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THE ICON: TRUTH AND FABLES - Chapter 7 - Style in icons (р. 1)

So, is it sufficient for the iconographic canon to have been observed impeccably and unquestionably, for a painted wood panel on a religious them to be an icon? Are there other criteria? For some rigorous spirits and with the blessing of well-known twentieth century authors, style has also become a criterion, and indeed an essential element of canonicity.

The public generally confuses style and canon. Without wanting to insist further, we would remind the reader that the iconographic canon determines the subject of the image in its narrative aspects: Who is this? What is he or she doing? In what context? How is he or she dressed? Seen from this angle, even a photograph of theatrical actors dressed in the right costumes and placed in the correct setting would be irreproachably canonical. Style is something very different.

The style in a work of art is the system that is personal and specific to each artist, deriving from his or her artistic vision of the world, and is independent of the object represented. This internal system, that harmonizes and unifies his or her vision, is a kind of filter through which first the artist and then the viewer, contemplate and recreate everything that surrounds them. This can be a grandiose picture of the Last Judgment, a single blade of grass, a building, a rock, a man and down to every hair on this man's head. We can also distinguish between individual styles, unique to each artist (these styles are endless, and every one is different and unique because the expression of a unique human soul) and also styles in a broader sense, which express the spirit of an era, of a people, of a school. In this chapter we use the term "style" in the latter, wider sense.

A widely prevailing opinion considers that true icons can only be painted in the so-called "Byzantine" style.  The "Academic" or "Italianate" style, what was once called in Russia the “French” style, is, for the tenants of this opinion, a degeneration produced by the late and false theology of the Western Church, and any work painted in this style is not a true icon. And indeed for some is not an icon at all![1]

[1] L. Uspensky, op. cit. pp. 481

Шуйская икона Божией Матери
Федор Федотов 1764 г.
Исаково, Музей икон Божией Матери

In our brief exposé we cannot give in extenso the arguments of both parties. They are not always either logical or theologically justified. We leave the analysis of them to other experts. More recently, in the twentieth century, critics of the Italianate style, from Russian émigré circles, have not hesitated to accept uncritically the iconographic theory of the Old Believers, while condemning the rest of their theology. This has produced a whole superficial mystique, first conceived in and then torn out of its native Russian soil, and widely disseminated across Western Europe during the past half-century.

Those who love to repeat these incantations about “spirit-bearing Byzantine” and “fallen Academic” styles would be well advised to read the writings of true professionals, who spent all their lives in Russia, and through whose hands thousands of ancient icons passed: F.I. Buslayev, N.V. Pokrovsky, N.P. Kondakov and others. All saw much more deeply and soberly the conflict between the ancient manner and zhivopodobiye and we not at all in favor of Avvakoum and Ivan Pleshkovich, with their “brutal schism and ignorant Old-Ritualism.”[1] They were all on the side of true art, professionalism and beauty in the icon, condemning deadness, cheap craftsmanship, stupidity and obscuranticism, even in the form of the pure “Byzantine style.”

Never mind the controversy of the seventeenth century between the representatives and ideologues of two divergent currents in Russian sacred art. Let us look rather at the consequences of these two trends. One, progressive in nature, did not impose any stylistic limitations on artists, but was self-regulated via commissions to paint icons and the subsequent recognition or not of the results by clergy and laity. The other, conservative trend attempted for the first time in history to prescribe and impose a specific iconographic style, forgetting that, for the artist, style is a very subtle and highly personal instrument of the knowledge of God and the created world.

In the first trend, the great flood of sacred art, closely linked to the life and culture of the Orthodox people, entered a period of mutation lasting until the early eighteenth century. After changing some painting techniques, certain ideas on realism and stylization, and after mutating the system of spatial construction, the same sacred art, through its best representatives, continued, in a style generally referred to as Academic, its sacred mission of making God known through the image, in an honest and responsible fashion, without the artist concealing his or her artistic and spiritual personality under the mask of a style alien to him or her. This same passage from the "medieval" to the "Academic" style, which had taken place gradually in Western Europe in a process lasting several centuries, occurred in Russia much faster, in the space of less than hundred years.

