Sensations Imprimées, 2017
FLORA IM QUADRAT
By Katharina Bütikofer
Artist, art educator and former professor for visual arts at the University of Bern
and the Bern School of Arts.
The rose merely blossoms
and never asks why:
heedless of her beauty,
careless of every eye.
Angelus Silesius, 1624–1670
The flower motif has been a staple in art and culture of all peoples and periods, in ever new and boundless variations. Flowers and flower images are not only ornaments and decorations, but symbols of something behind it. Just like icons, they are the visible manifestations of invisible things, their significance ranging from the festive bridal wreath to the last rose
on the grave. Resilience and frugality go hand in hand with vulnerability and lavish blossoming. When flowers wilt, we are bitterly reminded of the transience of things, when they bloom, they remind us of Persephone, who is only allowed to leave wintry Hades during the period of
Only if we look at the world of flowers from this multifaceted perspective, can we read Anna Achilleos’ paintings. In the studio. The paintings lay on the table, are placed on easels or hang on the wall. I enter a world of rich colours. It is the festive atmosphere that fascinates me, rather than any details or botanical classifications. In front of me, there is a group of works that seem very homogeneous, a unified whole, and the artist confirms that these works are the result of one single summer. She created the paintings during an intense phase working in near seclusion, under the sun of her native country of Cyprus. I can’t help thinking of van Gogh’s enthusiasm for sun flowers under the hot sky of Provence.
After this overall view, this emotional introduction, I can finally turn my attention to individual works. The incoming light highlights the surface structure of the boards lying on the table, and I notice their particular quality: A transparent glaze that can only be achieved by the technique of encaustic (hot wax painting). When as a student of archaeology Anna Achilleos came across the Fayum mummy portraits, she knew instinctively: This kind of painting will never let me go. One day I will actively explore this mysterious technique of the Late Antiquity.
She has implemented her plan, falling back on encaustic without imitating the old technique that still puzzles scientists. Rather, she has experimented with the technique and developed her own style. A wooden base, clean beeswax, dammar resin, pigments, brushes, palette knives and fire are the materials used in a complex painting process that involves applying layer upon layer and reworking them.
I move my hand across the painting’s surface and the layers of wax. It feels like fine skin over veins and bones. A blind person could read these pictures, smell the wax, and run their fingers along the edges that enclose the picture square, round and soft, like the hem of a precious fabric. Slowly I also recognize the pictures’ spatial depth effect, which makes some of the flowers appear threedimensional. Delicate, superimposed wax layers create translucent opal-like colours, merging and blurring into each other at the base. What seems easily composed turns out to be a complex layer painting requiring the artist’s full presence and highest concentration.She works standing up, using her whole body. The liquid wax is applied quickly and worked with a fire jet for a brush, leaving no room for carelessness.
“When I’m painting it is like dancing a tango with fire and colours.”
The painting is a success if she achieves the right balance between concentration and spontaneity, tension and letting go.
The square picture surfaces are covered with rhythmically distributed clusters of flowers that fill the entire area. It’s the strictness of the format that gives the works their unity, the square framing the surface like a precious stone. Without top or bottom, the square radiates equally into all four directions, which makes it perfect for absorbing the organic forms and letting them expand in all directions. It is comparable to a Baroque garden, where precise borders intensify the luminosity of the flowers. Paul Klee loved the edges of a painting and encouraged his students to think the image beyond its four edges in a mental exercise. As Anna paints her motifs from a bird’s eye view, her paintings lend themselves perfectly to this kind of exercise.
My eyes fix on a picture with lilies. Fourteen blossoms resembling lilies float like fluttering birds on a transparent green mesh of leaves that spreads across a greyish brown priming, which seems to evoke the bare sandstone ground of Cyprus. Each leaf, each shape is given its own space, nothing is out of place. The hot jet of the fire has turned the leaves into embroidery. The yellow filaments have become small blazing fires. It is a very special painting, impossible to repeat or copy. And yet, it directs my thoughts to an art historical masterpiece.
Anna’s art may be compared to numerous paintings, but a tiny flame in her lily painting takes me to Bern, the artist’s second home. In Bern, the Historical Museum houses the great Millefleurs tapestry, which covers a whole wall. Made of wool, silk and metal filaments, it was created in Flanders in 1466 for the Duke of Burgundy. A myriad of flower shrubs cover the dark ground in a rhythmical pattern, each of them a self-contained unit like a picture in a picture. The blossoms, most of them seen from above, the leaves’ three-dimensionality, the rhythmic overall impression, the spirit of the message – this is all reminiscent of Anna Achilleos. What is exciting and unexpected, however, are the fire jet and fire stone inserted into the world of flowers. The fire emanates from the stone, flames flickering through the flowers without destroying them. Whatever these flames may have signified more than 500 years ago – for me, they are symbols of Anna Achilleos’ present work. She, too, links fire and flowers, and in both cases the real fire becomes the feu sacré, the inspiring fire leading to art and creativity.
Beholders entering Anna’s flower garden are free to decide where they want to pause, what flowers they want to pick, what memories and emotions they allow, what colours they prefer and why they chose this picture in particular. The paintings are linked to growing and becoming, to the elements of earth, air, water and fire, to the island in the Mediterranean Sea. A lot becomes clearer when explained, yet the secret remains. Sometimes a sentiment is better expressed by a song or poem. The great Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909–1990) achieves this with a poem from his “18 short songs of the bitter Motherland”:
Conversation with a flower
Cyclamen - Cyclamen in the crevice of the
Where did you find colours for flowering, a
stem for swaying?
Inside the rock I gathered lifeblood drop by
I have knitted a rose kerchief and now I gather
Artist, art educator and former professor
for visual arts at the University of Bern
and the Bern School of Arts.