PAINTING WITH BERYL
“The artist is what he says he is, not what he is.”
Jean Bernard Klus
What enables painting is the perception and representation of intensity. Every point in space has different intensity, which can be represented in painting by black and white and all the gray shades between. In practice, painters can articulate shapes by juxtaposing surfaces of different intensity; by using just color (of the same intensity) one can only represent symbolic shapes. Thus, the basic means of painting are distinct from ideological means, such as geometrical figures, various points of view and organization (perspective), and symbols. For example, a painter perceives that a particular white wall has different intensity at each point, due to shades and reflections from nearby objects, but ideally, a white wall is still a white wall in pitch darkness. In technical drawing, thickness of line is also ideal, demarcating ideal outlines of an object within a perceptual frame different from the one used by painters.
“Yes,” Beryl Georgakopoulos cuts short my lengthy exposition. “But remember that painting gives truth to the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For in painting, we are given the unique privelege, to emulate in our own small way, the energies of the Creator. Considering that we have been made in His image, is it not profound that we are given the gift of being able not only to interpret His world but to create our own, in its image? As soon as the brush comes into contact with the canvas, the subjective becomes an objective aboslute, without losing anything of its subjectivity. I think it was Pablo Picasso who said: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”
To paint, is to bare one’s thoughts, even one’s soul. If we consider Henry Ward Beecher’s musing that: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures,” then painting is a most generous art, for it constitutes a public revelation of the painter’s innermost sanctum, a pursuit definitely not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted and it is for this reason, more than any other, that we owe painters a debt of gratitude.
Faint-hearted is something that Beryl Georgakopoulos definitely is not. An avid painter from her youth, since 1986, she has formed an integral part of the Moonee Valley visual arts community, painting intensively and inspiring a multitude of others to follow suit. Her recent exhibition at the Incinerator Theatre, entitled “The Three of Us and Friends” is a unique installation of canvases depicting still lives, scenes of Greece, unwitting snapshots of the more unsuspect moments of the human condition and, uniquely, icons.
The colour and tone are as much the essence of Beryl’s painting as pitch and rhythm are of music. The use of colour is highly subjective, but has observable psychological effects, upon the viewer. Her tempered use of colour, especially in vivid landscape scenes, invariably those of Greece and the more vibrant shades that illuminate and animate the people who inhabit her canvases, add to the potential, derived context of meanings, and because of this, the perception of her paintings are highly subjective in the manner in which they reproduce and/or reflect her reality. The analogy of her painting with music is quite clear; tones in music are analogous to "shades" in painting, and colouration in Beryl’s painting is the same as the specific colour of certain instrument - these do not form a melody, but can add different contexts to the whole piece.
Vincent Van Gogh once said: “I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.” Two elements of Beryl’s landscapes are noteworthy. The first is that whether the landscapes are painted with miniature precision or rendered with the broad, hasty brush strokes of the impressionist, they have an unearthly clarity that entrenches them in the viewer’s consciousness, causing him to be lost within them and granting to them, a profound dream-like quality. In the highly emotive and almost monochromatic “Panselinos,” we have a well-structured triangular composition in which the violets and the blues converge upon the boats in a subtly rendered unsettled sea to create a high dramatic pageant around the moon, which though miniscule in scale, dominates the entire composition. In contrast, in “Monastery on High” painted with painstaking precision, minute brushstrokes manipulate light in such a way as to pervade the painting with a sense of startling aloofness. Though relatively small in size, its majesty seems to loom large before the viewer’s gaze, diminishing him subconsciously.
The second noteworthy element of Beryl’s landscapes is that there appears to be slight difference and little distinction between those painted in Greece and those painted in Australia. This merging of the artistic perspective should not be overlooked: In tentatively tracing the melding of Greek and Australian understandings into a cohesive whole, in Beryl we witness the triumphant emergence of purely Greek-Australian Art. An intrepid traveler as well as an artist, much in the tradition of the Victorian poet Edward Lear who in the nineteenth century deliberately sought out the inaccessible mountains of Epirus and Albania, as the inspiration for his landscapes, the Indiana Jones-like Beryl relates some of the strange encounters she has had with people and places, while in search of the perfect landscape, including being advised at a particularly remote and disused church to stamp on the floorboards from time to time, in order to discourage the appearance of the snakes, who nested underneath.
