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THE ICON: TRUTH AND FABLES - Chapter 9 - The iconographer’s training

Let us start by stating that in the visual arts all schools not just those of icon painting, are also schools of spirituality, because by channeling a student in a certain stylistic direction you imprint on him or her ipso facto a particular spiritual direction, in the broader sense of the term. By adopting one or the another recipe for transcribing the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, the student adopts at the same time the viewpoint on this world of his period, his school and his personal master. Indeed, he will learn to transfigure the world in the master’s direction, taking on all the corresponding aesthetic, moral, and spiritual values.

In the world history of art education, there has been only one attempt to preserve the student from any "spiritual pressure". This is the late secular Academic system, appearing only in the late nineteenth century, where the student throughout his school career worked only from nature. But even that experience was not free of interference, because anyone setting out to paint has, nolens volens, already undergone certain stylistic influences and already has certain preferences. Of course, in this system, the apprentice himself chooses his masters, and alone decides how far and for how long he will remain faithful to them, but there is no denying, however, that an artistic school cannot truly exist in a spiritual vacuum, that is to say, the transmission (traditio) of spiritual experience is an essential component of it.

We note the view widely disseminated by some that strict training in a workshop "of the closed and separate world of the witnesses”[1] where only a so-called ‘Byzantine’ style is practiced will enable the apprentice not only to ensure the spiritual content of the icon but also to save his soul, while the person attending a school where the Academic style is taught is already on the road to perdition, and needs to stay, wrapped in penitential sackcloth, in the narthex of the church until the evil spirit departs from him. That it is only by an incredible effort that he can achieve purity, a purity given immediately to those who begin their artistic studies directly in an icon workshop.

This latter statement can apply only if, in his previous creations, the secular artist turning into an iconographer had indulged, consciously or not, in sin and passions. But the contemporary Academic school, in any case any serious school, does not contain any danger, precisely because it does not prescribe any one style. Let us remind ourselves also that the Erminia clearly recommends that any future iconographer should possess prior artistic experience before starting his icon training, and before even asking the blessing for this.[2] Let us note that all contemporary Russian icon painters of the older generation, whose names are often well-known in the Christian world, arrived in icon painting through the Academic school. The opinions as to the harmful nature of the Academic school are clearly contradicted by the facts.

Иконописная мастерская на Афоне, вторая пол. 19-го в.

Let us return to the first affirmation: that the artistic training of a student in a purely iconographic school, where one of the so-called "Byzantine" styles is practiced strictly, would not only enable him to save his soul, but would also guarantee the spiritual canonicity of his production, at least in theory. It is true that all these “Byzantine” styles were indeed created within the Church and for its own use, they all bear the imprint of this noble destiny; making them all carriers of a very ancient spiritual tradition, but it remains to be seen whether practice is consistent with the theory.

It is contemporary practice that interests us here, the medieval practice is already pretty well-known. If we talk about the iconographic schools in Russia today, whether monastic or attached to theological academies, it is true that they all produce icons of at least acceptable quality. This medium may also give us the great masters of tomorrow. But there is a potential danger, of which the most perceptive of the teachers in these schools are beginning to be aware: that forcing students to stay within one or another historically deceased and ossified style (that is to say, closed on itself and without any possibility of evolution) can satisfy only the personalities with a limited creative sense. For the most gifted, this context will inevitably appear too restrictive. If the goal of an iconographic school was only train craftsmen specialized in the manufacture of standard images, we would very quickly in Russia be back in the same sad situation that prevailed in the nineteenth century, with not one gifted artist, someone really able to touch people's hearts, wanting to learn traditional iconography or paint in this standardized and simplistic way of which everyone has more than enough. Of course it would not be catastrophic if the best Russian artists abandoned the "Byzantine manner" in favor of the "Academic manner" because, as we have already shown, we cannot attribute all of spirituality in the first and deny it to the second. But there is another danger: of the style that is considered by the entire public, Christian or not, as being par excellence that of the Church, being devalued in its eyes because abandoned by the most gifted, and being rejected ultimately as barbaric, brutal, or shallow, and with this rejection extending to the entire Church and the Spirit dwelling in it.

