fatigue without the interpretation of facial expression or content of verbal exchange distorting the initial impulse.

The testimonies of Engonopoulos’s two wives Nelly Andrikopoulou and Lena Engonopoulou converge on this point: after having formed a couple the artist ceased sharing. The former to whom he was married for only four years wrote with distinct bitterness: “Living with Engonopoulos was, if nothing else, asphyxiatingly intimate – as much for the surrounding space as for the mental space – you might even say that he succumbed to this suffocation.”4 The latter who spent  more than twenty-five years by his side, until his death, confirmed: “Nikos declared his love and asked me to marry him right away while at the same time announcing to all our friends: ‘I want to find a girl, go into seclusion and never speak to anyone again!’ He was always like that, an absolutist. Our friends, along with me of course, were speechless at hearing this. We couldn’t believe our ears… but it was true.”5 His search for the absolute and this sovereign love that led to isolation are therefore nothing but a painter’s chimeras; they translate the innermost vision of a man. It is for this reason that it would be mistaken to view his painted couples as cold, unfeeling and distant simply because the figures do not have faces. Likewise, it would be false to presume they are not animated by a movement suggestive of a more primal attraction. To the contrary, these pairs stand like the pillars of the shared history they build together, be it ephemeral or made to withstand the test of time.

 

Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau

* From the catalogue of the exhibition “With the Colours of the Word and the Word of Colours”, Museum of Contemporary Art – Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Andros, 2017.
[1] This number takes account of the finished works only. It does not include works on paper, bozzetti [sketch in oil] or studies in pencil.
[2] All in all, Engonopoulos painted just one erotic work and one only, a drawing dating from 1972.
[3] Interview in “Apogevmatini” newspaper, 2 August 1969.
[4] Nelly Andrikopoulou, “In the traces of Nikos Engonopoulos”, Potamos Publications, Athens, 2003, p. 15.
[5] Lena Engonopoulou, “Never Enough!” in Chartis magazine, vol. 25-26, November 1988, p. 241.