And what had become of the "traditional" iconography in the same period of the late seventeenth century until the present day? We call it "traditional", but in reality it is an unprecedented phenomenon: until then the "Byzantine" iconographic style had been simultaneously the dominant historical style, the living expression of the spiritual essence of the era and of the nation. Now one of these diverging styles becomes frozen, proclaiming itself as the only true one, first by the mouth of Old Believers, and two and a half centuries later, through the Russian emigration. This abandonment of the sincere effort to establish contact with God in the image, replacing it with the repetition of ready-made formulas, considerably lowered the level of "traditional" icon-painting.  The artistic quality and the spiritual charge of a "traditional" icon of this period are lower, not only compared with the icons of previous eras, but also in relation to Academic icons painted at the same time. This is because any more or less gifted artist aspired to master the Academic manner, seeing in it the perfect instrument to explore and get to know the visible and invisible worlds. For him the "Byzantine" was outdated and boring: an approach we cannot but recognize as correct and healthy.  Indeed, this sense of "outdated boredom" marks the "Byzantine" style of the time, which had become quickly devitalized in the hands of mediocre painters into a late-born, not-to-be-proud of addition to the Church’s heritage. Very significantly the few high quality artists who were able to "find themselves" in this historically dead style did not work for the Church. These artists, usually Old Believers, hardly ever worked for monasteries or parish churches but for amateurs and private collectors.
In this way the primary destination of the icon, that of entering into a relationship with and getting to know God, became secondary. In the best of cases, such an icon of high artistic quality became an object of aesthetic admiration, and in the worst, an object of investment, of the accumulation of earthly goods. This blasphemous substitution distorted the meaning and specificity of the work of podstarinchtchik ("as if” ") iconographers. Let us underline this specific term with its connotation, in Russian, of artificial and counterfeiting. The creative work that consisted of placing oneself very personally before God, in the Church and for the Church, had degenerated into a real insult to God. From imitation to counterfeiting was but a small step.

[1] Fyodor. I. Buslayev …. QUOTE TO FIND

Св. преподобная Евдокия
Невьянск, Иван Чернобровин, 1858 г.

Невьянск, 1894 г.

(все старообрядческие иконы для этого постинга взяты отсюда )

Купол собора св. Софии в Киеве, 1046

В.А. Васнецов. Эскиз росписи купола Владимирского собора в Киеве. 1896.

It should, nonetheless, be remarked here that the icon belongs primarily to the domain of the Church, which has always recognized, and continues to recognize equally, icons painted in the Academic style.  She accepts them, not just because it tolerates the everyday practice, tastes and preferences of simple parishioners (because this class of people, as everyone knows, can make mistakes, have bad habits or ingrained prejudices). But it is also in front of icons painted in the Academic style that the great saints of the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries prayed.  It is in this style that monastery workshops worked, including those of the great spiritual centers such as Valaam or the monasteries of Mount Athos. The senior levels of the Russian Orthodox Church commissioned icons from Academic artists. Some of these icons, for example the works of Victor Vasnyetsov, are famous and have been appreciated by the people for several generations, without competing with the growing popularity of the Byzantine style in recent decades.
Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky in the 1930s proclaimed Vasnyetsov and Mikhail Nyestyerov "national geniuses of iconography, who express the universal (soborni) creativity of the people, a phenomenon unique among all Christian peoples", of peoples who at the time, according Khrapovitsky, had no iconography worthy of the name [1]

We have seen that the Orthodox Church also recognizes "non-Byzantine" icons, but we can simply content ourselves with this finding. The idea of ​​an opposition between the "Byzantine" and the Italianate styles, between the high spirituality of the first as against the lack of spirituality of the second, is too widespread for us not to investigate more more closely.