How do we avoid this danger? First, of course, by maximizing the artistic requirements in the iconography schools, so as to come closer to the standards of an Academic school. Then by considerably deepening our understanding of what makes a "Byzantine" style, so as to restore it as a universal tool for imparting the knowledge of God and his creation, in all the fullness that is accessible to us. And lastly by developing a true theology of the icon, which could prepare the way for and to some extent explain and teach this knowledge of God through art.

We note with great satisfaction that in several iconographic schools in Russia, the training of future creators of sacred art presents itself in this way. The enormous creative potential of Russia and the tradition of high professional standards in art allow us to hope that obscurantism and poor craftsmanship will not prevail in the Russian iconographic school.

And here in Western Europe, what is the situation? What are the means advocated by the "only true" iconographic school? The answer is well known: this can be done by copying reproductions of traditional icons! As foundation for this method, inept in both its theories and its amateurism, we improvise a little theology, easily accessible and flattering to everyone.  We will sadly disappoint teachers and apprentices who are using this curious "method"; because it has to be recognized that learning any style, which involves immersing oneself in its spirit, is based not on recopying already made works but on the slow and very gradual penetration into this style, and on its impregnation deep into the student's consciousness.

In the past, this was done by the apprentice being constantly present in the workshop, participating in the work of the masters, starting with the most mechanical or technical phases (tracing a drawing onto a board, placing a color layer following the contours) where creativity was not necessary. Hours, days, and years were spent in contemplation of the works of the style in question. The "more creative" learning was done too very slowly, starting with the drawing of the simplest items (ornaments, small rocks, clothing) and finally arriving at the bodies and human faces. And then only from drawings, not icons; even if students used both brush and wooden board, because boards were cheaper than paper. Once completed and approved by the master, the drawing was scraped off, and the apprentice went on to the next exercise. What humility, what self-denial this method presupposed!  All visible, material traces of the artist-apprentice were destroyed in the process, because it was the final, invisible product only that counted: mastery of the trade. Now compare this with contemporary one or two-week iconography summer schools at the end of which each participant takes home a complete and "guaranteed" icon (though sometimes completely repainted in extremis by the teacher!). Even in the early twentieth century, in traditional icon-painting schools, apprentices practiced for years before being given permission to paint their first icon, and the same board served them as an exercise "book" for the entire apprenticeship period (six years for example in the village of Palekh).

It is in the same way, with the only difference that students use paper instead of boards, that iconography is taught in Russian schools. This is the only way we learn style. And yet the copies made by summer school students will succeed, as strange as it sounds, in imitating all the qualities of the model, but with the exception precisely of style. This because the style, by definition, will remain the expression of the spiritual and psychic structure of the author of the copy and will also depend on the spirit of the teaching he has previously received.  In simpler language, if the person attending the summer school has painted previously in the Academic tradition, his copy will exhibit the corresponding stylistic features, including attempts to maintain a single light source, to fully understand the shape of each object, the relations between different parts of the body, realism in the folds of the clothing etc. If the same student comes from the world of graphic design, he will place in his work stylistic borrowings from visual advertising: at times brutally simplified shapes, pure and somewhat aggressive colors, firm and sure, and occasionally over-sure lines.  The student who before his icon-painting holiday practiced any kind of decorative painting will inevitably fall into superficial decorativeness of his craft, no matter whether he was decorating matriochka dolls or Delft tiles. Similar borrowings would mark a master of Chinese calligraphy, of Arab miniatures, etc. And the reader can extend the list himself, pointing in each case to the stylistic features that the artist will be condemned to repeat in spite of himself until he ends up consciously assimilating the new style. 

One should not infer from all this that a "dilettante" who copies for the first time the reproduction of a classic icon would have an advantage over the professional, in that what he produces will not display any stylistic traces of a "non-iconographic" artistic history. Nothing of the kind! The "dilettante" style is also a style with its characteristic features, quite recognizable and definable. Let us recall some of these traits, that relate in particular to knowledge or technical expertise:

- Lack of understanding of the possibilities and characteristics of the materials, which generates a constant battle with them, a battle ending inevitably with the artist's defeat.

- Lack of the necessary coordination of movements, giving a shaky line (the "trembling hand") and the physical inability to reach the goal, even when it seems close.

- Ignorance of the fundamental laws that govern the way of representing the objects of the visible world on a two -dimensional surface, and the resulting inability to achieve any resemblance to nature.

