Russian Icons and the Russian Avant-garde, Two Major Facets of Universal Art
Russian Icons and the Russian Avant-garde, Two Major Facets of Universal Art
“The invisible world of divine glory is not the only one to have found its expression in Russian icons. Two planes of being, two worlds dwell there in a dynamic, living way. On one side, the eternal peace of the hereafter, and on the other side, a world that seeks God but has not yet found Him, a chaotic, sinful, suffering existence that nevertheless aspires to the peace of God. As a parallel to these two worlds, the icon reflects and opposes two Russias. One is already anchored in eternal peace, and resounds ineffably to the cherubim’s hymn, “Let us now lay down all the cares of this world’. The other presses against the temple, aspires to it and expects intercession and help. It is around the temple that this Russia builds its secular and ephemeral edifice.”
Eugène Troubetzkoy, Trois études sur l’icône (1916)[i]
“The art of icon painting made me understand the emotional nature of peasant art. I had loved it before, but had not elucidated its scope. My eyes were opened by the study of icons […]. Icon painters, with great technical skill, transmitted an entire content in an anti-anatomical truth, without any aerial and linear perspective. They used colour and background within a purely emotional perception of the theme.”
Malévitch, Autobiographie (1933)
Russian plastic arts were long the poor relation of art history, owing to a deeply ingrained notion that Russia undoubtedly produced an impressive body of literature, and original music and ballet, but that it was not a country of painters. Despite a huge exhibition of Russian art organised by Diaghilev at the Autumn Salon in Paris, in 1906, despite the Slavic element in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes which strongly influenced an entire period, despite Louis Réau’s book L’Art russe des origines à Pierre le Grand, published in 1921, this opinion was upheld by many people who saw no seat of learning other than European studios, believed that Western training was essential to become an artist, and occulted Russia’s history. Until the day in the 1960s when art historians (Camilla Gray, Troels Andersen, Valentine Marcadé) revealed the extent of Russian pictorial art movement in the first quarter of the twentieth century, showing Russia to be an artistic centre that was just as original and universal as it was during the flowering of icon painting from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century.
Icons played a key role in the liturgical, theological and intellectual life of Russia, in the same way as music did. It is well known that Eastern Orthodoxy, in Rus before the fourteenth century, then in Muscovy and the Russian Empire, gave a special place to the liturgy, developing and amplifying it until it not only provided religious and mystic nourishment, but became the impetus for philosophical thought, and the wellspring of spiritual and aesthetic beauty. The sumptuousness of the Russian Orthodox liturgy leaves few of our contemporaries unmoved. Remember that Kandinsky, that quintessential twentieth-century modernist, said that he had experienced the synthesis of the arts, the phenomenon that in the late nineteenth century was known as Gesamtkunstwerk or synaesthesia, in the izbas of the Volgda region and in the “churches of Moscow, particularly in the Assumption Cathedral and at St Basil the Blessed”: “In these extraordinary izbas, I discovered for the first time the miracle which I later included in my work. That is where I learned to walk right into the picture myself, not just give it a sidelong glance, but live in it. I clearly remember that I stopped on the threshold before this startling sight. The table, the benches, the enormous great stove, the cupboards, the dressers, everything was painted with rich, colourful decorations. On the wall there were lubki [popular Russian woodcuts]: a symbolic representation of a gallant knight, a battle or a song rendered in colour.
The Beautiful Red Corner [where the icons are kept] was covered with painted and printed icons, and in front of them a night-light glowed red as if it knew something in its heart and had its own inner life, a proud and humble star, whispering mysteriously to itself. When at last I stepped into the room, the painting encircled me and I walked right into it. Ever since, that feeling has lived unconsciously within me, although I have had the same experience in Moscovite churches and particularly in the Assumption Cathedral and in St Basil the Blessed.”
