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Byzantine surrealism: Nikos Engonopoulos’ ‘Self Portrait’ at the Benaki Museum

For non-Greek speakers, this video requires captioning. After clicking the video’s play button, hover your mouse cursor over the lower border of the video, then click on the ‘CC’ button to turn on English subtitles.

In this video, Benaki Museum Ghika Gallery Curator Constantinos Papachristou discusses Nikos Engonopoulos’ early work, ‘Self Portrait’, completed in 1935.

Painted at the age of 28 while he was a relative unknown, and ahead of his first exhibition, the work coincided with a turning point in the conservative Athenian art scene’s engagement with surrealism. And as we learn from the video: in ‘Self Portrait’, Engonopoulos marries motifs from the European art movement with the more austere Byzantine styling he learned under the instruction of Photis Kontoglou.

In this way, the work foreshadows Engonopoulos’ eventual standing today as one of the finest surrealists of Greece, having overcome the initial derision he encountered at the start of his career.

Artist and poet Engonopoulos (1907-85) joined the Athens School of Fine Arts in 1932, where he studied under Konstantinos Parthenis, and later also attended classes at Kontoglou’s studio. During that time, he would meet important cultural figures such as poet Andreas Embirikos and painters Yannis Tsarouchis, Giorgio de Chirico and Yannis Moralis.

His first paintings, mostly temperas on paper depicting old houses, were presented at an ‘Art of Modern Greek Tradition’ exhibition, organised in January 1938.

Thereafter, Engonopoulos published translations of Tristan Tzara’s poetry, following this up a few months later, with his own first collection of poems – ‘Do Not Distract the Driver’. A second original poem collection – ‘The Clavicembalos of Silence’ – was published the next year.

Engonopoulos’ first individual show was held in 1939; three years later, he finished his most popular long poem – ‘Bolivar, a Greek Poem’ – inspired by the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, and published in 1944. The poem was also released in the form of a song, in 1968, with music composed by Nikos Mamangakis.

View the original video here.

Good Living is the Cyprus Mail’s portal of curated content from across the internet, showcasing local and global ideas, cultural highlights, and scientific and technological developments to inspire a sustainable life.

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