And a direct result of all this:
- Inability to grasp the objectives of the medieval master, and also to understand the organic relationship between nature and the technical tricks used by medieval artists to render it, whence the misinterpretation and distortion of these tricks of the trade.

These are the most general stylistic characteristics of "pure amateurism."   But besides the lack of knowledge or expertise, we need to take into account two other factors, as subtle as they are insidious: first the contemporary "dilettante" is not as virginal as might be imagined.  Even if he has never personally studied art, he passively undergoes certain stylistic influences, spiritually negative in most cases, such as advertising, comic books or newspaper graphics.  This abundant production in the mass media maintains low instincts which distort both style and the spiritual search. And it is precisely the "dilettante" who is the most permeable to these negative influences, which are quick to reappear from his first steps in painting. The second factor is the second factor: the well-known "theology of the icon" which denies the classical icon of the right to resemble nature, denouncing any resemblance to nature as a phenomenon devoid of spirituality and in so doing further unbalancing the "dilettante" in his experiments as a copyist.

The upshot of all this is that the amateur painter has no advantage over a professional artist, and that the copying of reproductions of classic icons as a means of initiation into a style suits him no more than it suits an Academic painter or a Chinese calligrapher. Because obviously it cannot suit anyone! Copying, as part of a learning process, can be useful only when it is performed based on the gains made earlier in a school of the style, starting with the simplest exercises and from original works in good condition (as close as possible to the initial state).

As for the spiritual benefit granted, according to some, to those involved in the copy sessions, let us not be under any illusions: only those who have benefited from the artistic teaching of the style can also progress spiritually. The tracing of the contours of a model and the filling of these contours with colors close to those of the original work have nothing to do with the assimilation of style. The only possible way of gaining any spiritual benefit from such a recopying process is to evaluate the results with modesty, that is to say, to accept one's inability to reach one's ends, and then choose between beginning serious studies and permanently abandoning any attempt to produce sacred images. Indeed, we only repeat here what was established by the Fathers of the Council of the Hundred Chapters (even if at the time, in the mid-16th century, its strictures were targeted not at amateur painters, but at ignorant craftsmen.)  The Council Fathers saw no spiritual benefit in painting icons in an unprofessional way and banned the exercise outright: "If somebody painted until now icons without having learned, that is to say, of his own accord (...), may he be banned, or let him learn from suitable masters, and if God grants him to paint in the image and likeness, then let him paint. And if God does not grant this, let him cease his painting, so that God's painting is not brought into disrepute.  Let those who do not cease to do so be punished by the wrath of the Tsar, and be judged. And if they start saying they earn their livelihoods from this and that this feeds them, do not listen because they speak thus in ignorance, without seeing the sin. It is not given to anyone to become an iconographer: God has given us other trades, and let them rather feed on these, without touching icon painting. The image of God should neither be ridiculed or brought into disrepute.”[3]
As we see, the iconographer can only be a professional, which means someone who has received proper training, and is recognized by other professionals. Producing icons was forbidden to everyone else, including regular apprentices who had not yet attained the appropriate level. The fact that in sixteenth century Russia bad icons were made ​​for a living, or that in 21st century Western Europe icons are painted "as a pastime" makes no difference:  The image of God should neither be ridiculed or brought into disrepute! It is wrong to ridicule the image of God, whether to nourish a Christian, or to "ensure one's personal spiritual comfort." Whereas the material interest of the ignorant craftsman of yesteryear was real, the "spiritual path" of someone attending a one-week icon-painting session today is a fiction. Were such spiritually harmful games to continue for years, these would bring the iconographer more spiritual harm than benefits.

The Council Fathers also turned their attention briefly to the masters who organized recopying lessons (of course at that time there were no one-week summer courses, but dishonest iconography masters did exist). The same Chapter 43 condemns those masters who "do not pass on to their pupils the essentials of the talent granted by God." What else do the organizers of contemporary courses do than to teach their students a few "tricks" without touching on the essence of the iconographic worldview? The Council also condemns masters who for personal reasons (family, cronyism or financial interest) allow bad apprentices to pass as gifted by attributing to them icons painted by themselves or by their best pupils. What else than this do our summer class organizers, sometimes almost totally repainting the "masterpieces" of their dunces, thus flattering their self-esteem? In the conciliar Deeds, the teacher is condemned along with the apprentice. Applying this decision to the contemporary situation, we can of course not demand that ecclesiastical sanctions be taken against the offenders, but it is clear that in this case, the iconographer himself, as well as his production, can arouse only pity and contempt, in the same way as someone persisting in a shameful sin.