The last two Moscovite churches were not a random choice, for they are both still lined with frescoes or murals, and the wall of the iconostasis is covered with icons, and therefore with paintings. The liturgy and various services were celebrated in these prestigious parts of the Kremlin. Anyone who attends the liturgy of St John Chrysostom in the Russian orthodox rite is inevitably struck by its resemblance to total theatre. The procession of priests, acolytes and deacons moves in obedience to a changeless symbolism from either side of the iconostasis, around the altar, passing at times through one of the side doors of the iconostasis, going from the church to the sanctuary and vice versa, spilling out into the area set aside for the congregation. These movements are accompanied by the marvellous, familiar music that has been played for centuries. Then there is ample use of incense, especially in front of the icons or the faithful who are, in a way, archetypal icons since “God made man in his image at the time of creation.” Lastly, the congregation moves, too, since there are no seats in the centre of a traditional orthodox church: the faithful move towards the various icons, put candles before them, kiss them, cross themselves but not in unison, bend over to touch the ground with their right hands to seek forgiveness and as a sign of submission to God’s will, and prostrate themselves in some parts of the liturgy. Although the gestures made by the celebrants follow a changeless pattern, the movements of the faithful are more random. Thus, group and individual movements are reconciled.
Christian Rus was plunged into Byzantine theological culture from the outset, and therefore was deeply involved in the intense iconographic culture which followed the “triumph of Orthodoxy”, meaning the triumph of the veneration of icons over Iconoclasm, after the seventh ecumenical council, at Nicaea, in 787 (the Early Church’s last ecumenical council). The Rus’ first iconographic masters were Greek and their art had a profound influence on iconography in Rus from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Gradually, specifically Slavic features began to appear in the conventional Byzantine models. The Tartar invasion and the capture of Kiev in 1240 hastened the city’s decline as a great artistic centre. Henceforth, the Vladimir and Rostov schools developed in the East, whereas Novgorod, “after the sack of Kiev, became the representative of Byzantine art in Rus; that is why the Novgorod school is venerated as the oldest Russian school.” The Moscovite state witnessed a flowering of icon painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The political climate was conducive to such a development, with the loosening of the Tartar yoke, the “reunification of the lands of Rus” and the extraordinary religious revival, under the influence of Hesychasm, led by Saint Sergius of Radonezh in the late fourteenth century.
Saint Sergius of Radonezh was of incalculable importance for Russia. He set in motion “the moral, then political, renaissance of the Russian people.” From this time on, the close link between the fervent life of the monasteries and civil society became a key fact in understanding Russian life and its political, intellectual and artistic manifestations up until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The spiritual thinking of Dostoyevsky, among others, stems from this. The great theologian, thinker, art theorist and scholar Father Pavel Florenskij said: “The notion of morality, the idea of the State, painting, architecture, literature, Russian education and science, all these great lines of thought converge on our saint [Sergius of Radonezh]. In his person, the Russian people became aware of itself, of its place in history and culture and of its cultural task. It is only then that it earned the right to independence.”
In the orthodox world, the fourteenth century was the time of the controversy between the Hesychasts, partisans of uninterrupted prayer (the Jesus prayer) which led to communion with the Holy Spirit and a vision of the uncreated light that once appeared on Mount Tabor, and the humanists, who upheld the rationalist principle. The triumph of Heyschasm, from St Sergius of Radonezh onwards, had major repercussions for Russia, notably the fact that it did not experience a phenomenon similar to the Western Renaissance. The Heyschast thread is apparent throughout Russian icon painting, dominated by the quest for divine harmony, gentleness, tenderness, and the search for the essential stripped of all psychologism, anecdotal detail and the noise and bustle of time.
The Trinity is another image which dominates Russian iconographic spirituality after St Sergius. The laura founded by the “first teacher of the Russian popular mind” (in the words of the historian Ključevskij) was dedicated to the Trinity and remained the heart of Russia for centuries. Similarly, the most famous icon, one of the highest achievements of all Russian art, is the Trinity of the Old Testament by St Andrei Rublev. Tradition holds that it was painted to the glory of the saintly founder of the monastery in the first half of the fifteenth century, some time after his dormition (1392). It stayed near his tomb for over five hundred years until it was taken to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929, where it is still admired, and even venerated, by visitors.
