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Aglaia Xenakis: Daily Autopsies of the Unseen

To be human it is to feel…

that in each one exists something from everybody

and something from each one in everybody…

Paul Valery

According to a less popular (compared to that of Narcissus) myth of painting’s origin, the inventor of the Image and of portraiture was a woman: a girl from ancient Korinthos who, on the eve of the long-lasting travel of her beloved, perpetuated his image by outlining the shadow of his face on the wall of her house. As her modern descendent, Aglaia Xenaki continues the work of the Korinthian maid: she portrays, as an artistic gesture of overcoming the spatial and temporary absence of the depicted as well as a personal gesture of love, not erotic one, but deeply humanistic.  What differentiates, however, Xenakis’ work from that of her predecessor’s and of contemporary portraitists, is her steadfast faith in man: the search of timeless truth in the particular, the evocation of the internal essence of our fellowman as it is inscribed in disparate faces  but gazes which return hers with a tacit intensity that promises to her the revelation of an internal self. Capturing brushstroke by brushstroke the structural difference of the face of Helena, Nikos, Iro, Arout, that is, of friends and relatives or of unknown people who seduced her by the external emission of a penetrating internal presence, Xenakis scrutinizes different faces in order to touch a gaze as different as common --the human gaze in and of itself as a vehicle of the unseen: whether soul or spirit, immaterial or non-representable human being.

A Different Neo-Byzantine, or the Neo-Byzantine Painter of the Twentieth-First Century.

The first solo exhibition of Aglaia Xenakis in Galerie Zygos is comprised of twenty-nine portraits.  Landmark of their conception is considered by the artist the “Fayums,” the funereal portraits of the late antiquity which have survived to us from Roman Egypt. As a personal gallery of contemporary figures of children, adolescents, men and women with informal daily clothing, frontal hieratic formality and nostalgic brushstrokes of another era, Xenakis’ portraits constitute one more step as well as a shift in a long but coherent artistic trajectory.

After lessons of Byzantine art in the Monastery of Chrisopigi at Hania and in the Technical University of Crete in the beginning of the 90’s, Xenakis turned to painting of icons. Recent preludes to her shift to the portraiture of contemporary people, based on the technique of Fayum, constitute both her long-lasting study of Fayums for the perfection of  Byzantine technique as well as  more personal artistic experimentations. The study of Fayums was not predicated upon their metaphysical appeal as memorials of the face of the deceased, providing life after death according to Egyptian custom. Instead it was dictated by the expressive impact of the less stylized, impressionistically realistic, samples of Fayums. Moreover, Xenakis’ interest in Fayums derives from their direct relation with and contribution to the formation of early Byzantine art, as proven by the surviving Byzantine icons with encaustic technique which themselves prove the anthropocentric origin of the post-iconoclastic stylized Byzantine iconography. The divine-human element of both Fayums and early icons has preoccupied  practically the artist who in the recent past executed a series  of quasi- diptychs:  Byzantine-looking portraits of contemporaries and  Byzantine icons painted “from life” (as Tsarouchis would have said). In both cases the same existing person lends his physiognomic characteristics to both of them, the saint as well as the secular depicted.

As a result of these personal endeavors, this new series focus on ordinary yet special people whom Xenakis paints on wood with egg-tempera in order to reference the Fayums and Byzantine icons, as their true heirs. (To be accurate, only a part of the Fayums was made with tempera, as opposed to the more widely used encaustic technique; even  though the use of egg tempera is proven scientifically, only few examples have survived.) The monochromatic background, the austere frontal posture of the sitter, the gradual scaffolding of the face of the depicted which is being incarnated with warm glykasmous1 and linear highlights over a color foundation of earthy or cool tones (proplasmos) and the white auges on the eyes of the depicted, deliberately betray the legacy of Fayums and the Byzantine experience of Xenaki, which is always transformed by her unique color contrasts and tempered painterliness.

The adoption of old techniques and modes is not a unique phenomenon in art. From Neoclassicism to the Russian avant-garde, or in cases such as the Greek 30’s Generation and the Pop celebrity portraits executed in the manner of Indian miniature painting (by the twins Rabindra Mr. D. Kaur Singh), the systematic appropriation of past methods and styles has variably stigmatized different moments of modern artistic production. As such, Xenakis’ reference to Fayums and their intersection with the Byzantine icons is multifarious and awaits definition. On the one hand, it is a totally modernist gesture of appropriation and metamorphosis of an artistic precedent. On the other hand, it constitutes a utopian return to the acknowledged origins of two-dimensional portraiture which interrupts the development of visual arts during the time of the arts’ siege and mutation by the new media. This is in and of itself a gesture of romantic idealism which aims at securing a wiser way towards a diachronic truth --by employing the secrets with which it was deciphered from mortals’ faces by the god-fearing artisans of the late antiquity and early Christianity. Such gesture bears comparison for instance with the vision of Nazarines  or Pre-Rafaelites who aspired to regain a lost ethos, Christian in particular, and an unapproachable spirituality through the revival of the principles of pre-Renaissance painting.

