Women embracing the mythical dragon, a land which brings forth ancient poetic stories and allegorical shadows in Plato`s cave.
So how far can his archetypal myths, painted by an artist originating in the oldest metropolis of art, speak today in New York, today’s world capital of Western culture? For those who tread an earth like that of Greece, the history and myths of centuries are a living reality, not only in musems, on archaeological sites or in Byzantine churches, but also in the open countryside. There is always an anxiety about how far its contribution to today’s universal vision is recognised. Can the public of art-lovers of New York recognise in Pavlos Samios’s painting the roots not only of the ancient myths but also the sources of the art of painting itself as those have evolved with the passage of centuries and as they are evolving now, bringing together the maniera Latina and the maniera Greca? In August 2001, these pictures of Pavlos Samios had already been completed. A few days later, on 11 September, things became extremely difficult for New York, for all the rest of the world, for art itself. The images of the twin towers collapsing went beyond any precedent in the history of iconography, like a vast flash with a range extending through time, fearful images of destruction were imprinted on our vision, entered deep within us, function like apotropaic religious iconography, call rationalism into question, bring to the surface individual forms of panic, seek to redetermine where each of us belongs.
The works of Samios – a painter with a gaze which penetrates through time and a very experienced hand – were produced with the major exhibition in New York in prospect and include everything which the artist considers that he can say through his work to the art-lovers of the metropolis – a large section of whom are of Greek descent as a painter and as an intellectual coming from a great cultural tradition.
We see his subjects: a figure of a young woman in the embrace of a dragon – a large snake which emits flames from its mouth – with real or mythical objects all around, a bed, a car, fragments of ancient sculpture (sphinx, winged horses) which emerge from the earth, a megalopolis with skyscrapers in the background. In another group, we see the interior of a room, with doors and windows open and a table in the middle, while human shadows and miscellaneous objects give a feeling of a supernatural upheaval And yet the visual apprehension of the beholder is shaped not only by these recognisable forms but by their hidden syntax: the brushstrokes of paint which are reminiscent of frescos, the postures which make the figures statuesque, and the strange drawn perspective of the space.
WATCHING THE ORBIT OF A BIRD
The gaze of the viewer seems to descend from a flight in the air ofthe room, to rest almost on the table in the middle and to rushoutside the open panels of the door to encounter a lighthouse, onthe headland, in the background of the landscape. This orbit is standard in most of the works. And it leaves behind the feeling that it is palindromic, that it returns to its starting-point, after, apendulum-like movement.
The table in the middle looks as if it has been drawn by a Byzantine painter, so that it can be seen in drawn perspective from every comer of the room. On it are familiar objects – wine battles, glasses filled or empty, cigarette packets and matches, cutlery, a book, reading glasses etc. There are also other things whose existence comes as a surprise sach as lopped branches, little candle flames which emerge from the wood of the table and shadows of human, heads or hands which should be a little further back in the room. On the floor women’s red shoes or forms of neon lighting resting there, reminiscent of a night club, complete everything encountered by the eye as it traverses the picture diagonally.
Another unit of works is dominated by the group of the woman with the dragon and everything takes place in an open space. At times the protagonist seems to be expressing feelings of pleasure at the embrace, at other times this seems to be an asphyxiating relationship. What allegories are being conveyed here? An encounter in the stereotype of Beauty and the Beast – which has its roots in the Nymph and Pan group – speaking of the hidden female desire for a dynamic male instinct, as perhaps the practitioners of semiotics would interpret it? Or perhaps, conversely, a primordial fear that the vision of the female form will be swallowed up, tike that of the seer in the Laocoon group? The eroticism is ambiguous, but diffuse. With the form of the ancient mythical sphinx always appearing alongside, the heroine of these sybillic narratives is elevated into a Pythian figure. She speaks to us through her Dionysiac ecstaticism. Half-hidden masts and ship’s sails in the background, a half moon above the towering buildings of New York or the lighthouse alight in the backround of the horizon – in the pictures which take place indoors -make the whole atmosphere enigmatic, allegorical In one of the works, two men are engaged in a sword fight against a background of two skyscrapers.