Mahmud Zibawi, one of the specialists in icons among the new generation, neatly defined the specific nature of Russian iconography: “Now the ‘Third Rome’, Russia carries art towards the quietness of the heyschia. The abstract wins over the concrete. All dramatisation is swallowed up. Men are ‘earthly angels’. Light, tranquillity, joy, peace and love abound. ‘The new, non composite world’ replaces the fallen world. The image reveals “God’s dwelling place among men.” (Apoc. 21:3).
Unlike the Western religious painting, an icon is not an individual creation, even if each icon painter adds his personal touch, and makes his own choice in the treatment of the subjects and colours from among the canonical archetypal models. An icon can be created only with an ecclesiastical consensus, within the prophetic movement and spiritual experience of the church community.
The apparent uniformity of icons is constantly belied by various traits in the work of icon painters who closely follow the canons in the composition of the subjects, and the handling of colour. Then, as Bruno Duborgel explains: “Depending on whether it is intended for a church or for private use, depending on the material and the style, depending on the religious practices associated with it, etc…, the ‘same’ image (thematically speaking) represents faces and lifestyles that are differentiated by myriad details.” Although, at first glance, icons may seem repetitive and monotonous, close scrutiny soon dissipates this impression. Admittedly, it is unthinkable to invent new iconographic archetypes, based on the individual imagination of a particular artist rather than on the assent of the entire church community. Yet, what diversity we see in isolated figurative elements, apart from the attributes that are obligatory for recognising the icon, and in the subtle colour variations permitted by the symbolism! Often the painter adds a scene from everyday life, inserting it in the mystical world of the main subject. Or else, there is a pronounced taste for ornamentation, floral in particular. Although it started to spread in the seventeenth century, in the work of painters such as Simon Uchakov, the trend towards elaborate decoration and miniaturisation flourished with the Stroganov school.
Russian scholars who have studied Russian icons have pointed out that it represents a cosmos in itself, an order that is inscribed within the cosmos of the temple, which is the earthly prefiguration of a transfigured cosmos. Here there is obviously no place for naturalistic, “living” gestures. The hieratic character and apparent immobility of the icon transports us into another dimension that has nothing to do with everyday life; it is a dimension midway between the human and the divine, between the hereunder and the transcendent. The best Russian icons have managed to bring out the divine nature of humanity, the fusion of the divine and the human, the crest between the invisible and the visible, the hidden and the apparent. The barrier that separates these two worlds inside the church is the iconostasis: “The iconostasis is the border between the visible world and the invisible world […] The iconostasis is the manifestation of saints and angels: firstly the Mother of God and Christ Incarnate – witnesses proclaiming the reality of the world beyond flesh,” writes Father Pavel Florenskij.
The specifically Russian use of the iconostasis developed and was consolidated between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The double Royal Doors in the centre give the celebrant access to the altar; they are covered with icons representing the Annunciation, at the top, and the four Evangelists, while the door posts are covered with a procession of the local saintly bishops and deacons.
The side doors of the iconostasis, one leading to the prothesis (the table on which the Eucharist is prepared) and the other where the liturgical vestments are kept, are traditionally decorated with icons of the archdeacons St Stephen and St Lawrence.
The Eucharist is represented above the Royal Doors (two full-length figures of Christ, giving the bread and wine to the apostles).
The rows of icons above the doors in a Russian iconostasis have been added over the centuries. From Byzantium, there remains the changeless first row with a Deisis in the centre, that is the Mother of God and St John the Precursor (the Baptist) imploring Christ, usually shown as Christ in Majesty; in the fourteenth century, icons of the archangels Michael and Gabriel and those of Peter and Paul were shown on either side of these three central figures.
