Cleopatra signed in Greek and dated '68' (lower right) oil on canvas 55 x 45 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Exhibited: Athens, Institut Français d' Athènes, One man show, no 25, 1987 (illustrated in the catalogue).
Literature: Katerina Perpinioti Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos - His Pictorial Universe, Benaki Museum publications, Athens 2007, no 929, p. 356 (illustrated). Nikos Engonopoulos, The Angels in Heaven Speak Greek, Interviews, Comments and Opinions, Ypsilon publications, Athens 1999 (fig 1 and cover illustration). Diavazo journal, no 478, October 2007, p. 92 (illustrated). Interviews, 1999, no 1. Eleftherotypia newspaper, December 19, 1999. TO VIMA newspaper, December 21, 1999. AVGI newspaper, March 20, 2003.
I love the bodies of women. With their breasts they eliminate our loneliness. Nikos Engonopoulos
Women, always beautiful and seductive, were a constant source of inspiration throughout Engonopoulos career, a fundamental subject in both his painting and poetry. I adore female bodies the painter himself declared.1 Often these bodies, according to art critic B. Spiliadi, are fully dressed and their importance in the artists work must be stressed. By means of its costume, each faceless body acquires its own unique personality.2 Anyone, noted Engonopoulos, may substitute the face of his choice.3
According to K. Perpinioti-Agazir who prepared the artists recently published catalogue raisonné, in the 1955-1973 period, during which Engonopoulos painting became widely recognised, the artist produced the only two historical female figures in his 50-year oeuvre, namely La Très Noble Dame Élisabeth Moutzan Martinegou (the first modern Greek woman writer) in 1956 and Cleopatra in 1968.4
Elegant, mysterious and utterly seductive, Cleopatra has always been a symbol of the eternal woman and the eternal symbol of an alluring, sybaritic and irrational Orient, as perceived in the West. As a legendary figure in her own right, she stands for all those things ancient and exotic, legendary and lost, mythical and historical. Wild and charismatic, she represents a Dionysian world-view, which is natural and expressive, highly imaginative and visionary sensual. Cleopatra (c. 69-30 BC), the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, King of Egypt, was the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC until it became a Roman province in 30 BC. Despite common misconception, the Queen of the Nile was Greek, as were all the Pharaohs in the Ptolemy line.
Alluding to Cleopatras celebrated love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Engonopoulos sets his visual act in a theatrical stage reminiscent of a Roman odeum, the roofed theatre in which poets submitted their works and contended for prizes. Moreover, the stone structure with rows of arches in the background, which recalls the backdrop for the palace sets Engonopoulos designed in 1962 for George Bernard Shaws Caesar and Cleopatra5, is an homage to Giorgio de Chiricos famous arcaded piazzas (compare The Enigma of a Day, 1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted in the period when the great Italians surrealist eye envisioned subversively irrational images.
Exploring the uncharted pathways of the mind, Engonopoulos sets up a system of poetic metaphor, bringing together Cleopatra, as a symbol of irrational thought, and de Chirico as a true master of surrealist dreamscapes. However, as noted by former Athens National Gallery Director D. Papastamos, Engonopoulos art is not imbued by de Chiricos metaphysical atmosphere that so captivated the Greek painter. Engonopoulos heroes do not quest, they are not disquieted; on the contrary they fully experience an every day reality still bound with tradition and eastern myths.6 Although de Chiricos influence is detectable, Engonopoulos faceless human figure departs from the iconography of the mannequin as featured in the work of the Italian artist. As noted by N. Loizidi, an expert on surrealism, above all, the Greek painters mannequins are not generic androgynous figures but persons with clearly defined gender characteristics. Women are represented with voluptuous curves and daringly rendered nipples.7
1. Interview to Manna journal, no. 5, 1974, pp. 34-38. 2.Β. Spiliadi, An Interview with N. Engonopoulos [in Greek], Kathimerini daily, 12/13.4.1981. 3. Interview to Manna. 4. K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos, Son Univers Pictural, exhibition catalogue and catalogue raisonée, Benaki Museum, Athens 2007, p. 98. 5. See Design or Colour, Stage Sets and Costumes by Nikos Engonopoulos 1937-1965 [in Greek], Ikaros publ., Athens 2007, fig. 10, 11. 6. D. Papastamos, preface in the Nikos Engonopoulos retrospective exhibition catalogue [in Greek], National Gallery-A. Soutzos Museum, Athens 1983, p. 8. 7. N. Loizidi, 'Regarding Jef, Midnights Great Automaton' [in Greek] in Location: Engonopoulos, exhibition catalogue, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki 2007, p.11.