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The Life and Work of Greek Surrealist Nikos Engonopoulos

nikos engonopoulos greek artist surrealist painter
“Poet and Philosopher,” Nikos Engonopoulos, 1958. Credit: Tilemachos Efthimiadis/CC BY 2.0

Greek surrealist painter and poet Nikos Engonopoulos is one of the most well-known modern Greek painters internationally.

He was an important figure in the Generation of the ’30s, a prominent group of artists and thinkers in Greece.

This group was fascinated with Greek identity and forming a Greek modernist movement in the wake of Modernism’s emergence in Europe and the turbulent period after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, which caused many to consider serious questions regarding culture and identity.

Members of this group include some of Greece’s most prominent poets, artists and writers, including Giorgos Seferis, Odysseas Elytis, and Yannis Tsarouchis.

Nikos Engonopoulos, one of the most prominent Greek Surrealist painters

The painter was born on October 21, 1907 in Athens, but he attended school in Paris and spent much of his childhood there.

When he returned to Athens, Engonopoulos worked a number of jobs, including as a translator, bank teller, and secretary at the University of Athens.

In 1930, the artist began working as a designer in the Urban Planning Department of the Greek Ministry of Public Works.

nikos engonopoulos modern greek art painter surrealist painter
“Poet and the Muse,” Nikos Engonopoulos, 1958. Credit: Nikos Engonopoulos/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Unsatisfied with his career and hoping to pursue art, Engonopoulos enrolled in the Athens School of Fine Arts in 1932, which was a vibrant period for the school during which many great Greek artists studied and taught there.

While a student, the painter studied under great Greek painters, such as Konstantinos Parthenis and Fotis Kontoglou.

He also met various prominent artists and painters during that period, including the surrealist poet Andreas Embirikos and painters Yannis Tsarouchis, Giorgio de Chirico, and Yannis Moralis.

During his studies, Engonopoulos traveled to Paris, Vienna, Munich, and around Italy for artistic inspiration. Upon his return to Greece and the completion of his studies, the artist began teaching painting, art history, and scenography at the Polytechneio in Athens.

When the Greco-Italian War broke out in 1940, Engonopoulos fought on the Albanian Front.

Many of Engonopoulos’s early works were painted using tempera on paper and depicted traditional Greek houses in bright colors. As his artistic vision developed, he began to focus on ancient Greek history and mythology, placing well-known figures from myth into strange and unexpected circumstances or physical forms.

Modern Greek painter was also a renowned poet

During his career as a painter, the artist also began writing surrealist poetry, which is considered some of the best of modern Greek literature.

In the late 1930s, Engonopoulos released his two earliest books of poetry, Don’t Distract the Driver and The Clavicembalo of Silence, both of which are now considered classics of modern Greek poetry.

His most well-known poem, “Bolivar,” was published in 1944. It was inspired by the Bolivian revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, who helped free much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule.

Greek composer Nikos Mamangakis wrote a musical score for the poem, which was released as a song in 1968. The song features Engonopoulos himself reciting the poem.

Engonopoulos rose to great prominence both in Greece and abroad throughout the middle of the twentieth century.

He was chosen to represent Greece at the 27th Venice Biennale in 1954, where he displayed seventy-two of his paintings. Engonopoulos has been honored in Greece and internationally for both his paintings and his poetry.

His work is displayed in the National Gallery in Athens, and in museums, galleries, and private collections across Greece.

The great poet and painter passed away in Athens in 1985 after suffering a heart attack.

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