I first encountered the remarkable paintings of the Greek Australian artist Nikos Kypraios through my acquaintance (and eventual friendship) with his son, George. It was through the persistence of George that I found the opportunity to view several examples of his father’s recent expressionist landscapes hanging in a private firm in mid-town Manhattan.
At the time, I was unaware that in addition to his symbolic landscapes Kypraios was also a contemporary icon painter. Even so, I was thrilled to see his painterly depictions of Samos, and would soon express this delight in a review I wrote for Kypraios’ exhibition at the Kouros Gallery in New York early in 2004.
In examining the paintings of Kypraios, I am reminded of the way in which art is capable of generating new formal ideas in relation to the historical process.
When historical subject matter – such as the icons and architecture of Byzantium – lie dormant for centuries, the re-emergence of such forms in contemporary art is often unpredictable. Seemingly out of nowhere, the work of a modern painter, such as Kypraios, may reveal the hidden traces of form from another era and restore them within the present.
Kypraios’ application of oil pigment, layer upon layer, simulates the light inspired by the Greek island of Samos where he was born and thus implies a deeply embedded expressive value. As in most Greek art, whether in painting or literature or in the luminescent icons of the past, one may discover a subtle dimension in the paintings of Kypraios, a dimension filled with spiritual longing.
Years ago, at the outset of my doctoral studies at New York University, I read a slim, though monumental book by the British aesthetician Clive Bell, modestly entitled Art. The controversy surrounding Bell’s classical formalist document, published in 1911, was the author’s claim that the painters of Byzantium far exceeded the exaggerated accomplishments of those who comprised the Italian Renaissance.
Why? Because they were truer to the inherent system of line, volume, and colour than the Quattrocentro masters who tried to disguise these features under the aegis of linear perspective. One can only imagine that at the outset of the twentieth century Bell’s claim was a kind of aesthetic blasphemy akin to the religious claims of Savonarola who lived in Florence during the early days of the Renaissance (and was eventually burned at the stake).
I look at the icons of Kypraios once again after seeing them in the flesh nearly eight months ago while visiting his modest studio in Athens. I am taken by their tenacity but also by their authenticity – not as copies but as original works. I look at Kypraios’ version of the Virgin with Child and I observe closely the hand of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus and I am aware that it is painted all wrong. But wrong according to what criterion? If you study the appendages of Matisse’s dancers you are likely to see a similar problem. The point is that the hand of Kypraios’ Madonna is not trying to replicate an actual three-dimensional hand but to make a hand that somehow fits within the composition of a flat surface.
As I observe the Madonna again I see that Kypraios has, indeed, revived the legacy of modernist expressionism – as if he were seeing Byzantium through the lens of the modern masters – Chagall, Picasso, and Matisse. The hand of the virgin Mary is not about realism but about expressing the inner-core of spirituality, the admonishment, the supplication, the dire need to evoke the presence of the conflicted human interior to the world of Orthodox believers suffering from overwhelming doubt as they confront the immense power of electronic information on their lives.
I observe another painting in which Kypraios depicts St. Nicholas and I see that eroded fragments of abstract form invading the space of the painting. There is a large portion of the Saint’s torso painted in a way that suggests the work of the contemporary artist, such as Robert Ryman, or maybe a late seventies painting by De Kooning. I look at yet another icon representing an angel.
The paint has been scraped down to the surface, thin as a veil, as a shroud of scrim. Kypraios is a man of his time, a man who understands the human reality of today and transcribes this reality through the tradition of the icon.
Still, the structural painterly effect is there, the same structure that one senses in Kypraios’ landscapes, or, for that matter – a plate encircled by two fish and a squid from the fourth century B.C. (also on view, loaned from the Tampa Museum of Art).
The phrase “to believe in art” – a sentimental, though commonplace adage, uttered perhaps too often at museum openings today – suggests that the viewer understands the language of images with a certain depth. To see with depth implies that one is looking at art through the lens of time. This is precisely what Kypraios brings to these painterly icons, and what these icons offer the viewer of contemporary life. Kypraios understands that the past and the present are inextricably connected and that the images and symbols that once abided with viewers in ages past can still affect us today.
In this way, Kypraios offers an antidote to the superficial approximations of contemporary art that try to dissect images from the living traditions of the past. He gives us instead a reason to believe that these icons point to something beyond the superficial and enter into the interior expressions of the human soul.
Byzantine Iconographic Enigmas is being exhibited at Dommuseum in Vienna Austria until 25 May.
* Robert C. Morgan holds a Ph.D. in contemporary art history and a Masters of Fine Arts in sculpture. He is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute in New York.