This opposition, so well founded at first sight, is in fact a fairly recent invention, and of very doubtful origins.  The very notions of "Byzantine" and of "Italianate"/ "Academic" that we have placed in quotation marks here are relative and artificial. The Church ignores them, and they are totally absent from the theological apparatus. Nor does the scientific theory of art recognize this simplistic dichotomy, distinguishing in fact many styles on either side of the “Byzantine”/ “Italianiate” dividing line. These terms are used only in the context of the controversy between the partisans of two styles. This forces us to define concepts that in our eyes are no more than absurdities, but which, unfortunately, are strongly rooted in the popular consciousness. This pseudo-opposition, so easily accepted by the uninformed public, boils down to the following simple formulation: "The Academic style is when it looks like nature, and the Byzantine style, when it does not.".

This all-embracing formula seems to us simplistic on more than one count.  The concepts of resemblance, transmission, and creativity, mixed up with a theology that usurps the place of Fine Arts theory, lead to erroneous conclusions. Let us take a closer look:
a) The idea of ​​what resembles nature or what does not is very relative.  This idea can vary greatly from one person to another, from one era to another, and even, over time, within the mind of one and the same person. To attribute to other people, and in particular those of different periods and cultures, our own ideas about resemblance, is more than naive.
b) In the figurative arts of any style, at any time, the imitation of nature is not limited to its slavish copying. The artist seeks to disclose the deep underlying logic and the harmony of the visible world, this subtle play of correspondences, this unity that we constantly contemplate in creation.
c) For this reason resemblance to nature is still perceived as positive, both in the psychology of the creative artist, and in its evaluation by the viewer. The artist whose heart and mind are healthy has this resemblance as a goal, the viewer expects it, recognizing it in an act of shared creativity.
d) Any attempt to give serious theological foundation to the idea that in any art, especially in religious art, resemblance to nature is to be condemned, while non-resemblance is admirable, could quickly lead us into a logical impasse, or into heresy. It is perhaps for that reason that such an attempt has never been undertaken. Indeed the discourse of the Paris “theologians of the icon” serves rather to narrate their lyrical feelings on encountering medieval works, rather than really condemn, with argued reasons, the nefariousness of resemblance to creation.

In our work, we refrain, as we have already said, from all theological analysis. We confine ourselves only to demonstrating that to divide sacred art into "Italianate-decadent" and "Byzantine-spiritual" is incorrect from the viewpoint of both art history and art theory. 

It does not take a genius to notice that the sacred images of the first group include not only the icons of Vasnyetsov and Nyestyerov but also those of the Baroque and Russian Classicism, all stylistically very different from each other, not to mention the religious paintings of Western Europe from the first to the high Renaissance, from Giotto to Dürer, from Raphael to Murillo, from Rubens to Ingres! What richness, what variety, all these periods in the history of the Christian world, the rising and falling waves of great styles, of national and local schools, the names of great masters whose life, piety and mystical experience are much better documented than those of the "traditional" iconographers.   All this variety of styles is not reducible to a single all-embracing – and a priori negative – term.

And what then is covered with what is called – without much thought – the "Byzantine" style? Brought together under this term, in a simplified and unjustifiable manner, are works produced over the nearly two thousand year history of Church painting, with all the diversity of schools and manners, from extreme stylization to the almost naturalistic treatment of objects and characters, from the most stripped-down simplicity to the most infinite complexity, from the most impassioned expressivity to the sweetest tenderness, from the frankness of the early days to Mannerist inventiveness; from the great masters who have influenced entire epochs, to simple craftsmen and even dilettantes.

Given the uneven variety of the products of this huge slice of Christian culture, it would be naive to consider a priori as a source of spirituality for the Church any Christian image that could be defined as "Byzantine." And finally, where do we place an infinite number of stylistically ambiguous artistic phenomena, which belong neither to one side or another, but fall somewhere in between? How should we regard for example the works of Simon Ushakov, of Cyril Oulanov, and of other iconographers of their circle? 

[1] Главные  отличительные  черты  русского  народа  в  иконописи  и  в  празднике  Воскресения  Христова. – «Царский Вестник». (Сербия), 1931. no. 221. –   In Богословие  образа. Икона  и  иконописцы. Антология, Moscow, 2002.

