In this impressive new series of paintings by the talented young Cypriot painter Andreas Nicolaou, the viewer is at once drawn to the subfusc presence, the dark (and probably brooding) quality of their all-pervading atmosphere. Is this mysticism or mystery, ancient or modern? Do we come to Nicolaou's work for catharsis or elevation of the spirit? Are they simply night paintings? Or referring perhaps to the dark night of the soul? As the poet says, darkness falls from the air, in dreams stark and drear. These are pictures which confirm the primacy of the imagination over the dull and uninspired realism of so much contemporary art.
One of the first things to strike the attentive viewer is the ritualistic gestures of Nicolaou's cast of characters. Their gestures - indeed their entire poses - are deliberately not natural or instinctive, they are studied and dramatic, perhaps symbolic, heightened from reality as a poetic metaphor is from workaday prose. Yet these poses are undoubtedly familiar iconographically. As Robert Hughes might put it, are these the poetic moments of human gesture, or the didactic ones? Are they intended to convey some narrative meaning or moral, or are they indicative of some unvoiced state of inner being? Perhaps a little of each.
To take particular examples. The smaller paintings, done in oil paint on card mounted on harboard panel, ring the changes on gloss and matt varnished surfaces. Nicolaou plays dexterously on a sophisticated range of effects, more familiar to the crepuscular chiaroscuro world of the Old Masters than to the bright light and simple toytown colours of modern technology. In a variant of or study for Deposition III, the tonality is predominantly blue/grey, cooler than the painting it was made for, despite the rose maroon underpainting. The flesh tints of the figure too are paler - white rather than pink, altogether more ethereal. The surface activity of the brushmarks, always a point of interest in Nicolaou's work, is heightened by the artist scoring into the paint (probably with the wrong end of the brush), making a variety of forms and even some words. (Beside a pierced heart the words Love and For may be made out. What casual or stricken graffiti of the heart is this?)
In Eros, we are presented with a scenario which looks like a prelapsarian Peter Pan espying Wendy. There is something fundamentally pagan at work here, yet there is also more than an echo of Victorian fairy painting. Yes, it is a depiction of Cupid and his arrows of desire (though here it is more a lance of light), but it could also be an alternative scene - a special visitation from Hermes, messenger of the gods, or some other form of profane annunciation. The figures suggest a potent cross between the acrobatic and the damned in Hell. (Look to Michelangelo's Last Judgement.)
These layered historical references serve only to enrich the resonance of the image, which is deliberately blurred to enhance the ambiguity. The drawing of the figures is subtly smudged-in rather than overtly delineated, and there is additional smearing of the paint surface in other areas. This painting, with its dominant red-purples and underpinning of heliotrope and magenta, has an altogether warmer tonality than the picture discussed above, the flesh tones glowing yellower. Interestingly, the figures are the focus for the light (more accurately, illumination) - but not its source.
Nicolaou actively employs some of the techniques of the Old Masters, but also incorporates into his method the sketchiness of interpretation, the suggestiveness, so dear to the late 20th century. If you are looking for points of reference - and I do not mention these artists for purposes of comparison - consider Rouault and his master Gustave Moreau. (The latter advocated the Beauty of Inertia and the Necessity of Richness. These certainly strike a chord with Nicolaou.) Also Fuseli and the symbolic universe of William Blake. Perhaps even Odilon Redon.
A third painting, entitled Couple II, is a direct reference to the Pieta, in which the Virgin Mary takes the crucified body of Christ on her lap in lamentation. However, the overtly secular title of the picture points the spectator in another direction. Here we have a reinterpretation of sexual politics, with the male reclining on the female's lap, in emulation of a child on its mother's knee. But the male is loosely held, the woman's arm insufficiently tensed as if she were letting him slip, as if she wanted him to fall. Indeed, he seems to feel that he is falling, for his hand reaches down to brace himself on the floor. (A literal vision of the Fall of Man, perhaps?)