Both in these works and in those of another group the situations which the painter dramatises seem enigmatic but calm. The world of dreams, which has its own co-ordinates. The figures and the objects which are depicted from work to work live in a time of their own, and in a special zone of fantasy. In a world without gravity, in a time which has stopped at the most characteristic moment of the life of the figures in each picture. The moment is monumentalised, sanctified. And the painting is transformed into an image of sacred personal memory.
Samios represents the Greek painting which was established in the last decades of the twentieth century, at a time when national and cultural frontiers were becoming increasingly blurred. He had a brilliant career in terms of exhibitions in France; he had had from the very beginning a symbolist, metaphysical vision, although with his feet on the ground of aesthetic reality. He also had exceptional, almost unique, experience in the use of a large number of painting techniques – fresco, tempera, oil-painting – in different periods. Recently he was elected a university teacher of icon-painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts.
In his talk at the symposium held on the island of Patmos on ecclesiastical iconography, Samios spoke of his vision of a notional church, one with openings on to the natural world – poetic and not traditional-formalist. A little later, in the company of Efphrosyni Doxiadi, we were talking about how the Fayum portraits became the basis for Byzantine painting, extending Late Hellenistic painting and the Platonic ideology about representation, and also about the fact that it was Byzantium which in this way saved ancient Greek painting and handed it on to Western Europe, in the time of Giotto. At the same symposium, we heard from Alekos Levidis how the Platonic approach to colour lived on in the later Byzantine period, together, of course, with theories on the rote of representation, that is, of painting itself. Samios is not only one of the most important and well-established painters of his generation, but also a thinker in practical terms on the fate of art and on the fate through time of his homeland.
When I saw again the polyprismatic Byzantine perspective of the table in the centre of the room, I forqot what I had learnt years ago about Cezanne and rationalised perspective and I had a sense of the roots of everything Theotokopoulos and his roots. We know that Cezanne visited a major El Greco exhibition in the years when he was exploring polyprismatic art.
Looking back also at the qroup of the woman with the dragon and the ancient Greek symbolism all around, I recalled that metaphysical painting was born in the Athens of 1905, the child of Giorgio De Chirico, then a young man, who reflected upon the ‘halted time’ of funerary sculptures. The paintings of Samios contain feelings which in this place have often sprung up over the centuries. Their subject matter is classical and solid, there is a well-digested artistic vocabulary and a great ease in design and techniques. His figures have the monumentality and timetessness of Late Roman and Byzantine fresco-painting. They are also a reminder of the change of direction of that period, from the ancient analytic way of looking at things to one which was distilled and familiar, to the mythology of modem times.
AN ATTEMPT AT SELF-KNOWLEDGE
We have lived through the current age of the composition of cultures on other occasions, on our great shared sea of Roman and Byzantine times, when the civilisations round about formed the Mediterranean of Braudel. Now we wish to learn and to be taught by how the rest of mankind views our contemporary art, just as at an earlier date we learnt of our international self from our two Nobel prize-winning poets, George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis.
In an era of globalisation, has our art certain distinctive characteristics when it meets the gaze of art-lovers of another country? Conversely, is it like an art from the artists’ studios of our times, or is it as if it springs up from the roof of a very old building with roots which draw energy from the ancient Greek foundations and the Byzantine tiles? Does it give expression to those who see it in regard to themselves, as they live in the embrace of their own culture, or does it express traditional philhellenism, nostalgia for the beginnings of Western European civilisation? Do Samios’s human figures, with their typical sculptured style, convey the message to their beholders that they come from the tradition of the fresco? That the brush-strokes and the colours declare that they are like those which eight centuries ago – when Venice became the other Byzantium – taught Cimabue and Giotto whatever had been preserved, and evolved, from ancient Greek painting?
For me, however, these works of Pavlos Samios philosophise on his cultural point of reference, a point of reference which is individual, artistic, inspired – but at the same time collective, particularly at a time when all of us are looking for messages of transcendence and optimism.