From Darkness into Light - The Mystic Paintings of Andreas Nicolaou

Haris Kambourides

The paintings of Andreas Nicolaou draw the gaze of the viewer, pulling him straight into their world. The subjects -nude figures posing like statues- are simple, while the setting -a reddish black background- still more frugal. The subject matter -both visual and intellectual- makes itself clear directly, coming to the fore in such a way that the beholder freely allows himself to be carried away almost immediately onto the next stage of the journey that the observation of such works entails. The titles of the works "Theseus Holding the Dead Minotaur", "Ariadne in her Web", "Ariadne on Naxos", "Theseus with his Trophy", etc.- are themselves both a declaration of the mythological background behind the works we are observing and an extension of the works themselves.

light, dark and statuesque figures

It is clear that the painter has a well constructed visual glossary with which to address viewers, and clear too that he is talking to us, in his own special way, about the mythological world he has created, a world which we slowly begin to become aware of by interpreting his figures or by reading the titles of the works.

The basic glossary underpinning the figures is the nude body set against a reddish black background. Youthful bodies, in a statuesque pose, reminiscent of ancient carved friezes or religious hagiography. The figures are depicted in considerable detail, though not with so much detail that they become realistic and lose their statuesque-symbolic character. The light shades of colour employed to colour the bodies are alluded to by the use of the colour red, which is deeply woven into the black of the background, a permanent chromatic feature of almost all of the artist's oil paintings. In all of the designs which complete this exhibition, the visual art employed is different and based on the elimination of dark masses and the revelation of light from the background.

In each case, the painter draws our gaze by using the same philosophy and composition: An invisible source of light shatters the darkness, bringing into view the bodies or the compositions that we are viewing. The snapshot image produced appears to possess exceptional value and fluidity, as if the painter has penetrated a hidden world of alternative dimensions, highlighting for our benefit the primary snapshot image that we are observing, in full awareness of its sanctity and statue-like nature. In a way, the viewer senses that he is penetrating deep into the symbolism that he is observing, within an image where time has come to a halt.

Nicolaou has an excellent understanding of the chiaroscuro technique and uses it to produce a manichaeistic interplay of light-dark life-oblivion, action-death, thereby giving the composition a discreet theatricality while simultaneously creating historical references to the visual idiom used by his great fellow painters, Caravaggio or Rembrandt, the great masters of chiaroscuro painting. Nicolaou’s love for the great masters and their techniques is complemented by the glazes or patina he uses to create the forms and in the final overall processing of the oil painting, giving the end result a particular charm, an enduring alternative feeling of being somewhere between the old and new.

from appearance to timeless symbolism

Any art lover looking at these works could be satisfied simply by the marvellous visual skills of the artist's work, which are in any case what distinguished him, at an early stage, in both Greece and abroad with works that were similar in appearance and visual creation.

However, the subject matter this time has specific dimensions, and the notional temptation has multiplied: Into what type of role are the young protagonists, sometimes portraying the persecutors, sometimes the victim, being led? Is the Minotaur a monstrous being or is it too a victim of Fate? Is it only the victims who can fall from grace or can the Minotaur too? Do the dark surroundings represent solely the mythical Labyrinth or -by the intellectual extension which is demanded of us- do they represent the painting itself, the dark chamber" which transforms Myth or the past into a living image? Perhaps we should also think about instinct, eroticism or the fear of death, as psychoanalysis would suggest?

What is certain is that the painting carefully controls not just the visual means of expression but also the consequential meanings of whatever the artist depicts. He succeeds in keeping each of his paintings within a sparing, almost frugal framework of allusive-allegorical art, refusing to take the easy way out by depicting omnipotent mythological subjects.

sources of inspiration and discipline

I had the pleasure of admiring the work of Andreas Nicolaou in 1999 in Nicosia at the opening of his individual exhibition at the Gallery " K", scheduled to run on precisely the same dates that we at the National Gallery were presenting the collections of the Museum of Modern Greek Art of Rhodes. " But where did such an artistic voice leap out from? What tradition did it originate in? What does it seek?" . These questions were already running through my mind at the time, as they did again when I visited -and wrote about in my weekly art column- the exhibition at the Skoufa Gallery in Athens. " How does he manage to delve so deeply into the root concerns of Modern Greek Painting with such a fearless disregard for fashion?".

Nicolaou perches very carefully, almost acrobatically, on a fine thread, on the strand which connects Modern Greece with the past and its global dimension. His work brings to mind the forms and concerns encountered in the works of the great Nikolaos Gyzis - more by instinct than by any sense of an obligation to interpret. I asked him to tell me about his studies and aesthetic preferences. His response left me very pleasantly surprised: As soon as he had graduated from the Athens School of Fine Arts, Nicolaou began his studies in Munich at the Academy of Fine Arts, where Gyzis and Georgio de Chirico, the father of metaphysical painting, had once studied and taught. Munich, richly imbued with the heritage of A. Böcklin, the capital of neo-classicism and symbolism, was the city which led modern European art to metaphysical painting and surrealism.

One century later, Nicolaou's instincts drew him to the city. Realising, however, that the somewhat "conservative" Academy was dominated by the convenience of experimental art, he decided to recommence his art studies in Athens, under Panagiotis Tetsis, who had been also his main tutor at the Athens School of Fine Arts. "What was the most important thing he taught you?" I asked. "To pay attention to colour, to torture every work before I complete it", he replied. When he started, Nicolaou painted a series of "still life" paintings. This was to prove a particularly valuable experience for his current series, in which the human body is depicted in a pose of eternity, sculpted and statue-like.

It was so pleasant, and informative, to talk to him about the story behind the options he had chosen on his path to expressive maturity. "I'm not afraid of making mistakes. Quite the opposite - I examine it, I benefit from it. My first characteristic work was created when I was trying to paint over a study of a nude figure with some red and black paint I had. I suddenly found myself looking at a revealing chromatic image".

His series of paintings "Portrait of the Minotaur" represents, I believe, the successful completion of Nicolaou's artistic quest, and is more generally an example of disciplined morphoplastic research. The series consists at the same time of paintings which will become a legacy for modern Greek art, encompassing not just the personal artistic glossary he has created but also his semiotic processing of his subject matter. All in all, a mystic blend of sight and soul which is all too rare, particularly for his generation.

Haris Kambourides
Art Historian and member of the Academia Europaea

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