Defining the romantic idealism of past movements of artistic revivals, I wanted to identify the purifying anachronism which characterizes Xenakis’ exploration of harmonic symbiosis of soul and body in her figures and to differentiate her Neobyzantinism (a term used on Xenakis by art historian Megakles Rogakos) from previous Byzantinisms of Greek Art. Even though the precedent of the 30s’  Generation cannot be overlooked -especially the deliberate turn to  Byzantine art by artists as diverse as Kontoglou, Eggonopoylos, Tsarouchis- the latest body of Xenaki’s work differs essentially as a product of different historical moment and personal trajectory enhanced with a different visual effect. The 30’s Generation was distinguished by the systematic effort of defining an authentic national art language, the fabrication of Greek aesthetics by means of a deliberate resort to the roots of Greek cultural past (ancient or medieval) and by means of the employment of clearly Greek techniques and subject matter – during of course the crucial period of construction of the identity of the newly established Greek nation. By contrast, Xenakis’ Neobyzantinism is modified by her reference to Fayums, as products  of disparate artistic influences (Hellenistic style, Roman realism, Egyptian style and funereal practices),  genuine religious syncretism and cosmopolitan lifestyle, and above all as reflections of a multiracial and multicultural society (as art historian Efrosini Doxiadi has astutely observed).  Instead of a narrowly defined truth (national for example) Fayums offer her an ideal point of reference as vehicles of humanist and anthropocentric truth which the artist seeks to reveal behind the surface of the modern (one-or-multi- dimensional) citizen of late capitalism, consumerism and above all of globalization which stigmatize Greece of European Union and of the twentieth first century –in a period of necessary redefinition of its contemporary identity. It’s not accidental that amidst Xenakis’ sitters, one can find “others” such as Hafi from Sudan and Tsou from China.

Removing the Mask: Facing the Gaze.

Resemblance depends on memory which raises up the picture of past perceptions…Memory does not produce but discovers personal identity

David Hume

Portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth

John Singer Sargent

The seductive power of realist portraiture relies on the dual nature of the portrait as a work of art and as a reference to a real person as well as a meeting of two subjectivities, that of the sitter and that of the artist. Even in its most naturalistic manifestations, the challenge portraiture poses to the artist, is how the physiognomic likeness can be successfully referred to the personal identity of the sitter,  whatever this means for the portraitist, its inventor and constructor per se (whether personal identity is determined socially, philosophically, or psychologically according to the changing historical definitions of human subjectivity).

Xenakis’ faces balance between a distanced physiognomic realism and a Byzantinist schematization. Even though she often completes and perfects her portraits in the presence of her models and always uses photographs for the achievement of physiognomic likeness (rather auxiliary than originals to be copied)  she achieves successfully the physical particularity of her model from memory and  creative imagination rather than from mimesis.

With her paintbrushes Xenakis gives back to man the material body which surfaces again after centuries of neglect by the dualist, western and not only medieval, theorizations of man. Yet this reunion is neither absolute nor irreversible.  The rounded carnal surfaces, which burst with life due to their magnificent earthy tones, are contradicted by the monochromatic, flat and metaphysical background which subtracts the surrounding space and - above all - by the linear highlights which scar the faces, fleshing them out by means of the light’s reflection, nailing them however on the two dimensions of the wood. The opacity and restrain of this non-photographic and mediated realism (via the appropriation of the realism of the best Fayums) of Xenakis constitute the stronghold of her pseudo-realistic, rather pseudo-impressionist and totally subjective poetics:  the search of the spiritual in the perishable faces of modern children, adolescents and adults which comprise the gallery of her subjects.