Одигитрия. Кирилл Уланов, 1721

Богоматерь Корсунская. 1708 г. 36,7 х 31,1 см. Частное собрание, Москва. Надпись внизу справа: «(1708)го(да)писал Алексий Квашнин»

"Всех скорбящих Радость" Украина, 17 в.

свв. великомученицы Варвара и Екатерина. 18 в. Национальный Музей Украины

Or the iconography of the western region of the Russian Empire of the sixteenth  and seventeenth centuries?  Or the legacy of the Veneto-Cretan School of fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Orthodox artists fleeing the Turkish invaders? The very existence of the Cretan school questions the prejudice of a decadent western way opposed to a correct eastern way. Cretans artists painted without distinction in maniera greca and in maniera latina, for both Orthodox and Catholics, as specified in individual contracts. Some had, in addition, one workshop in Candia, a second in Venice. To Crete came also from Venice Italian artists whose names are found in the records of the brotherhoods of Candia. The same artists mastered both styles and knew how to work alternately in one and the other, as, for example, Andreas Pavias, who painted alternately with the same success both "Latin" and "Greek" icons. Sometimes we find on the wings of the same altarpiece compositions in both styles, as in works of Nikolaos Ritzos and artists of his circle. More that one Greek master developed his own style with a synthesis of Greek and Latin traits, as did Nikolaos Zaphouris.  Some of these Candiote masters, leaving Crete to work in Orthodox monasteries, perfected their skills in the Greek tradition (like Theophanis Strelitsas, author of icons and frescoes at Meteora and the Megista Lavra of Mount Athos).  Those who moved to Western Europe worked with equal success in the Latin tradition, while still feeling Orthodox, Greek and Candiote, even as far as indicating this in their signatures. 

Андреас Рицос. кон. 15 в.

The most striking example of all is undoubtedly Dominikos Theotokopoulos, known more commonly as El Greco. Those of his icons painted while still in Crete unquestionably comply with all the requirements of the Byzantine style, from the perspective of technique, traditional materials and iconographic canonicity. As for the pictures of his Spanish period, these are world famous, and their stylistic belonging to the western school is equally indisputable. But master Domenikos himself made no essential distinction between the one and the other. He always signed his paintings in Greek and had kept the typical Greek habit of working from model images, astonishing his Spanish sponsors by presenting them, in order to facilitate negotiations, with a kind of podlinnik of his own making, with typical compositions of the most common subjects.

The mutual interest and mutual influences of different schools and cultural currents that have enriched Christian art were manifested in a particularly remarkable way in the crucible of the Veneto-Cretan school, thanks to very specific geographical and political conditions in which it developed.

Obscurantist attempts to dismiss such phenomena as theological and moral decay, something that has never been specific to Russian icon painting, do not hold water, neither theologically nor from the historical-cultural viewpoint. Russia has never been an exception to this rule, owing the development of its national iconography precisely to the freedom and wealth of contacts between artists of different schools.

What then of the famous controversy over the iconographic styles of the seventeenth
century? What then of the supposed division of Russian religious art during that century into two separate streams: "traditional Byzantine-spiritual" and "Italianate-decadent"? We cannot pass over this well-known phenomenon, of which (too) much has been made.[1] The stylistic conflicts took place against the background of exacerbated political tensions related to the Old Believer schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. The huge contrast between the high quality works painted in the national way, refined for centuries, and the first still clumsy attempts to master the Italian manner gave Old Believer ideologues, supporters of the "sanctity of the old", a powerful weapon that they were quick to brandish. They preferred not to see that traditional painting of the seventeenth century had already lost the liveliness and the power it had in the fifteenth century, that is was becoming increasingly sclerotic, tending towards the decorative and striding towards the Baroque. All arrows of the critics of the new style were directed against the dzivopodobiye (resemblance to life). This neologism invented by the archpriest Avvakum, is unfortunate, as its opposite would mean "resemblance to that which is dead." How could one argue that it is better for an icon to resemble death than life?

[1] L. Uspensky, op. cit. pp. 299-344

св. благоверный великий князь Георгий
1645 г., Владимир, Успенский собор.

