ENA MATI/ ONE EYE
ENA MATI / One Eye is a painting I created in early 2021 for the group exhibition: Antipodean Palette METAMORPHOSIS, held in Melbourne, Australia.
It is an artwork that celebrates the artistic and cultural legacy left by Greece to the world. My painting also serves as a retrospective look at some of the major periods I learned about while studying art in Athens, and maps out some of the artistic influences in my own artwork.
Ena Mati represents the connection and continuity in artistic expression in Greece’s history. I think of it as a cultural relay race where the ‘baton’ was metaphorically ‘handed over’ to the next generation of artists. Without reflecting, marvelling at, and learning from the ones who started the race, we are poorer for it. The influence of Greek culture on the domain of contemporary art is undeniable, even more so on artists like myself, who reach for the baton handed over to them by their ancestral links.
There is a continuity of lines and shapes in Ena Mati along with a theme of portraiture. As the title suggests, the eye stands out in the figurative subject matter and bears witness as an omniscient and benevolent presence. The eye is a powerful cultural symbol, synonymous with identity, spirituality, wisdom, awareness and beauty. It is primarily through the sense of sight that we engage with the visual arts; begin to ponder it and be affected by it. It has an inherent power to reflect back to us our very existence.
Ancient Greek art is widely known to have gone through 4 key periods of development: The Geometric, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. Along with these, my painting includes the Minoan and Byzantine periods, as well as Modern Greek Art. In order of appearance (from left to right) are the: GEOMETRIC CYCLADIC, CLASSICAL, ARCHAIC, FAYOUM (Roman-Egyptian) BYZANTINE (Cretan school) styles, the artists: YIANNIS TSAROUCHIS, ALECOS FASSIANOS (Both famous Greek artists who in their formative years studied at the Athens School of Art and left their mark on me) and MINOAN art. I have also included a detail from one of my earlier works: a stylized black and white owl, an ancient Greek symbol of wisdom and learning. This is a gesture of acknowledgment for the profound impact that the cultural heritage of my homeland and my studies in Athens has had on me as a person and as an artist.
Ena Mati depicts significant historical periods in Greek culture as a morphing connection of faces. A golden banner ripples across the composition weaving together the evolution of figurative art. It marks a trail from the past into the present, only to have a figure turn and face the past once again. The artifacts and artworks I used as reference for Ena Mati and brief descriptions, are as follows:
THE GEOMETRIC PERIOD lasted from 900-700 BC the time of Homer when major transformations would lead to the establishment of primary Greek institutions. Bronze figurines and densely decorated monumental clay vases demonstrated the clarity and order that are, perhaps, the major characteristics of Greek art. Detailed geometric patterns dominated visual expression, painted densely on pottery; even human figures and animals were seen geometrically. In Ena Mati, the reference to this period takes the form of two-dimensional pottery motifs. An angular human figure painted faintly in the far left of the canvas softly leads into the solid sculptural & equally angular, Cycladic head to its right. In Ena Mati, the reference to this period takes the form of two-dimensional pottery motifs. An angular human figure. Painted faintly in the far left of the canvas softly leads into the solid sculptural & equally angular, Cycladic head to its right..
CYCLADIC: The people of the Cycladic culture (approx. 3300-1050 BC) in the Aegean sea created sculptures out of marble; elegant schematic figures that were placed in burial sites. Many millennia later these enigmatic figures would significantly influence the artistic vocabulary of great Avante Garde artists of the 20th Century such as Modiglian, Moore, Brancusi, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti among others.
Ena Mati is composed of sculptures and paintings morphing harmoniously across the plane of the canvas . The ancients painted on cave walls in the Stone Age and continued to paint on surfaces including their sculptures. Though we do not easily associate the Cycladic, and much later, the Archaic and Classical figures as being decorated, they were in fact painted on with bright colours. On a personal note, having majored separately in sculpture and painting, I have always had an inclination to express the relationship between the two. Painting the surface of my 3D artwork is essential to my approach to sculpture. In this artwork, I chose to focus on the triangular nose, typical of Cycladic figures, and the flowing outline of the head, to mirror the profile of the classical female sculpture beside it.
THE CLASSICAL GREEK Period 500 to 300 BC, was formative in its contribution to Western civilisation. The arts reached a pinnacle in technical and aesthetic expression making it for me an obvious inclusion. I used the Aphrodite de Knidos, a Roman copy of the 4th Century masterpiece by Praxiteles and one of the most widely copied statues of the ancient world. Beyond her beauty, my choice to include her was amplified by the fact that the original was the first full-bodied female nude created during that period. Up until then, the place had been taken up entirely by statues of the ideal, heroic,male. Sculptors breathed life into marble and bronze statues that stood poised, with weight shifting; expressing vitality and an attention to detail that had not been seen before.
