As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 4, Dec 2012
LOVE AND BEAUTY IN THE PAINTING OF YIORGOS KOTSONIS
by Christodoulos Kallinos
“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed…” – William Blake
The title I have given to my talk, “Love and Beauty in the painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis”, is not fortuitous. The great French director Robert Bresson at sometime expressed an opinion which I think is particularly apposite as regards the dividing line which separates erotic from pornographic art. Bresson wrote that “In the nude, everything that is not beautiful is crude.” If, then, the element of the absence of the element of beauty and the element of crudeness are what places an artistic activity or a work of art in the sphere of pornography, the painting of Kotsonis is par excellence erotic art precisely because it is always the expression and pursuit of beauty and loveliness, mainly in his nude and erotic artistic works and indeed in the ideal, I would say the Platonic and renaissance, interpretation of this ideal of beauty.
The painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis exalts the female figure and particularly the naked female body, female flesh, as the symbol par excellence of beauty and the classical ideal of beauty. Kotsonis always depicts the woman at the height of her femininity and beauty.
His paintings of nudes reveal one of the most essential artistic convictions of the artist: that is to say that the quest for beauty is perhaps the quintessence of artistic activity and of this art per se.
In his quests relating to the painting of the nude, even in his mature period, the work of specific artists and particularly, I would say, specific works of the history of art, would continue to play the role of a point of reference, an element which is defined by the nature of the aesthetic and artistic considerations which he pursues and for which he devises solutions, and mainly by the artistic values with which his painting has always been imbued. Kotsonis, as he himself says, is a painter who “is always learning” from the works of the great painters of the past. He admires, loves and constantly studies even today, when he is a respected and leading painter of Cypriot art, the works of Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Vermeer and Goya, as well as of all the other painters who are compatible with his temperament. Until recently, for example, we see him returning to the works of the great painters of the past and studying them, for example the work of Sandro Botticelli, and particularly to the visual treatment by the great Florentine of the ideal of absolute beauty in his famous Venus. Of course, the work of Botticelli, as of the other great masters of the Renaissance, is the point where the history of art reconnects with the classical ideals about art, love and beauty as the source of inspiration of Botticelli is none other than the Aphrodite of Praxiteles, as well as the theories of Plato and particularly Plotinus on love and beauty. Furthermore, the treatment in two large works of the mythical goddess Amphitrite, who symbolises the female personification of the sea and who is thought to be linked to the wonderful Venus de Milo, shows clearly that the classical values are always a point of reference for the artist.
The fact that Kotsonis systematically removes from his figures all those elements which recall their perishable and imperfect existence, mainly in the female nude portraits, is probably due to one form of neo-classical idealism.
The classical values and aesthetic aspirations undoubtedly determined his occupation over a long period of time with the painting of the nude. For the ancient Greeks the naked body has a sacred element, while their gods are mostly depicted without clothes. The naked body is de-sanctified and is debased to a symbol of guilt with the triumph of the Jewish and later the Christian traditions. Clothing, such as the fig leaf for Adam and Eve, symbolises the loss of innocence and the feeling of guilt and shame. Botticelli, as well as the other great masters of the Renaissance, and their distant descendant Yiorgos Kotsonis, belongs to those artists who are involved in a process of restoring the sacredness of the body and of the return of its lost innocence. They free it from the guilt and the shame and reinstate it as the symbol par excellence of beauty and of the ideal of beauty. It is not fortuitous that the naked females in the painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis do not display any feelings of guilt or shame at all about their nakedness; on the contrary, they seem to perceive it as their most natural state.
Even in the female figures where a more lyrical and poetic mood is revealed, a relatively limited number of female portraits where the flesh is not the protagonist of the work of art, the paintings, that is to say, where the painter chooses to emphasise other values of the female form which he depicts in his painting, such as for example the element of the inner world and modesty of the person portrayed rather than the element of physical beauty, i.e. values of a more ethical quality, the erotic element is not missing. Because, as it is recognised, the ethical is not an aesthetically neutral quality. As Plato said, the “Beautiful is the Good” i.e. virtue is beauty, and in these works, the apparently aesthetically neutral, the trained eye recognises the charm and beauty of the inner world and the modesty which they emit, and an erotic attraction, of another quality of course, from that in the other paintings with female figures with the aggressive eroticism of the flesh and of the naked body.
The depiction of the female form in the painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis, as it appears in a series of certain works from the middle and later periods of his artistic production, does not appear to have been transformed into a secure and foreseeable mannerism. Although the roots of his art are clear and easily traceable, as we have already mentioned, his nude and erotic paintings are significantly enriched, not, of course, always with completely successful results, in a dialogue perhaps we could say from afar with various versions of modernism. Here we could note discernible elements of this dialogue which refer to the post-impressionist example of Paul Cezanne, mainly with the pre-cubist elements of this example, as well as with the analytical version of cubism, particularly the example of Juan Gris and Braque. These deviations broaden the artistic horizons of his painting and of his nudes and erotic paintings in particular.
The quality of the eroticism in the painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis is not confined to the sexual plane. The loving relationship of the mother with her child e.g. in the motif of the mother holding her baby, is either of religious inspiration i.e. the Virgin with the new-born Jesus or is of a more contemporary aspiration of any mother with her new-born child. Although these works are not erotic or nudes in the conventional sense, the erotic undertone which the painter gives to this relationship lends them a clearly erotic dimension.
Even in the cases where his starting point is a specific woman whom he is using as a model in his painting, the painter elevates her above the specific space and time, while he often frees her from imperfect elements or the elements of deterioration which may exist. This practice is, of course, the practice par excellence of the great artistic tradition from which Kotsonis draws his artistic foundations: classical, renaissance and neo-classical art of the period of the zenith of nude and erotic painting.
The fact that the viewing angle which the painter prefers is frontal and secondly from the side has the quality of focusing on the primary protagonist of the painting or mosaic, which is the naked female body. The naked female body as a value per se. In choosing this viewing angle the artist excludes other elements, mainly effects which could distance him even very slightly from the basic ideal which he aspires to conceive and give visual substance to.
The emotion of the naked female flesh is certainly the starting point or inspiration of a great part of the nude paintings of Yiorgos Kotsonis in contrast to his erotic paintings, which start out from purely mythical themes and have a purely intellectual conception. I would say that his nude paintings which clearly have as their starting point the direct model are the most successful, either because the desire and craving of the living flesh cannot fail to preserve something of the material nature and its carnal emotion during the process of its transformation into art by means of the skill and inspiration of a good painter, or because the complete absence of the real object and of real carnal emotion turns the artistic process into one of purely intellectual quality and the painting into a less real entity and consequently not genuine.
Yiorgos Kotsonis remains for Cypriot art the leading painter of nudes and erotic works in an era when these subjects of painting and art are not particularly popular. He remains consistent to the teachings of the great master artists of the past because he considers it his duty as a painter to serve the values which they also served and defended with their work, beauty and the beautiful. It is precisely these values which are the foundation stone of love because without beauty no one is going to be possessed by strong feelings of desire and longing for a person or any other object. This is precisely the reason why Kotsonis is the erotic painter par excellence of Cypriot art.
A beautiful naked body activates a two-way relationship between it and the viewer or observer. The nude and erotic painting of Yiorgos Kotsonis has no meaning outside the light of this relationship.