“A good painter is to paint two things, men and the working of man’s mind,” the great master Leonardo da Vinci explained, and who are we to argue? Beryl’s propensity to deceptively portray her subjects in relatively mundane poses, only to, with her use of light, colour and masterly precision of poise, evoke strong emotions in remarkable. In “Waiting,” a young girl dressed in a traditional costume stands against a stone wall, with her arms crossed. The insularity and finality of the crossed arms is juxtaposed against an archway, leading into a realm of unknown possibilities. The girl’s gaze transcends that realm and the temporal existence of the arch, personifying the feeling of anticipation in all of its raw intensity. Considering that the poetry of this piece is inspired by a photograph of my sister at the 25th March National Day march to the Shrine years ago, in her simple rendering of such complexity, Beryl expertly proves da Vinci’s contention that: "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
Perhaps the most breathtaking and affectionate of the paintings in the exhibition is “Artiste at Work.” Here Beryl portrays the archetype of the Greek grandmother. Engrossed in her knitting and oblivious to everything else, the kerchief wearing grandmother encapsulates elements of every single Greek grandmother I have ever met, from the careworn, staid, stoic yet inexorably lively facial features to the most remarkably portrayed pair of hands. These hands form the centre of the composition: the subject’s gaze leads to them and they are imbued with such movement that they animate the whole piece. They are quintessential grandmotherly hands: wrinkled and wizened, toughened through years of toil and most importantly, ever moving. The intense sense of movement is heightened by the unfinished quality of the hands. Here Beryl finds her counterpart in Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky’s portrait of his mother, where he deliberately chose not to complete the painting of her hands. In following suit, is Beryl subtly providing the viewer with her own visual commentary on the concept of continuity? The viewer is left with the expectation that other, younger hands, descended from those of the Master Knitter will be required to complete the work, which is so lovingly fashioned in the painting.
The iconographic dimension of Beryl’s attitude to her own painting is omnipresent in all of her works. No detail is left to chance and everything is rendered in accordance with a devoted conception of a predetermined totality. This is certainly true both of her landscapes and portraits, where the tendency towards cubist renditions of geographical and facial features is subtle but identifiable, almost as if Beryl is seeking to evoke in the viewer, a subconscious de-construction of the visual into its elemental forms. In “Blessing the Newlyweds,” she manages to capture the pageantry and the deep sense of mystery of the Orthodox Wedding Service. The sense of the ineffable is palpable.
St John of Damascus justified the use of icons in the worship of the Orthodox Church by seeing in them, the closest understanding that humans could have, of the Incarnation. Beryl complements her ostensibly western painting techniques with a homage to the iconographic tradition of her homeland. Her first ever icon, that of St Constantine and St Helen is written not only with the precision of a Persian miniature, requiring the use of a magnifying glass in its execution, but with loving attention to detail. St Constantine holds in his arms, the city he founded, Constantinople, centre of the Orthodox Faith and St Helen holds the Church of the Ascension, which she founded in Jerusalem. This icon is particularly notable in that while it faithfully maintains the canons and reproduces the saints in accordance with tradition, it is imbued with the icon-writer’s individual sense of piety and reverence, making it all the more awe inspiring.
“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” Pablo Picasso once asked. In contrast, Beryl’s world does make sense, it being informed and delineated by doctrines human and divine and she moves comfortably within its parameters. Perhaps most impressive of all is her humility and drive towards her art. “Do you know the Parable of the Talents?” she asks. “We are all given certain gifts. This means that these are things which are Given, they are NOT ours. Our duty therefore, is to cultivate these gifts for all to enjoy.” This uniquely Greek-Australian conception of art will perhaps form in years to come, the manifesto of the “Greek-Australian school.”
With regards to Beryl, watch this space for assuredly there is more to come. But in the meantime, a parting shot by the loquacious and self-justifying Picasso: “Everyone wants to understand painting. Why is there no attempt to understand the song of birds?”