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The Greek Sale / Nikos Engonopoulos (Greek, 1907-1985) L' Archéologue (Peint en 1943.signed in Greek and dated (lower right)oil on canvas )
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The artist's estate, Athens.
Venice, XXVII Esposizione Biennale Internationale d'Arte, Padiglione della Grecia, Nikos Engonopoulos, June 19 - October 17, 1954, no. 17 (listed in the exhibition catalogue, p. 295).
Ardin magazine, no. 57-58, December 2005 - February 2006, p. 27 (illustrated).
N. Engonopoulos, Man: the Measure, Ypsilon/Books editions, Athens 2007, p. 47 (listed), p. 7 (illustrated).
K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos, Son Univers Pictural, exhibition catalogue and catalogue raisonée, Benaki Museum, Athens 2007, no. 309, p. 64 (illustrated), p. 257 (illustrated), p. 424 (catalogued and illustrated).
N. Chaini, The Painting of Nikos Engonopoulos, doctoral dissertation, National Technical University of Athens, 2007, pp. 665-666 (discussed), p. 977 (listed), p. 667, fig. 278 (illustrated).
Painted in 1943, the year Engonopoulos wrote his emblematic Bolivar, L'archéologue is no less a masterpiece, introducing the viewer to a magical pictorial world of poetic metaphor. Merging symbols of different origin and character, and using cross-temporal iconographic leaps that were common during the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine eras in miniature manuscripts and narthex decoration,2 Engonopoulos combines the ancient past with modern-day elements to subvert, in a typical surrealist fashion, the conventional ways with which rational thought perceives the world. Yet, as noted by theatre director and playwright Alexis Solomos, what is astonishing with him is the all prevailing spirit of Greece in his work. "Everything Engonopoulos touches becomes Greek."3
Here, set against a bright blue Greek sky interrupted by an ancient temple, a schematized tree and an unmistakably Engonopoulian travelling cloud, the visual act takes place in a shallow space reminiscent of a stage set that heightens the overall sense of theatricality. Engonopoulos, who never hesitated to introduce the theatrical into his work, has once said that "under the stage lights every human dream comes alive, flooding the soul with guileless joy, far from the obligations and obstacles of grim reality."4 Conceived on a human scale, this kind of contained setting that both frames and accentuates human activity, seems like a faithful emulation of Greece's natural environment. The lack of vast open spaces and supernatural landscapes whose sheer size nullifies the human scale, is a typically Greek element.5
At the centre of the composition, a standing figure in a green tunic, possibly the archaeologist himself, seems determined to gain control over this fascinating gathering of images and restore a sense of order. Captured both frontally and in profile by means of the late cubist pictorial convention of contraction, he is flanked by a phantom figure with a picassesque head and a dazzling red clamys, and a helmeted kouros-like warrior holding a walking stick and a topper hat. The three monumental figures are being stared at by a woman-like wig stand with voluptuous curves and daringly rendered nipples, while a host of details, including a Doric column drum juxtaposed to ionic volutes in the extreme foreground, a lamp (a distinct and recurring theme in Engonopoulos's work with symbolic overtones), a chequered tile, and the artist's signature red-and-white bathing suit partially shown on the right, undermine the accepted narrative cohesion of images to explore the uncharted trails of the mind.
Although this unexpected staging of dream-like images and objects is a fascinating feature of the work, no less impressive is the handling of colour. Dazzling reds, blues, greens and oranges, applied side by side with minimal tonal gradations, sparkle like rubies and emeralds, making the entire pictorial surface shine like a stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral.
L'archéologue was exhibited in the 1954 Venice Biennale6, where, for the first time, Greece was represented by one artist alone. As noted by K. Perpinioti-Agazir, who prepared the painter's catalogue raisonné, this was perhaps the most important milestone in Engonopoulos's career.7 In Venice, he showed alongside such towering figures of modern art as Arp, Ernst, Miro, Klee, Bacon and Magritte, since the exhibition had requested participating countries to adhere to the theme of Surrealism. Prefacing the exhibition catalogue, Biennale's Secretary General R. Palluchini noted: "Greece devotes its entire pavilion to Engonopoulos, whose work certainly is a surprise to everybody."
1 O. Elytis, Open Papers [in Greek], Asterias editions, Athens 1974, p. 294.
2 See D. Vlachodimos, Reading the Past in Engonopoulos [in Greek], Indiktos editions, Athens 2006, p. 228.
3 J. Lehman ed., New Writing and Daylight, New Direction editions, England 1946, p. 126.
4 Written in 1961 and reprinted in N. Engonopoulos, Works in Prose [in Greek], Ypsilon editions, Athens 1987, p. 30.
5 See S. Boulakian, "The Work of Nikos Engonopoulos" in Greek Painters-20th Century [in Greek], Melissa editions, Athens 1974, p. 261.
6 Up until the mid-20th century the famous Venice Biennale was the only major artistic event worldwide. Especially for outlying countries like Greece, showing in Venice was extremely important on a national level and highly enviable on a personal one.
7 See K. Perpinioti-Agazir, Nikos Engonopoulos, Son Univers Pictural [in Greek and French], exhibition catalogue and catalogue raisonée, Benaki Museum, Athens 2007, p. 78.