The head of Aphrodite encapsulates the Athenian concepts of universal beauty: balance, symmetry, proportion, and harmony. The elegant line and profile of the ‘Greek nose’ leaves nothing to chance, instead follows mathematical accuracy. The alignment of all forms within the heads. of classical sculptures abide by. As aspiring candidates for the Athens School of Fine Arts, students spent countless hours drawing them over many months, some for years, to master the draughtsmanship and observation skills required to pass the entrance exams.
THE ARCHAIC PERIOD between 700 to 500 BC was characterized by the large kouros and koure, free standing male and female statues with voluptuous but restrained smiles. Long distant relatives of the large figures of Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Sumeria, the Greeks’ tendency towards naturalism was tempered by stylized forms. Their physique showed echoes of the vertical block of stone from which they were carved, similar to the technique which served the symbolic and religious intentions of the Ancients of Mesopotamia.
This however, would not satisfy the Ancient Greeks’ ideals and pursuit of beauty, nature and balance. By the late Archaic period their rigid bodies showed a fuller range of movement and the anatomical details, further signs of life.
FAYOUM funeral portraits of the Hellenistic period (323 BC – 100AD), painted by Greek artists in the Greco-Roman settlements of Egypt, had a direct link to the wood panel painting of Classical Greece. Though no paintings from this period survived, we have written descriptions and accounts by the ancients themselves, celebrating the painters of the time. A small number of frescoes in the tomb of Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father) in Vergina, Northern Greece, and Pompei; and some 1000 Fayoum portraits, all from the Hellenistic period, did survive. These (and mosaics/ pottery painting to some degree) are the closest indication we have of what classical Greek painting looked like.
Rome was emerging as the dominant power and its art drew much from the splendor and artistic triumphs of its neighbour. Many Roman artists came from Greek colonies and provinces, so they brought with them their styles and techniques. The encausting (heated beeswax) and to a lesser extent the tempera technique of the Fayoum portraits was a method that originated in Classical Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. In Egypt, portraits of the wealthy deceased were painted on thin pieces of wood and attached to the cloth wrapped around the faces of the mummified bodies before burial. They were more than glorified status symbols and loot for archaeologists ; they had an important spiritual role to play.
The artists created striking, naturalistic portraits, layering skin tone colours with fine brush strokes; thinning them out towards the edges to reveal different stages of darker tones beneath. This approach to figurative painting and the encaustic and tempera techniques continued to be used by Greek artists during the Byzantine era, for icon painting which was developed in Middle Eastern monasteries and later throughout Greece and Russia. When encaustic painting fell into disuse during the 8th and 9th century, tempera took over as the accepted medium for Orthodox Christian icons. Fayoum paintings went on to leave their legacy and influence on Byzantine art and strains of Western European painting for centuries. And so in return, in Ena Mati I have the soft gazing woman in the centre of my painting touching cheek to cheek with an iconographic man with a golden halo above his head.
BYZANTINE ICONOGRAPHY (Cretan School) It is not difficult to see stylistic similarities between the Fayoum portraits and the figures in Byzantine Iconography. Though functionally, the Fayoum paintings had more of a funerary purpose and the Byzantine icons devotional, as figurative representations they were both considered portals to the spiritual and sacred planes. The eyes of their subjects were seen as windows to the soul. It was the eyes after all that invading Ottomans scratched out of the face of saints in icons throughout Greece. There are the eyes again!. The icon I reference in Ena Mati is of Saint George the Dragon Slayer and is dated late 17th Century. It is an eloquent example of the Cretan iconography style that flourished on the island under Venetian rule during the post Byzantine era, up until the Ottoman’s occupied it in the late 1600’s.
The treatment of the face has a more austere tonal range, in contrast to the cooler, expressive colours of the Macedonian school which dominated the Byzantine a couple of centuries earlier. The Cretan style, often described as a combination of east and west, developed as a result of trade with Europe and the cultural influence of the Renaissance.
YIANNIS TSAROUCHIS The other half of Saint George’s face comes from ‘A Study for May, 1967’ by the painter Yiannis Tsarouchis, widely regarded as one of the greatest Greek painters of the 20th century. In his own work Tsarouchis reconciled influences and techniques from Byzantine iconography and ancient Greek painting such as Fayoum portraiture, with the fresh vision of European modern art, to develop his own modern style of painting.