Fixing her models in austere frontal poses and rather archaic stances, such as those of ancient kouroi and korae, she seeks the bodily expression of a non specific austerity and solemnity as means of bodily intimation of the unseen. However, spirituality is intimated by means of the expressive minimalism of the inexpressive faces which accentuates the penetrating gaze which underlies all her portraits (whether we consider the bust-length portraits that focus on the face of the depicted or the  more generous views of adolescents who are shown almost from their waste up approaching us, yet paradoxically immobilized by the  unbearable gravity of their Being, with gifts of life addressed to mortals as opposed to Gods (such as pomegranate, olives, cherries and blossoms.)  Bodily energy, expressive austerity and restrain, even in the case of those with a subtle smile or of the children which struggle to balance gravity, anger and forced discipline - frontality, and, above all, the power of the gaze, expose the unseen and rise suspicions of the inner essence of the depicted. And it is in the eyes, the gates of soul (as theologicians and Romantics have claimed) where the artist situates the locus of the intensified existence of the people whom Xenakis chose to portray.  All different and peculiar, as the asymmetrical eyes of Kostas or the little glass-bead eyes of Anna, the eyes in Xenakis’ portraits return her own gaze and that of the spectator. With the pupils of their eyes moistened and enlivened by auges, her sitters - as opposed to those in most Fayums who actually often avoid our gaze despite their frontality -  return the gaze of the spectator/artist with a convincing truthfulness  and a disarming straightness. Such a confrontational gaze is highly loaded as a vehicle of power (often patriarchal, whether erotic and thus scopophilic or not) in a period during which to stare at somebody in the eyes in a public space is considered threat and harassment. Alternatively, Xenaki’s trustees of the earthly faith in the inalterable truth of humanity, dare to look back at us in the eyes for ever; eyes, as sources of spiritual presence rather than exploitive power, mirrors of love and internal wealth; eyes, which don’t threaten but invite the spectator to introspection.

Despite details such as the white underwear, the layered t-shirts, the piercing, or the eccentric hairdos, which betray the contemporaneity of the sitters and date them with accuracy, further social determinations are abandoned by the artist as constituents of  personal identity that neither  preoccupy her nor distinguish her depicted models. Apart from the monk, it is difficult to identify the social status and roles of each one of the sitters beyond generic guesses. As such, the spectator is called to worship facialized icons of difference and homogeneous gaze, worship objects  of a vital and reliable  mortality rather than traces of posthumous immortality, like the Fayums. Products of an impressionist Byzantinism, where the halo of the saints is being  replaced by masks of daily light in Xenakis’ studio, constructed by the  fine and parallel, highlighting, brushstrokes  or the cross-hatching with which she weaves the aura of each one of her sitters, Xenakis icons sacrifice the momentary of excessive expressivity to  the  timeless, and subjectively interpreted,   of the expressionless mask of humanity and severity.

If this optimist humanism, like faith in a hard-to-reach human essence which exceeds but doesn’t violates the body, seems anachronistic to the theorists, the philosophers and other alarmists of the our post-deconstructed  and postcolonial world today, Xenaki supports consciously her credos and the secularization of a vaguely Christian ethos as an answer and solution for today’s dystopias. Whether we consider it as a prologue or as an epilogue of this series, Anna: Girl with Mask, opens and concludes this exhibition allowing the painter to wink at us. The depicted person keeps in her hand a monochromatic mask, an asexual effigy of her face -a plaster cast of her face with the stereotypical attributes of her sex still unwritten. The portrait, to me, is a visual commentary and a tacit recognition of the problems of post-modern portraiture: it  exposes the impossibility of  portraiture as an artistic genre in and of itself to capture  the personal identity of the contemporary subject by drawing the  attention of the spectator to the unstable determination of gender  and to the social necessity of role playing and masquerade that confuses and destabilizes the uniqueness of each one’s identity (a device that descends from  the self-portraying crossdressing of Marcel  Duchamp).

A second glance however renders Anna: Girl with mask, a manifesto of Xenaki’s poetics. According to the social philosophy of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, the veneer of contemporary life consists of an extreme faciality according to which "the mask is the face itself, the abstraction of the face, the inhumanity of the face.” But removing the mask of modern inhumanity or human multiplicity and revealing the warmed and light-filled face of Anna, and by extension of the rest of her sitters, Xenakis reveals the ultimate goal of her work: The revelation of faces and gazes  of internal beauty  through personal autopsies of the unseen.

Kalliopi Minioudaki,

Art Historian

New York, September 2004

1 Glykasmos, Proplasmos, and Auge are technical terms of Byzantine painting. Glykasmos (roughly sweetening) means the fleshy paint that the artist uses to mingle the cooler tones of the foundation (proplasmos) with the warmer tones of the complexion. Auge (literally dawn) means the white highlight on pupils.

