The sailor signed in Greek and dated '48' (lower right) oil on canvas 92 x 73.5 cm. (36 1/4 x 29 in.)
Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist by Alexandros Xydis, thence by decent to the present owner.
"I am a Greek along with the familiar images that surround me" N. Engonopoulos
A magnificent dreamy cityscape of poetic metaphor acquired directly from the artist in 1948, right out of his studio, by his close friend and prominent art critic Alexander Xydis, The sailor is a rare gem and one of the most distinctive works of Engonopoulos. A pioneering advocate of surrealism and a leading figure of 20th century Greek art and literature, the artist draws from the freedom of the early 20th century avant-garde and his broad intellectual interests, combining diverse elements from Byzantine art and neoclassicism to traditional shadow puppet theatre, folklore and modern fashion.
In The sailor, the emblematic figure of a moustached Greek juxtaposed with a mythical mermaid provides him with an ideal opportunity to explore the association of history and myth in the collective consciousness of the Greek people, a quest that had always been a defining feature of his art. The coexistence of modern reality and myth, the yoking together of old and new, set forth the main aesthetic and ideological preoccupations of the 1930s generation. This splendid canvas faithfully reflects his attitude towards painting, both as a long and rich tradition to draw from, as well as an ideal vehicle to probe into the inner world of Greekness. Engonopoulos gave us one version of surrealism, universal, but at the same time deeply rooted in Greekness, notes the art historian N. Loizidi.1
The artists surrealist eye focuses on the symbolic and enigmatic figure of the mermaid, an amalgam of Greek myths and Byzantine lore. The legendary creature has survived for centuries in local lore as a beautiful and sensual maiden and sister of Alexander the Great, who lives in between the earthly and aquatic realms. Voluptuous, with long golden hair and full of life, she seems to have just emerged from the sea. In both poetry and art, the mermaid continues her eternal voyage, an enduring symbol of myth as an elixir of immortlity.2
Apart from affording the artist the opportunity to render the female form, which, always beautiful and seductive, would become a constant source of inspiration throughout his career, this subject helps him set up a visual act staged in an emphatically theatrical site. Engonopoulos doesnt hesitate to explore the correlations between theatrical and pictorial space, and introduce the theatrical into his painting while employing a painters approach in theatre.3 Theatre expert I. Lakidou notes: In the legend of the mermaid, the stage is the sea while the actors are the Greek sailor and the mermaid sister of Alexander the Great. In her dual nature - half human and half fish - we can easily discern the two aspects of Hellenism, at times serene and in turmoil, while in the visage of the sailor the emblematic Greek who, in his historical course through time and space, may at any time face unexpected obstacles and unavoidable conflict. The sailor, the Greek is the one who experiences pathos during his ongoing struggle for survival. He is a wanderer and a fighter. The sea is his theatre of battle and history his adversary. The two symbolic figures in the myth of the mermaid formulate the fundamental premise of a national conscience and delusion.4
This captivating visual act, charged with timeless symbolic overtones and conveying a feeling of archaic immobility, is placed in the city of Piraeus, Athens age-old port, which had suffered extensive damages during World War II. (In 1949, Engonopoulos worked for the Ministry of Housing and Reconstruction, under renowned architect D. Pikionis, in the design of new buildings for many of the destroyed areas.) The cityscape of Piraeus - with the moored caiques, characteristic seawall and beautiful neoclassical houses, which appears in his work as early as 1944, is embellished with the ubiquitous coffee house table and straw chair. Diligently rendered, the stately entrance door dominates the left part of the painting, underlining the artists life-long fascination with Greek architecture. (In 1948, the year he painted The sailor, Engonopoulos produced a number of paintings of traditional Greek mansions, which D. Pikionis called psychographs.) The intricate iron lintel-piece bears the initials ÊÐ (CP), a possible tribute to his beloved teacher C. Parhenis. At the Athens School of Fine Arts I had the good fortune to apprentice under Constantinos Parthenis. Working with him I studied nature and grasped the importance of line and colour.5
In The sailor, colour, a key element throughout Engonopoulos artistic career, assumes a leading role. The seated seaman, who has momentarily abandoned his coffee and cigarette to hold a white flower (engaging in a discreet yet romantically charged dialogue with the mermaid who also holds a flower), is dressed in the same red-striped shirt that appears in Cityscape of Piraeus with Dressed Statue, 1944.6 The enamel-like bright reds, blues, greens and oranges, applied side by side on the canvas without tonal gradations, invite the viewer to a festive ritual of pure colour. Engonopoulos is a wizard with colour, which he handles with conscious daring, unique aptitude and undisputed love.7 As Errieti Engonopoulou, his daughter, notes, for him each colour has its own value, its own voice8 ; much the same as in Byzantine art, which Engonopoulos always considered the art form Greeks most closely relate to.9
The sailor - and Engonopoulos oeuvre as a whole - is imbued with a genuine and deep-felt sense of Greekness. The lack of vast open spaces, supernatural landscapes whose sheer size nullifies the human scale, is a typically Greek element. His work emulates Greeces natural environment, a setting that both frames and accentuates human activity.10 According to A. Xydis himself, Engonopoulos created a Greek version of surrealism, which, due to the fact that it contained more rational elements than other national schools, could be considered a substantial Greek contribution to the development of world art.11
1N. Loizidi, Surrealism in Modern Greek Art [in Greek], Athens 1984, p. 181 2See The Myth of the Mermaid, Kathimerini newspaper (Epta Imeres), 15.7.2001 3P. Rigopoulou, Nikos Engonopoulos in D. Tsouchlou-A.Bacharian, Stage-Setting in Modern Greek Theatre [in Greek], Athens 1985, p. 141 4I. Lakidou, The Dramatic Element in the Myth of the Mermaid in The Myth of the Mermaid, p. 16 5Epitheorisi Technis magazine, March 1963, pp. 193-197 6Illustrated in Nikos Engonopoulos, The Painter and the Poet, Kathimerini newspaper (Epta Imeres), 25.5.1997, p. 12 7S. Boulakian, The Work of Nikos Engonopoulos in Greek Painters-20th Century [in Greek], Melissa publ., Athens 1974, p. 262 8E. Engonopoulou, Freedom and Discipline in Nikos Engonopoulos, The Painter and the Poet, p. 23 9Epitheorisi Technis, pp. 193-197 10Boulakian, p. 261 11A. Xydis, Nikos Engonopoulos, a Greek Surrealist Painter, Tetradio magazine (Third), December 1945, p.46