Midas's secret signed in Greek and dated '70' (lower right) oil on canvas 55 x 45 cm.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
EXHIBITED: Athens, Hilton, Summer 72, 15 June - 15 September 1972, no 20. Athens, National Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, Retrospective, no 78.
LITERATURE: K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Mythology, Ypsilon Books editions, Athens 2006, no. 58, p. 130 (discussed), p. 131 (illustrated). K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos, His Pictorial Universe, Benaki Museum, Athens 2007, cat. no. 957, p. 360 (illustrated), 503 (illustrated).
'Everything that Engonopoulos touches becomes Greek' Alexis Solomos
A 'magician' whose creative imagination followed the footsteps of gods and heroes, Engonopoulos couldn't but be fascinated by the famous story of pleasure-loving Midas, King of Phrygia. According to the myth, Midas attended the famous music contest between Apollo and Marsyas (or in another version between Apollo and Pan), umpired by the river-god Tmolus. Enchanted by the harmony of Apollo's lyre, Tmolus awarded the prize to the sun-god who, when Midas disagreed with the verdict, punished him with a pair of ass's ears. Apollo said that he was merely giving to ears so dull and dense the proper shape. For a long time, Midas managed to conceal these under a Phrygian cap but his barber, made aware of the deformity, found it impossible to keep the shameful secret close, as Midas had enjoined him to do on pain of death. The secrecy so weighted upon the man that he finally went and dug a hole in the river bank and, first making sure that nobody was around, whispered into it "King Midas has ass's ears!" Then he felt relieved, filled up the hole and went away at peace with himself. But in the spring reeds -such as the ones shown on the left side of the painting- grew up along the river and when stirred by the wind they whispered those buried words, revealing Midas' secret to all who passed.1
Engonopoulos depicts the king with donkey's ears sitting on an elaborate chair in his palace courtyard, with his barber standing behind him holding a large razor. Midas, in a dazzling blue tunic, holds a golden mirror in his right hand, while his left arm is stretched out towards a river stream, which, as perceptively noted by K. Perpinioti-Agazir who prepared the artist's catalogue raisonné,2 alludes to the River Pactolus and along with it to another famed incident from the life of the mythical king. According to it, Silenus, the old rustic god of wine making, once wandered off from Dionysus's train and was found asleep in the rose gardens of Midas' palace. The King's servants dressed the old drunkard with rosy garlands and a flower wreath and presented him to Midas as a joke. The King, after entertaining him for a few days, sent him off to Dionysus, who, delighted to have him back, asked how Midas wished to be rewarded. Without giving a second thought to the inevitable result, Midas wished that whatever he touched turn into gold. As expected, not only stones, flowers and the furnishings of his palace turned to gold but so did the food he ate and the water he drank. Dismayed and very hungry and thirsty, Midas soon begged to be released from his fatal wish. Dionysus, highly entertained, advised him to bathe in the River Pactolus, alluded to by the body of water at the painting's lower right corner. Midas did so and was at once freed from the golden touch, while the sands of the river have been glittering with gold ever since. (Note the golden highlights on the lower right.)
This artistic vision drawn from the treasury of Greek mythology faithfully reflects Engonopoulos's attitude towards painting as an ideal vehicle to probe into the world of Greekness. As noted by theatre director and playwright Alexis Solomos, "Engonopoulos can merge symbols of different origin and character, yet what is more astonishing with him is the all prevailing spirit of Greece in his work. Every point of the universe, every moment in history is detached, through a magic power, from its geographical or historical setting and made to contribute to the predominant idea of the artist's own land. Everything that Engonopoulos touches becomes Greek"3 as if he was graced with a Midas touch.
1. See R. Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. 1, Penguin Books, London 1960, pp. 281-283; E. Hamilton, Mythology, Mentor Books, Boston 1942, pp. 278-279; T. Bulfinch, The Golden Age of Myth and Legend, Wordsworth Reference editions, Ware, 1993, pp. 56-59. 2. K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Mythology, Ypsilon Books, Athens 2006, p. 130. 3. J. Lehman ed., New Writing and Daylight, New Direction editions, England 1946, p. 126.