The row above the Deisis was added in the fourteenth century: the Twelve Great Feasts representing scenes in the life of Christ and Mary.
At the end of the fifteenth century, another row was added above the feasts, the row of the Prophets, from Moses to Christ, arranged around the central icon of the Mother of God of the Sign [Znamenie] (Mary has her hands together in prayer and enfolds Christ Emmanuel in her breast).
Lastly, in the sixteenth century, a row of Patriarchs completed the screen. It presents Old Testament figures from Adam to Moses and usually has a representation of the Trinity in the centre, in the form of the three angelic Travellers who appeared to Abraham. That is the overall pattern, but variations have been introduced at different times and in response to local traditions.
Icon painting in general, and Russian icons in particular, follow the archetypal models set out in the painters’ manuals only in their essential conformity to ecclesiastical canons. A comparison of the works of three famous icon painters of the heyday of Russion icon painting – Theophanes the Greek (late fourteenth century), St Andrei Rublev (early fifteenth century) and Master Denis (Dionisij) (late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) show that their styles are as marked as styles in the history of Western painting. Egon Sendler analyses the differences between the various schools in the treatment of the background: “Green predominates at Pskov; in Novgorod, we find red backgrounds (St Elijah and St George). In Moscow, from the sixteenth century on, backgrounds become quite dark, even brown. In the work of the Stroganov school, there are often dark olive green tones. These colours correspond to the style of icon painting.”
The recognition of Russian icons, as distinct in spirit and style from all the Eastern and Byzantine branches, began in Russia itself in the second half of the nineteenth century and was fully accepted in the twentieth century. The writer Leskov did much to make icons known “as the beginning of Russian painting.” His short story The Sealed Angel (1873) which Bernard Berenson ranked alongside Balzac’s Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu as one of the few literary masterpieces to have treated art in a pertinent way, contains technical details on the art of icon painting and an aesthetic appreciation of icons, based on an analysis of their characteristics. This fostered a return to the roots of this liturgical art, that had been disfigured since the end of the seventeenth century by the “European manner”, that is by Western painting with its search for mimetic sensuality and its overriding concern for “scientific” perspective. Leskov set his story in the milieu of the Old Believers, because they had maintained the purity of the ancient tradition of icon painting until the seventeenth century, when Italian influences coincided with its slow decline into decadence.
The leader of the Old Believer schism (raskol), the archpriest Avvakum (1620-1682), who was opposed to the Moscovite patriarch Nikon and was burnt at the stake by the official church, raged: “God has allowed sinful icon painting to proliferate in Russia […] Emmanuel the Saviour is portrayed with a puffy face, scarlet mouth, curly hair, thick muscles and arms, and the overall look of a German except that they have not stuck a sword in his belt […] Good painters in olden times painted the saints differently: they fined down the face and hands and everything that has to do with the senses, and showed them emaciated by fasting and labour and countless afflictions. Whereas now, you have changed the face of the saints, you paint them as you are yourselves.
Avvakum could well have been thinking of his contemporary, Semen Ushakov, whose icons sometimes had a softer, more carnal and realistic look than earlier works. Ushakov’s icons are closer to Western easel paintings, even though he still used the conventional architectonic structure. He remains the great religious painter of the second half of the seventeenth century, without having all the virtues of a traditional icon painter.
The severity that the vehement archpriest Avvakum demanded of holy images is only one of the aspects of icon painting. A very rich spectrum of iconic expression developed in Russia, ranging from the outward austerity of the monks, whose bodies bore witness to the struggle against evil impulses, to the finesse of the angels’ bodies in Rublev’s work, and included the portrayal of a “national Russian character”, simultaneously physical and spiritual, in many icons of Christ. Andrei Tarkovskij shows this clearly in this film Andrei Rublev, a grandiose fresco which traces the very incarnate and highly spiritual itinerary of the Russian character in the fifteenth century. Contamination by profane painting robbed icon painting of its true meaning, which is theological and philosophical as much as aesthetic.