Соловки, вторая четверть 17 в.

Невьянск, нач. 18 в.

Св. Прп. Нифонт
рубеж 17-18 вв. Пермь,
Художественная галерея

Let us recall here the story Sealed Angel by Nikolai.A. Leskov, the popular Russian novelist of the second half of the nineteenth century whose works frequently have an ecclesiastical setting. The famous icon painter, working in the traditional style, that an Old Believer community has found with so much effort and sacrifice, this master who places his art so high that he refuses to sully his hands with secular orders, is in fact a virtuoso forger. A typical podstarinchtchik master from Moscow, who makes money by selling icons of marvelous apparent quality to gullible provincials, he paints with great ease a fake ancient icon, deftly cracking the paint and giving it a patina with dirty oil. And in the same story, Moscow icon painters sell to other over-trusting provincials icons of heavenly beauty. The deal struck and the price paid, the artist’s accomplice intimates to the buyers that their precious icon has in fact been painted by devils, and to prove this scratches away a layer of paint to reveal nasty little devils drawn on the gesso. Broken and in tears, they at once get rid of the diabolicographic icon. The next day, it will be discreetly retrieved by the crooks, who will repaint the scratched corner as to sell it again and again to new victims ready to pay premium prices for icons that are "real", because painted in the "Byzantine" way.

This is the sad fate, alas inevitable, of a style that is no longer linked to the personal creative and spiritual experience of the iconographer, a style detached from the culture and aesthetics of its time. Nowadays it has become customary to call "icons", in addition to the works of the medieval masters (whose style was not frozen stylization but personal vision), either the little, low-price pictures produced in series by low quality craftspersons (monks and laity), or the technically brilliant works of the podstarinchtchiki of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, sometimes conceived from the outset as fakes.  In short, that is everything that is painted in the "Byzantine" style.

But the fact of being produced in this style absolutely does not lend to any religious painting the intangible right to the title of "icon" (in the sense that the Church understands it) as against the Academic icons of the same period, nor does it strip this right from icons of "ambiguous" style, to contemporary icons. All attempts to prescribe a style to artists for reasons, whether intellectual or theoretical, that are unrelated to the natural processes of the development of art, are condemned ab ovo.  And this just as true when iconographers are not isolated from the medieval heritage (as they were in the first Russian emigration) but maintain contact with this heritage, as in Greece. Continuing contact is not in itself sufficient in order to establish that a "Byzantine" icon is holier than a "non-Byzantine" icon, or even that it has a monopoly of holiness. In order to paint a "Byzantine" icon with any claim of holiness whatsoever, an artist needs to work his way to an understanding of the style from the inside, something that no theory can do for him. On contemporary Byzantine icon painting in Greece let us quote Archimandrite Cyprian Pygeov: "Right now we are witnessing in Greece an artificial revival of the Byzantine style, which is expressed in the mutilation of the beauty of forms and lines, and of the creativity, both spiritually elevated and stylistically refined, of the ancient Byzantine artists. The contemporary Greek iconographer Kondoglou, with the encouragement of the Synod of the Church of Greece, has published a series of reproductions of his own that we cannot help but perceive as talent-less imitations of the famous Panselinos. Kondoglou's admirers and students say that the saints 'must not resemble living human beings'. Whom then should they resemble? The stupidity of this explanation is very harmful to those who see and feel deeply the spiritual and aesthetic beauty of ancient icon paintings, and reject these ersatz that are being proposed as the restituted Byzantine style. Very often this enthusiasm for the 'old style' is very artificial when we discover the pretentiousness of its supporters and their inability to distinguish real art from vulgar imitations."[1]

[1] Archimandrite Cyprian Pygeov, to the knowledge of the ancient icon painting, In Богословие образа. Икона  и  иконописцы. Антология. Moscow, 2002, p. 422.

Фотис Кондоглу, 1960-е гг., ниже - тех же кистей Одигитрия и Автопртрет.

(to be continued....)
Tags: the icon: truth and fables

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