How religious - in the Christian sense - are these paintings intended to be? The distinctive chair which features as a prop in a number of the pictures is taken from a Greek Orthodox Church, and is so designed to provide support to the worshipper whether sitting or standing during the lengthy services. This is doubtless meant to be recognized, or why use it? Furthermore, consider the titles of the paintings. A number are neutral -eleven are numbered Nudes, there are two Couples, one Friends and so on - but several make reference to biblical narrative. Among these are four Depositions, a Crucifixion and a St Sebastian. Yet others are taken from the classical world - Narcissus, Eros and Sagittarius - which implies a more wide-spread web of reference and meaning. Nicolaou is a latterday Symbolist, employing both classical and Christian motifs to elucidate his complex meanings.
Couple II, the figures central stage and typically spotlit, is, like many of the other paintings on show here, a very simple but intensely focused composition. The paint is applied with freedom and vivacity, the background roughly scumbled in red and grey-blue, the colours layered thinly and swiftly on. This is gestural painting, with brushmarks as well as runs, dribbles and sweeps of liquid pigment being equally visible, the paint still thin, but heavily textured. The highlights on the figures are broadly brushed in white or yellow, with a convincing feeling for the solidity of flesh, however schematically they might be drawn. The darkness is filled out with surprising modulations, in the same way that modern nights are rarely pitch-black. The figures glow within this setting.
The one thing beside the darkness of these paintings that continues to stand out is the extremity of pose wished on his dramatis personae by Nicolaou. What is it for? It is as if he has taken a vow never to paint a figure in a natural attitude. Is this a straining after meaning or a more oblique metaphor for the condition of man? By pushing the position of the figure beyond the ordinary, he is also pushing towards something emotionally unusual, a perception beyond the expected. Behind the surface marks, there is evidence of another order of meaning.
Take the rhythmic stylization of Deposition IV. Although beautifully set up, it looks like someone doing penance or obeisance. It also resembles the ritual poses adopted by the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman. It seems to embody a form of mannerism, though without too much distortion. The painting becomes an object of contemplation rather than a source of information. It almost seems to have the status of an icon and even possesses a surface which looks old, scored and darkened as if by time. The subtle, complex finish of warm glazes and varnish adds to this effect. Interestingly, the figures in Nicolaou's paintings never look spectral or unearthly. They are notably physical, though with an elegant corporeality.
Unusually, Seated Woman adopts a more complex compositional device with what appears to be a tree in the background to the right. Usually Nicolaou does not specify the setting of his scenes. Most have some vague architectural accoutrements, such as tall pillars, to establish an interior atmosphere of sorts. (All those under discussion that is, except Eros, which seems to take place in a mighty cavern, if not actually in the open air.) The winged chair, church furniture, is still employed, but the setting hardly stated or resolved, the paint surface correspondingly layered and crusted seductively. The mood suffusing this picture is a pensive one (a reference to Rodin's Thinker, perhaps?), with just a hint of sullenness.
The subject of these pictures raises a number of questions. Are they intended to be autobiographical in any way? Nicolaou's figures have a waiting calm and an apparent strength in adversity. They also have a contrary tendency to appear languorous or etiolated, palely loitering for an undisclosed reason. Is there more than a frisson of decadence about? The essential principle of Symbolist art, according to the poet Jean Moreas in 1886, was to clothe the idea in sensuous form, and somehow to resolve the conflict between the material and the spiritual worlds. This Nicolaou tries to do.
As the distinguished painter and visionary Cecil Collins wrote as early as 1935: "I think the time has come when the people of the world, artists and poets in particular, should turn a sceptical eye upon the stereotyped actualities of the scientist and the politician". How much greater the need today! As society is increasingly overrun by greed and ignorance, and the raw material of daily experience is gradually denied us unless mediated through TV or computer screen, the scientist and politician should be called to account. We need our artists and poets more than ever to counteract the deadening hand of unmitigated materialistic rule. Collins went on to say: "My works are visual music of the kingdoms of the imagination. There is in all human life a secret, personal life - untouched, protected - won from communal life; and of which all public life is the enemy. It is this sensitive life which my art is created to feed and sustain, this real life deep in each person". So with the work of Andreas Nicolaou, who paints contemporary poetic ideas which yet have their roots in the great traditions of classical and religious iconography.
Writer and Curator
Contributing Editor of Royal Academy Magazine