Victim and Victimizer: The Story of the Minotaur in the paintings of Andreas Nicolaou

Maria C. Paphiti

The central character in the recent work of Andreas Nicolaou is not the Minotaur, as one might expect judging from the title of the exhibition. Instead, the artist re-examines the human body, which for the last seven years he has partly illuminated, and rendered against a dark or ethereal background. In this new work, the human form is now seen in terms of the symbolic relationship between the Man and the Minotaur. The latter's mythological existence provides the framework of the present exhibition.

Each painting exists autonomously and narrates an individual part of the Minotaur story. At the same time, the paintings together make a coherent group which, by following a theatrical structure, visualizes the myth in a contemporary way according to the artist's interpretation. As far as the iconography and the technical execution are concerned, one is able to observe that Andreas Nicolaou has added to his well-established manner of painting both new elements, and details which derive from the period 1992-98, when he painted the natural, nocturnal landscape.

The paintings entitled "Portrait of the Minotaur" (I, II, III) show the male torso, which in the representations of past years had been of statuesque and static beauty. But in the present paintings, it is instead activated by self-destructive intentions. The portrayed male figure indicates and presses his flesh, in an attempt to refuse it. He is aware that his inevitable submission to his carnal existence, is the source of his own passion and foremost of his cannibalistic desires.

Other compositions depict young men and women. Even though the figures appear together on the paintings, in reality each of them lives in his/her personal solitude. Sometimes the figures are seated like lifeless corpses, awaiting the call to the labyrinth. On other occasions, as if drunk, they are performing a static dance in the rhythm of an elegy, which is leading them to their death. They seem to mourn through their performances, not for their own loss, but instead for the paradox of the human existence. Two of the paintings are entitled "the Annunciation". One wonders whether this title is a reference to the celebrated homonymous painting by Leonardo da Vinci; the dark vegetation on the background of da Vinci's painting is also present in Nicolaou's work. Or is this title a prophetic one with religious connotations, implying thus the joyful announcement of salvation, which will follow the slaying of the Minotaur by Theseas?

Even though according to the myth, it was the Minotaur who victimized the people, Andreas Nicolaou presents us with the other side of this mythical creature, that of the victim. In his paintings, one does not see slain people but bull heads which bear numbered tickets and are thrown on the blooded floor, in front of a glass altar and a ravenous, metallic device. Each bull head could correspond to a youth who had been eaten by the Minotaur, signifying in this way that beast's own torment: in reality, he was eating away his own self by being incapable to resist his man-craving addiction, an involuntary burden he had been forced to carry since his birth as a punishment for his parents' offence against the Gods. The artist, in order to grant justice, creates in contrast to the horrific site of the slaughtered animals, the soul of the Minotaur, redeemed from its passions, in the form of colorful butterflies. These are flying above the slain bull heads, symbolizing the freedom which results from the lack of addiction, a purgation that the Minotaur experienced only after he had been killed by Theseas.

Theseas appears triumphant, bearing wreaths of victory, and poses next to his booty, the decapitated and humiliated Minotaur. Theseas's body reminds the viewer of the sweating figure of the ancient "Apoxiomenos", and the radiant shine of a Greek bronze statue. He seems to have already been deified for releasing the Athenians from the ransom they had to pay to the Minotaur. The responsibility for this deed he took entirely on his own shoulders. In this sense, the triumphant hero becomes the victim; because he alone carries the burden of the sin he executed for the common benefit, and in doing so proves the necessity of the propitiation. The saved youths, unsuspecting of the reality of the story, indolently perform the dance of their withdrawal at an irrational pace, in the foreground of a blooded, lunar landscape.

Victimizer and victim are controversial terms and frequently interchangeable. How is the balance between victimizer and victim defined, and what price does each have to pay? The offspring of arrogance and deceit is very often repulsed or enshrouded. And the passion of the fight against an ugly and long-living truth is fuelled, when it comes to saving the passing glow of beauty. Consequently, one could ask whether Theseas would be motivated to kill the Minotaur if the fourteen humans sent to the labyrinth were not some of the most beautiful Athenian youths, but rather "non-young and non-beautiful" people. Andreas Nicolaou offers in this exhibition a symbolic reading of the Minotaur myth. He treats the eternal question of justice, and displays the power of beauty, no matter how ephemeral that is.

Maria C. Paphiti
Art Historian
Courtauld Institute of Art

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