We are not alone in equating in this way amateurism in painting and shameful sin. Over a hundred years ago, in his famous novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy tells of Alexei Vronsky who to kill time devoted himself to painting on Sundays, and describes the reactions of a professional painter to these exercises:

"We cannot forbid anyone to make a big wax doll, and to kiss it.  But if he comes with his doll to sit under the nose of someone who is in love and he begins to caress his doll in the same way that the lover cajoles his beloved, this lover will be disgusted. It was this same disgust that swelled up in Mikhailov when looking at Vronsky's painting.  For him it was at once, ridiculous, embarrassing, pathetic and annoying.”[4]

Vronsky was spending his leisure hours only with secular painting, but already the great Russian novelist is merciless to him! So what do "dilettantes" in sacred art deserve? In medieval Europe, the law severely condemned, sometimes even by the death penalty, those posing as monks. Without wanting to lead a monastic life, or suffer the difficulties and temptations associated with this status, these crooks laid claim on the esteem, respect and sometimes even material benefits that society lavished on those who instructed it and prayed for it.  Do not these self-proclaimed iconographers do the same? Just like self-proclaimed monks, they do not want to go through the ordeal of the specialist school. Let us note in passing that any specialized art school (and Russian the word "art" shares the same root as "test" and "verification"), even in profane art, is an excellent school, requiring its students to respect to the main Christian virtues. Judge for yourselves: all visual arts students are required to:

- Evaluate modestly their own level of mastery of the profession in relation to the requirement of the school, that is to say, assess their shortcomings, their faults, their weaknesses.
- Give proper consideration to the success of their classmates, realizing their superiority in one or the other area, without being jealous, but rather taking them as models.
- Accept the authority of the master; have the courage to listen to his comments in the presence of other students.
- Be convinced that all such comments, sometimes very painful for each student's pride, are intended, not to humiliate him, but to perfect him.
- Base their relations with the master and their classmates not on jealousy, suspicion, haughtiness or resentment, but on trust, openness, and mutual aid: ideally on true love and an awareness of their common service.
- Be faithful as far as self-sacrifice to this common service, to Beauty and Truth, not to "seek their own" (I Corinthians 13.5), to submit their tastes, their passions, their infatuations to the aesthetic ideal of the school, and be persuaded that the way to Beauty and Absolute Truth passes through this school.

Can a Christian deny that all these requirements reflect, very precisely the necessary relations of a monk with his brothers, with his spiritual father, with the Church and, in her and through her, with the Lord himself? We said "reflect", that is to say "mysteriously represent" (as stated in the Cherubikon in the Orthodox liturgy) because in a school specializing in art, absolute Truth (Christ) is only prefigured and foreshadowed: one perceives this truth only through Beauty and resemblance to nature, or rather as these are conceived uniquely by each era and each school.

In the same way as the knowledge of Christ is possible only through the Church, in the same way the study of the laws of Beauty and the way of depicting the Creation are possible only in a specialist school. This is where the student becomes a strong link in the golden chain of tradition extending from century to century. The great diversity of styles of the past does not break this chain. But this same chain inevitably breaks if, instead of beauty and resemblance to nature, an apprentice artist begins to pursue other goals.

We can say that the artistic tradition in the icon, and more broadly in Christian art as a whole, reflects the spiritual tradition, that is to say, that of the Church itself. When evoking the visible fruits of the Spirit that dwells in the Church, it is this Spirit itself that is concerned. This is why the issue of the tradition of the school is so important. And that is why it seems necessary to further illustrate in greater detail our somewhat theoretical comments and to offer the reader a short summary of the tradition of Russian icon painting in the twentieth century, on both sides of the Iron Curtain: in Russia first, and then in Western Europe, especially in France where the Orthodox activity of the Russian emigration was the most abundant and therefore exercised the strongest influences in the field of iconography.

[1] Florensky, op.cit. pp. 83-86.  (But from what, then, are these witnesses supposedly separated? From the Church ...?)
[2] Erminia, p. 22.
[3] Deeds of the Council of the Hundred Chapters, chap. 43.
[4] Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, V, 13.
Tags: the icon: truth and fables, ликбез

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