Hercules signed in Greek and dated '1967' (lower right) oil on canvas laid down on cardboard 45 x 38 cm
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Literature: Katerina Perpinioti Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos - His pictorial universe, Benaki Museum, Athens 2007, no 913, p. 353 and 498 (illustrated). Nikos Engonopoulos, Mythology, Ypsilon Editions, Athens 2006, p. 78 (illustrated). 'Engonopoulos', Diavazo Journal, no 478, October 2007, p. 110 (illustrated).
A commanding artistic vision drawn from Greek mythology and the heroism of a bygone era, Hercules explores the association of collective cultural symbols, probing into the inner world of Greekness. History and myth, represented by the imposing figure of the mighty hero1 and the ancient temple crowning the acropolis in the background, coexist with modern reality epitomized by the Greek flag, triumphantly fluttering in the morning breeze against a luminous sky. Hercules is given the head of a majestic lion, alluding to the first of his famous Labours, a series of twelve almost impossible tasks devised by king Eurysthenes. After slaying the lion of Nemea with his bare hands, Hercules kept the beasts pelt that became, along with his legendary club discreetly resting on his feet, the heros signature trait. Notably, representations of lions have a long pictorial, sculptural and literary tradition in Greek folk art, almost always functioning as potent symbols of power.
This kind of yoking together of old and new set forth the main aesthetic and ideological preoccupations of the 1930s generation. Undoubtedly, Greek mythology was a major source of inspiration for many towering figures of Modern Greek art in their efforts to reinterpret an age-old tradition in a modern and vigorous manner. However, as perceptively noted by N. Loizidi, only Engonopoulos formulated a new mythology, giving us some imaginative and creatively unorthodox interpretations of Greek myths enriched by the objective humour and method of irrational surrealist expression. 2 Likewise, K. Perpinioti-Agazir argues that although Engonopoulos placed Greek mythology at the base of his thematic pyramid, he did not attempt a so-called return to the roots nor did he approach mythology with an obsession for antiquity or nostalgia, but rather as equal to equal. He depicted the impact of myths in his time, revealing their subversive and dreamlike components. 3 He transports us from ancient/mythical times to the present day, using, in a fresh and modern way, cross-temporal iconographic leaps that were common during the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine eras in both miniature manuscripts and narthex decoration. 4
Although the unexpected staging of dream-like scenes drawn from the treasury of Greekness had always been a defining feature of Engonopoulos art, no less impressive is his handling of colour, which, combined with the plasticity of the figures and the impeccable pictorial design (notice the inverted arch of the rope ingeniously echoed in the tunnels entrance or the telling interplay between the stripes of the flag and the full-length bathing suit), creates an exceptional artistic and spiritual exaltation. In Hercules, enamel-like bright reds, blues, greens and yellows, handled with daring and unique aptitude, and applied side by side without tonal gradations, invite the viewer to a festive ritual of pure colour. 5 For Engonopoulos each colour has its own value, its own voice, much the same as in Byzantine art, which he always considered the art form Greeks most closely relate to. 6 While El Greco rendered the compositional and colour scheme of Byzantine art in a western manner, Engonopoulos surely filters this very art though surrealism. He is not outworldly or uncanny but more down to earth than most, a cantor in his artistic pew chanting the Byzantine music of the colours of the Greeks. 7
Engonopoulos remained a pure realist and a pure Greek. His persistence on indigenous cultural experiences clearly indicates that while European surrealists used an irrational vocabulary to break free from the shackles of traditional conventions, Engonopoulos perceived tradition as a connecting link that would restore cultural continuity. 8 According to A. Xydis, 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. 9
1. Hercules (Heracles) is the most beloved hero in Greek mythology, the personification of male vigour when carrying out his labours and also of sound judgement when called upon to choose between the paths of good and evil. See K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Nikos Engonopoloulos, Mythology, Ypsilon ed., Athens 2006, p. 76. 2. N. Loizidi, Surrealism in Modern Greek Art, the Case of Nikos Engonopoulos [in Greek], Nefeli publ. Athens 1984, p. 144. 3. Perpinioti-Agazir, p. 10. 4. See D. Vlachodimos, Reading the Past in Engonopoulos [in Greek], Indiktos publ., Athens 2006, p. 228. 5. See S. Boulakian, 'The Work of Nikos Engonopoulos' in Greek Painters-20th Century [in Greek], Melissa publ., Athens 1974, p. 262. 6. See Epitheorisi Technis magazine, March 1963, pp. 193-197 and E. Engonopoulou, 'Freedom and Discipline' in Nikos Engonopoulos, The Painter and the Poet, p. 23. 7. A. Kastalliotis, 'Nikos Engonopoulos' [in Greek], Synchroni Skepsi journal, no.4, February 1977, reprinted in Nikos Engonopoulos, exh. cat., National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 1983, p. 29. 8. N. Loizidi, 'The Indigenous Surrealism of Nikos Engonopoulos' [in Greek], To Vima daily - Nees Epoches, 21.10.2007, p. A57. 9. A. Xydis, 'Nikos Engonopoulos, a Greek Surrealist Painter', Tetradio magazine (Third), December 1945, p. 46.