© 11.09.2002 Megakles Rogakos - Art Historian & Exhibition Curator

AGLAIA XENAKI: Neo-Byzantine Painter

Aglaia Xenaki is a Neo-Byzantine painter and, if such a term has not been used before in Art History, the art of Xenaki calls for its invention. She revisits the tradition of Byzantine art but only to speak of life today. Her art demonstrates how the ancient technique of making pictures may find application in contemporary art practice. In doing so, she references particularly the famous Fayum portraits and great fresco cycles of high-Byzantine art. However, her attempt to learn and practice in the Byzantine manner succeeds in yet furthering the Byzantine tradition. Xenaki becomes an artist in contemporary terms for her engagement in the discourse of subjectivity. It is the investment of her models with an intimate identity, with an immediacy of expression and with a communicable psychology that makes her art so compelling. It then becomes obvious that her intention is not only to resuscitate an ancient method of painting, but also to engage in a dialogue with both subject and beholder. The highest point of her achievement is the mystical way in which a dialogue of religious dimensions unfolds. To look at the pictures of Xenaki is to experience a communion with the Christian ethos. Its prime message of 'love for one another' is to be found in the pulsating faces, the longing expressions, the brimming eyes, the lips ready to part. In the presence of her portraits, the observer can find peace, balance and harmony; not only with and through those imaged but also with themselves.

Fusing the Man with the Saint

[Haniotika Nea 10/05/2002 p.14]

Aglaia Xenaki chose to become a painter from her early teens. She turned toward religious iconography in the early 1990s, when she took courses of Byzantine art at the workshops of the Chrysopege Monastery. These studies were further augmented at the School of Fine Arts of the Polytechnic of Crete. She is currently active at her private workshop in Hania. She works with portable icons according to the traditional techniques and methods of the Byzantine iconography. Her works are to be found as much in private collections as in Churches. From 1997 to 2000 Xenaki was at work decorating the interior walls of the church of Zoodohos Pigi in Anoskeli of Hania, Crete.

Xenaki begun as a gifted painter of religious icons to become quite unparalleled in the field of iconography. Her greatness is owed to the particular mannerism in her work. Her pictures express a subjective vision of the world, which characterizes contemporary painting. This vision combined with a religious dimension makes the art of Xenaki stand out in the history of iconography.

Xenaki paints in an inspired manner, as if Orthodox Iconoclasm, Venetian looting, and Ottoman sacking had left iconography unaffected. She furthers the Byzantine tradition by carrying it beyond its conventional confines. In order to master the Byzantine style, Xenaki investigates its foundations in the Fayum portraiture. By studying the methods and techniques of the Fayum portraits, Xenaki rediscovers the pagan tradition of iconography, notable for its deep respect of cosmical (as opposed to religious) qualities. This appreciation is evident in her series of portraits after relatives and friends. Characteristic is the portrait of Andrew, which is doubtless as close to the likeness of the sitter as could be. Yet - at the same time - this portrait goes beyond portraiture in bringing out the saint in the human. The way Andrew is painted recalls the characteristics of high-Byzantine iconography; curved eyebrows, crowning eyes, elongated nose. Xenaki renders her model in such a way that the ordinary man acquires the aristocratic elegance and affected proportion of a saint. The mastery of her art consists in achieving saintliness while retaining the humanity of the sitter.

The same mastery is to be observed when it concerns religious icons after portraits of her relatives and friends. Obviously, her Saint Andrew is painted after the likeness of Andrew, with features that are down-to-earth. This connects the timeless with the contemporary. The saint becomes a figure one can encounter today. In using a relative or a friend as a model for a saint, Xenaki cancels the distance between divine and real. This fact endows her pictures with a unique kind of familiarity, which serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows her to experiment with likeness and naturalism. Secondly, this same familiarity makes the religious icon itself accessible to the beholder. The saint acquires a contemporary face as if physiognomy was itself a dress.

Seeing the entire work of Xenaki, it is possible to notice a gradual evolution from schematic formalism towards pure naturalism. With her balanced use of colour and form, Xenaki achieves a unique result which is best described as plastic iconography. In both instances of Andrew the man and Andrew the Saint, the head serves as a common denominator. The face is rendered with a sophisticated mesh of brushstrokes; warm colours on cheeks and forehead contrasted with cold shadows. Also in terms of effect the two pictures are fairly similar. The face is austere and suffused with fine spirituality. The lips are eloquent in their silence; speaking of sombreness and solemnity.

It is fortuitous that in some respect, the manner of Xenaki is reminiscent of the genious mannerist painter of Crete; El Greco. Where in the art of El Greco merge the traditions of East and West, in the art of Xenaki merge the realms of the sacred and the profane. The marvel in both cases consists in that these two artists pursue their vision of antithetical fusions intuitively, in a way that is divinely inspired.

© 28.05.2002 Megakles Rogakos - Art Historian & Exhibition Curator

On 28 Jan 2014, at 18:56, pxen61 wrote: