Antinoos and the Beautiful Melancholy of Love

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From the book "Antinoos" by Fernando Pessoa
Introduction - Transalation: Yannis Souliotis - Drawings: Andreas Nicolaou

Athens 2007, ed. Parousia

Ηad we been living at a time and in a place that attended, with more reverence or, perhaps, even indifference, to the multiple impulses and imaginings of human nature, to the carnal and mental manifestations of what is incomprehensible, and thus ineffable, there is little doubt that the love of Hadrian for the beautiful Antinoos would have been considered the most celebrated affair in the history of western art. For no love has been monumentalized with such extravagance and with such passion that even "those dark-clad people, chattering about morals" – ever so hostile to the pleasures of the body and of the arts – had to concede, in the rhetorical question of the unyielding Tertullian, to its inimitability: "What Ganymede was more fair or dearer to his lover?"

And what youth in the history of the arts - any lover of the aesthetic quest might ask - has been dearer to our mysterious urge to imitate the fragile and mortal form that is human beauty? Hadrian's respect to the memory of his beloved knew no bounds: coins, gems, bas-reliefs, statues, cities, and even a religion bear testimony to the youth, who, in the paradoxically simple and elliptical words of his lover, "drowned in the Nile." But did he? Has the Nile, with its multiple significations as the divine and the mysterious, as the sublime passage of time that washes away into oblivion our petty glories and passions, managed to erase the memory of Antinoos? Travel to any major museum in the western world and the tranquil smile of the youth from Bithynia will grin, more enigmatically than Mona Lisa, at the futility of human life.

It is no small challenge, then, that Andreas Nikolaou takes it upon himself to commemorate this last great ancient type of youthful perfection in a series of sketches that accompany the poem "Antinoos" by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Challenging indeed, given the tradition he has to contend with, yet not surprising to those of us familiar with his art. Though solidly committed to figurative practice, Nikolaou's representations of the human body have always assumed a consistent yet subtle distance from the languid and resigned subjects of his art. The reposing bodies of his paintings and sketches are abstracted from personality, from concrete time and place. The peacefulness and tranquility of their poses, the calmness and composure of their manner, allude not only to artistic traditions of the past, particularly to those of religious inclinations (and this is neither coincidental nor irrelevant to Nicolaou’s attentions toward Antinoos), but also to our urge to venerate that which we fail to understand. For the sense of resignation that emanates from Nikolaou's work is not the idle relaxation of an indolent body but the consequence of a passion, in its former meaning as suffering, that preceded the moment of depiction. There are religious overtones here of a sensuality infused with a degree of dangerous and paradoxical asceticism, of a total abandonment to the excess of the body, of a psychic and bodily exhaustion that can only be achieved by submission to the temptations of the flesh. The initiated reader will also notice echoes of that other lover of the male form, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a contemporary of Fernando Pessoa, whose poem "Antinoos" should also be read as a modern, radical and male response to the long tradition of the lament of the mother for her dead son. Thus, 'Nikolaou's explicit allusion to the tradition of the Pίetà. It is not that his portrayals are simply variations on Christian precedents (they are that, too, to the superficial eye); rather, they confront that tradition, at times in deferential simulation but more often than not in antagonistic contestation. And the site of this dispute is the human body, with all its attendant pleasures and dangers. It is telling that Antinoos's untimely death (and youthful deaths have always inspired religious contemplation) is also attributed to self-sacrifice in a superstitious attempt to ameliorate the health of his lover Hadrian. Marguerite Yourcenar, at least, liked to think so.

Our modern sensibilities look with suspicion and scepticism upon superstition and religious transcendence. But we moderns also have our mythologies and our particular modes of consolation. We call them "Art" and they are the secular equivalent of theology. Art has its own rules and techniques for referring to its history, for remembering, for ordering our fears, hopes, thoughts and passions. And so we let our priests speak and paint that we may only read in fragments: "It seems to me that Antinoos must have been dearly loved/ In the month of Athyr Antinoos went to sleep."

George Syrimis
University of Yale