1985 - Symbols of Death and Love in the work of Nikitas Flessas
In following the career of Nikitas Flessas, from his first steps in 1969-70, we halt, startled, before his paintings of the last two years: we notice a sudden switch in emphasis from matter to spirit, from the tranquility of life to the tranquility of death, from love of things to love per se, no longer in its carnal form but in its spiritual aspect and interpretation.
Before he define this major shift towards a pictorial style full of symbols, in a form that does not attempt to conceal its debt to icon-painting, we must make a short review of Flessas’ work, from his earliest still-lifes and his studies on the nature of certain materials right up to today’s symbolic, anthropocentric representations, the “reading” of which refers us to “signposts” borrowed from the world of Orthodox symbolism.
In the work completed between 1970 and 1972 we recognize images taken by Flessas from his surroundings. He starts with landscapes – nostalgic pictures of old peasant cottages – and moves on almost immediately to domestic interiors, nooks and corners in the house and objects which have personal associations for the artist. In this period Flessas has not yet fixed on his central them: he is in a hurry to set down his responses to the emotional impact of the world at large. He insists rather more on the figurative representation of objects, something that will soon become one of his favorite themes. For the moment, however, he approaches these objects very cautiously. The panoramic view of peasants' houses becomes a view of the hidden corners inside them. He gradually abandons the technique of the Impressionists, which he had adopted at the start, in favor of a more realistic treatment of materials — wood, metal, the lace on an old embroidery.
By ihe mid-1970s he has discovered the human figure, which he renders as a portrait, as a nude, or even as a crowd taking part in a religious procession. He gives it up, temporarily, to lake up the more optimistic painting of this period, selecting whatever material is most sensitive to strong light, like white paper or stone. His senses concentrate on one object each time, and he paints it and "stages" il carefully in relation to the white light, for the purpose of emphasizing the significance of this insignificant material. In this same period, one painting — his triptych of the stone fruit, which was later to inspire a similar anthropocentric triptych — draws our attention to an obviously symbolic approach to subject and content: the use of the triptych as a narrative pictorial method, the element of carnal love in the fruit, the element of prohibition and surprise in the stone material, the impressions of a contemporary non-materialist, necessarily a loner.
It is from 1977 that Flessas begins subjecting matter to two dimensions, and from this time on white is ever present in his work for its symbolic connotations. His works of this period are studies on four main themes: crumpled paper, pebbles, wood and rope. The compositions have no narrative purpose. The object depicted plays with light and shade; it tries to surprise the eye with its whiteness, and it pops up impertinently like an unexpected zoom lens from a camera, "taking a view" on the form of matter. Here we also find the first lilies, symbols that put their stamp on his next period.
Flessas’ major volte-face takes place in 1983-84. It is not just that the world of symbols, which up to then has been only casually acknowledged, now makes a conscious appearance. Nor is it merely the fact that his palette, which up to then has consisted of bashful, tender pinks and violets – shades of childhood – goes over to dark colours and gold backgrounds. What makes this change so definite is that his worship of matter is over. Flessas’ attention to the representation of physical materials is now employed only as an auxiliary element, used to convey concepts or ideas within a concrete, stable form.
One thing that is held over from his earlier period is the realistic treatment of inorganic matter, except that now the material is leather: a leather jacket in anthropocentric compositions, which in one of the most recent paintings even replaces the man. emphasising his absence as it hangs empty. The glossy leather of the jacket, the white (spotlessly white) gloves and the lilies are the only elements that recall his preoccupation wilh materials in the foregoing period. The gold background reminds us that we must acknowledge the quality of penitence in the philosophical approach to the subject of the painting. We must stand contrite, not before the painting itself, but before human agony in the lace of love and death. The "symbol" of the gold background is followed by others: the crown of marriage and martyrdom, made of paper flowers, and the deathly pale, expressionless, youthful male figure, dressed in clothes of our own time but belonging to another, remote world. The coloured surfaces no longer bother lo play with light. The light that does exist in the composition also comes from that other world, and only the clothes seem lo be naturally lit. The face, gloved hands and lilies have their own interior light, which has cancelled out that of the more familiar spectrum of the rainbow. The triptychs, whether portraying a central male figure or stone fruit framed by arches and roundels, tell us, by means of symbols, of the purity (the lilies) in the immaculate hands (white gloves) of a being that has escaped from matter, leaving only soul behind, but which necessarily remains dressed in the material covering of its clothes and crowned — a solitary bridegroom — in the ceremony of the eternal union of love and death. Love, stone fruit, forbidden fruit with the taste of stone, tough, but everlasting like that spiritual marriage between the ideas of love and death in a perpetual circle without beginning or end.
The paintings done by Flessas in the last two years, with their standard symbols of and allusions to Christian philosophy, represent a new approach to a general existential problem, that of love and death, and to a specific one, that of union and separation, i.e. of loneliness. The quest for union contains the seed of separation, of absence, of death — not physical but spiritual. The young man with immaculate hands, and therefore an immaculate soul, is a Christ-figure, and his wedding crown is at the same time a crown of martyrdom. And all because of a world which dressed him in its livery, a material livery, and which does not permit him to ascend to the world of the spirit where he belongs. A being with two natures, matter and spirit, who, with the lilies in his hand, waits impatiently but stoically to depart for better worlds and remains solitary on earth in his heavy leather jacket. The contemporary martyr, a misfit, a visionary, perhaps a modern-day Messiah, one of many secret copies circulating among us unobtrusively, all wearing their leather jackets.
D.E.A. in Plastic Arts
D.E.A. in Ethnoaesthetics and Anthropology
“Zygos” Annual edition 1985