He was a founding member of the Armos Collective which consisted of prominent Greek artists who were in touch with the Avant Garde movements of the broader art world, whilst working towards promoting a modern Greek tradition in painting.
Tsarouchis defied social and cultural norms of a post war era to create art enriched by his nation’s history, the modern art era and informed by his own vision and autonomy. He vigorously explored archetypes of modern Greece by painting charismatic sailors, soldiers and allegorical compositions that merged: the mythical with everyday scenes, expressionism with realism, bright colours with skin tones. Behind his painting in Ena Mati sits a bright blue silhouette. It is akin to the figurative art of fellow artist Fassiano, who in his own way expressed a deep connection to his cultural roots, lived experience of modern Greece and the inherited visual language of its past.
ALECOS FASSIANOS ′′ Am I not Mediterranean? If not, what am I? Painting the sea, trees, nature and putting intense colors, blue, red. You would do another painting if you were born in a different climate than the Mediterranean…discussing this with other painters in Paris they said, ‘Well, don’t you see what’s going on around you? Why do you insist on what you do, since modern art transforms?’ But, I tell them, I see what’s happening inside me and not just outside of me. I always had Greek standards, sun, ochre and blue, so I kept going. Couldn’t get away from these….You take lessons from the old and express it differently. If you are a copycat you are nothing. If I don’t have my own way I’m nothing” (excerpt from a 2016 interview)
Contemporary Greek artist Aleco Fassionaos was born 1935 in Athens. His style is a mix of modernism and ancient art infused with mythological and iconic Mediterranean themes. Perhaps a stereotype, though by his own admission, his art could be described as distinctively Greek. The association between his figurative language and Ancient Greek painting, the shadow puppets of the Karagiozi and other folk art traditions was obvious. I frequently came across images of his paintings when I was studying in Greece and felt I could see the influence of his strong graphic profiles in the work of other artists. It seemed to me that like Tsarouchis and other Greek modern artists, Fassianos also had a desire to recognise, explore and define cultural identity through his art.
To the right of Ena Mati a blue ‘Fassiano’ man touches ‘nose to nose’ with a Minoan maiden. Their intimate connection is mirrored by the fluid outlines of their profiles, made more obvious by their eyes and the other simple, painted gestures that define their faces. The bird, one of Fassiano’s favorite motifs, positioned closer to her, flies in a direction that I placed to suggest alliance with the past.
MINOAN CIVILIZATION : During the Bronze age from 3000-1500 BC, the Minoan Civilization had its home on the island of Crete. The Minoans were a seafaring people and great traders with other rich civilizations around the Mediterranean like the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians. However, because almost no written records have been discovered, much about their culture still remains a mystery to us. Instead, we gained insight from their architecture, paintings on palace walls and dwellings, along with pottery decorations. Frescoes depicted ceremonies, everyday scenes of people from the royal court and the natural world. These precious remains provided invaluable information about the lives and history of this complex and colourful culture.
The Minoans painted fluid lines, graceful forms combined with geometric ones, plant motifs, profile figures of men, painted in strong reds and women in white as well as scenes of nature. Largely 2-dimensional, often with adorned borders, their frescoes had block colours of ochre, white, red and Egyptian Blue for backgrounds. Pictorially they used clearly defined coloured shapes with lineal decorative details
The female profile to the far right of my canvas is taken from the Ladies in Blue (1525-1450BC) fresco discovered at the palace at Knossos near Heraklion. This woman typifies the bold contrast of colors, fluid brushstrokes and dynamic movement of Minoan painting. Although similar to the side-view and forward-facing-eye figures of Egypt, the graceful, curving lines of the hair, and body distinguishes Minoan artists from their friends to the south. The Minoan beauty in Ena Matimarks the final sequence of heads. I placed her in a direction facing the others to emphasize that their relationship to each other is not intended to be chronological. Her gesture is further enhanced by Aphrodite on the other side whose head faces the same direction.
THE HORSE, THE OWL, THE WHEEL & THE FLOWER
At the bottom right of the painting there are 4 objects in a composite arrangement: The horse from the St. George icon, an owl motif from one of my own artworks, a bicycle wheel which is a common subject in many of Fassianos’ paintings, and a flower, found typically in Minoan frescoes. Juxtaposed together they create new contexts, subverting traditional meanings and at the same time multiplying them. Ultimately, Ena Mati represents my acknowledgment that the art where my deepest roots lie has a treasure trove of potential for discovery and reflection as well as continuing to both tempt and invite a plethora of possibilities for reconfiguring my understanding of who I am and where I may venture next with my brush.
Efrossini Chaniotis , 2021