Greek surrealist Engonopoulos unites the present with the past

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Greek surrealist painter and renowned poet Nikos Engonopoulos is one of the most well-known modern Greek artists and ranks among the great intellectual figures of post-War Greece.

Fascinated by De Chirico and a fan of Dalí, he largely focused on Greek mythology, the Byzantine tradition and the country’s modern history. 

Despite being criticized, and even ridiculed back then, Engonopoulos remained true to his style that set him apart as one of Greece’s most famous painters. 

His world was a universe of painting with imaginary heroes from mythology and literature, history and poetry, with references to Hermes, Io, Hercules, Eurydice, Orpheus, Odysseus and Calypso.  

By uniting the past with the present, he showcased the power of surrealist expression through painting, using pure colours and strong drawing skills.  

Engonopoulos was a deeply spiritual person who tried to express the universality of Hellenism through his work. 

“With art we can face the incoherence of life. Art can alleviate our life, the path to death,” he was often quoted as saying.

Born in October 21, 1907 in Athens, he attended school in Paris and spent much of his childhood there. 

When he returned to Athens, Engonopoulos worked a number of jobs, including being a translator, bank teller, and secretary at the University of Athens. 

In 1930, he began working as a designer in the Urban Planning Department of the Greek Ministry of Public Works. Unsatisfied with his career and hoping to pursue art, Engonopoulos enrolled at the Athens School of Fine Arts in 1932, which was a vibrant period for the school, when many great Greek artists were studying and teaching there. 

 

He was a member of the Generation of the 30s, a group of Greek writers, poets, artists, intellectuals, critics, and scholars who made their debut in the 1930s and introduced modernism to Greek art and literature. The previous Medieval and post-Byzantine Greek eras, which glorified religion, Jesus, and the certainty of Enlightenment thinking, were rejected by modernism. 

The most notable member among the Generation of the ‘30s is Giorgos Seferis, a Greek poet who instigated the turning point into modernity with surrealism in his poetry. 

 

During this time, Engolopoulos met important artists, poet Andreas Embirikos and painters, such as Yannis Tsarouchis, Giorgo de Chirico and Yannis Moralis. 

  

Initial works 

His first paintings, mostly temperas paper depicting old houses, were presented at an Art of Modern Greek Tradition exhibition, organised in January 1938. Soon after the exhibition, he published translations of poems by Tristan Tzara, which were published in February. A few months later, his first collection of poems (Do Not Distract the Driver) was published, followed by a second one (The Clavicembalos of Silence) the following year. 

Thanks to his apprenticeship, after his graduation in 1938, under Fotis Kontoglou and professor Alexandros Xyngopoulos, Engonopoulos was exposed to the tradition and the spirit of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. 

In 1941, Engenopoulos fought in WWII at the Albanian front and was captured by Germans. He was taken to a labor camp, from where he escaped and returned to Athens on foot. 

Three years later, he finished his most popular long poem Bolivar, a Greek Poem, inspired by the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar and published in 1944. 

In 1967 he was appointed professor of painting at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens. 

Sotiris Sorogas, his close collaborator and successor at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens, said that Engonopoulos’ “subject matter was far from the theocratic point of view portrayed in icons, which was considered in itself a huge aberration.” 

  

“Thus, the faces in Engonopoulos’ paintings do not bear the element of the divine. Instead, they are Dionysian or Apollonian heroes, often depicting the artist himself in a cryptical manner, in a dreamy atmosphere, extravagantly tragic. His paintings narrate myths, historical facts or everyday life incidents, in which unconventional time, the paradox of the forms, and the pending symbolization transform them into places of allure and mystery. It is here that his references to Greek mythology lie,” said Sorogas.   

Engonopoulos was chosen to represent Greece at the 27th Venice Biennale in 1954, where he displayed 72 of his paintings. Engonopoulos has been honored in Greece and internationally for both his paintings and his poetry. 

 

He died in Athens in 1985 after suffering a heart attack. 

 

Now, 37 years after his death, the B&M Theocharakis Foundation in central Athens is honoring the acclaimed surrealist by presenting a retrospective of his oeuvre. A collection of 140 pieces of his work, in an exhibition title “Nikos Engonopoulos l Orpheus of Surrealism” is on display at the foundation, through to June 19, 2022.

 

For more information, click here.

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