Nikos Engonopoulos (1907-1985)
He was born in 1907 in Athens and died there in 1985. The fundamental proponent of the surrealist spirit in Greece. Studied at the Athens Academy of Fine Arts (1932-1938) under Parthenis and attended schools in Munich, Florence, and Ravenna. He worked in higher education and was appointed professor of freehand drawing 1967 in the National Technical University of Athens, where he taught until 1973. He has held 8 solo exhibitions in Athens from 1939 onwards. The National Gallery held a major restrospective for him in 1983. He showed his work in international group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (1954, as Greece's official representative), and the Sao Paulo Biennale (1955). He was a member of the Armos group. He was an exponent of surrealism in poetry, too, his publications including: Clavichords of Silence (1938), Do Not Speak to the Driver (1939), Seven Poems and Bolivar (1944), In the Valley of the Roses (1978). His works have been translated into French, English, and Italian. Gave lectures and published essays on art, illustrated books, and was involved in stage and costume design. Received the Ministry of Education's First Prize for Poetry (1958) and George I's Gold Cross (1966).
A painter of the so-called '30s generation, like some of his fellow artists Engonopoulos sought to make a fresh and fertile approach to the timeless cultural heritage of Greece. He opted to do so from a surrealist (or hyperrealist, as he termed it) perspective, which allows structural freedom, cultivates the irrational and the random, and gives pictorial representation a dreamlike, fragmented quality. His style, frequently satirical, scathingly derides pompous official images. Although his first presentation of his work to the Greek public raised a storm of protest, already in the '50s Engonopoulos was well established as one of the most interesting figures in contemporary Greek art.
- Xydis 1976, vol. I, pp. 64, 108-9, 148-61
- Lydakis 1976, pp. 114-15
- Vakalo 1982, pp. 90-4
- O. Elytis,’ My Cards to Sight’, 2nd edition, Athens 1982, pp. 269-70
- Vakalo 1983, pp. 36, 37, 41, 98
- N. Loizidi, ‘Hyper-realism in Modern Greek Art. The case of Nikos Engonopoulos’, Athens 1984
- Tsouhlou & Baharian 1985, pp. 140-1
- ‘Surrealistes grecs’, Pompidou Centre, Paris 1991, pp. 103-36
- Kotidis 1993, pp. 299-304
- Nikos Engonopoulos, ‘Drawings and Colours’, Athens 1996
- Christou 1996, pp. 18, 20, 221-2
- ‘Nikos Engonopoulos’ [a tribute], Kathimerini, 25 May 1997
- Dictionary, ‘Melissa’, vol. I, 1997, pp. 400-2.
Nikos Engonopoulos (Greece, 1907-1985)
Although Embeirikos’ poems were greeted with ridicule when they first appeared, they did not create as much of an uproar as the surrealist poems and paintings of Nikos Engonopoulos. Born in Athens in 1907, he was to remain faithful to the tenets of surrealism by expressing in his poetry and paintings as much a way of life as an aesthetic.As Kimon Friar notes, whereas “surrealism in the early Embeirikos was almost clinical, liberating, didactic, in Engonopoulos’ two first books, Do Not Disturb the Driver (1938) and The Clavicembalos of Silence (1939), it was explosive, daring and revolutionary, outrageously yoking together the most disparate objects as in obedience to Lautreamont’s notorious ‘beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine with an umbrella’”. A girl’s hair is likened to cardboard, her mouth to civil war, her neck to red horses, her buttocks to fish glue, her knees to Agamemnon. Opposition to his poetry was intensified by the uncompromising and proud stance of the poet himself against all that had become sterile and stifling in Greek literature. To many, including established poets such as Palamas and Sikelianos, it seemed that Engonopoulos, Embeirikos and other surrealist poets (Nikolas Kalas and the early Elytis) were turning their back on the past and in particular the specifically Greek past. This of course was a misreading of their work but it is true that both Engonopoulos and Embeirikos went on to forge new (and as it turned out durable) links with some of the same constituent elements of the Greek tradition that are also prominent in more ‘orthodox’ writing of the time. One reason for the long-lasting effect of the Surrealist experiment in Greece – which contrasts with its more evanescent reign in France – can be explained by the fact that Engonopoulos and Embeirikos used the theoretical principles of Surrealism to draw upon and emphasize traits already present in the Greek literary tradition, especially in folk poetry and oral tradition.
This development is at its most striking in the long poem that Engonopoulos published in 1944, in the midst of the German Occupation, entitled ‘Bolivar’. Bolivar is not only the well-known South American hero and liberator, but also, as the work carries the subtitle A Greek Poem, all Greek great and lesser heroes of the Greek War of Independence and of the Resistance and, in the final analysis, is Engonopoulos himself, for the poet declares with pride in the poem that he is his son. Basic to this conception is the poet’s belief that the more national a poem the more international its scope. “Bolivar,” the poet exclaims with national pride and universal application, “you are as beautiful as a Greek!” As Roderick Beaton rightly notes, “by drawing on parallels between the South American revolutions of the 19th century and recent Greek history, topical allusions are displaced under a thin disguise”. Indeed apart from ecstatic invocations to its hero, the disguise is thin enough in this poem, which in the name of Bolivar rolls together an incantatory list of names and events in Greek history. The attempt in this long poem to unite the aspirations of a Latin American (turned Greek) hero-saviour with the broader quest of the Surrealists for freedom in a universal sense produced one of the major works in the history of Modern Greek poetry.
Engonopoulos, one should not forget, was not only one of the most significant poets of the generation of the 1930s, the generation that launched modernism in Greece, but also an accomplished painter, the foremost surrealist painter of Greece. He studied painting with Konstantinos Parthenis and engraving and woodcutting with Kefalinos and served for several years as apprentice to the painter of Byzantine murals, Fotis Kondoglou. All three artists exerted profound influence on his development both as a painter and a poet. His poetic oeuvre therefore, cannot be discussed without close reference to his work as a painter.
Haris Vlavianos Poet