In our century, the scholar Father Pavel Florenskij has strongly accentuated the opposition between icon painting, such as it is perpetrated in Orthodox countries, and the development of profane and religious painting in Catholic countries (dominated by oil painting) and Protestant countries (dominated by engraving). He sees in the techniques themselves an indication of their “ontological” divergence; on the one side, the panel of living wood, the surface of which was worked for days and months before outlines were drawn and colours applied, with egg yolk and water, then highlights of white lead, gold dust, etc.; and on the other side, oil paints, canvas or paper. Father Florenskij stated: “Iconography is the metaphysics of concrete existence. Although oil painting is better suited for reproducing the sensory data of the world and engraving captures its rational schema, icons bring out the metaphysical essence of what they represent. Although the pictorial and graphic techniques developed in response to cultural needs and appear to be a résumé of the period, the technique used for icons is a response to the need to express the metaphysics of the world. What is portrayed on the icon is in no way fortuitous, either empirically or metaphysically.”
In another short story by Leskov, At the Confines of the World (1875), one of the characters says that, contrary to Western religious art, there is an absence of sensuality in the Russian Orthodox representation of the face of Christ, which “has an expression but no passion […].His features are scarcely suggested but the impression we have is complete. Admittedly, he looks rather like a peasant, but despite that, veneration is due to him.” The bishop, who is defending icons before a group of educated but more or less sceptical listeners, adds, “How did our old masters achieve such charm in this representation? The secret died with them and their despised art. It is clearly impossible to want a simpler form of art; the features are scarcely shown but the impression is complete. He looks a little rough, I know, and you would not invite him into a winter garden to listen to the canaries, but there is no great harm in that.”
Leskov and Dostoyevsky also refuted the new interpretations of Christ in the committed realistic painting of the “Ambulants”. The Ambulants’ religious painting (Repin, Nikolaj Gay, Victor Vasnecov…) has little to do with the tradition of Russion icon painting.
On the other hand, all the innovative Russian artists of the first quarter of the twentieth century (Natalia Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, Tatlin, Filonov) were influenced by icons. Icons played a primordial role in the aesthetic revolution led by the “Russian avant-garde” in the 1910 and 1920s. It made these painters realise what a formal treasure it represented. Moreover, it drew easel painting towards the icon, that is, towards an independent space with its own construction and rhythm.
Natalya Goncharova caused a scandal at the “Donkey’s Tail” exhibition in Moscow in 1912 with a panel representing The Four Evangelists (Russian Museum, St Petersburg), resembling the icons in the apostolic row on the iconostasis. The censorship committee refused to accept that works on a sacred subject (there was also a work entitled God in the exhibition) could be shown in an exhibition with such a facetious and provocative name. But Natalya Goncharova’s works were not icons; they were paintings on a religious theme. The same applies to another painting by Goncharova, The Ancient of Days, or to her sets for the ballet Liturgy designed (but never made) for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1915. The artist also painted “real” icons, but it must be admitted that few painters in this field have achieved the spiritual perfection of ancient icon painting. In areas where there is no confusion between icon painting and easel painting, icons give decisive clues for understanding easel painting. Goncharova included figurative elements derived from the icon – almond-shaped eyes, a mystic squint, symbolic colours – in a series of paintings on work in the fields, and rustic activities. Larionov gave his Venus Katsape (Nijni-Novgorod Museum) the eyes of an icon. In the work of all the artists in all the currents of the Russian school in the twentieth century, the human face was influenced by iconic faces: portraits are frontal, eyes gaze on another reality, with mystical intensity (sdvig), traversing the visible world without focusing on it, and the overall impression is hieratic and meditative: for example, Self Portrait by Lentulov, Portrait of the Futurist Poet, Vasily Kamiensky by David Bourliuk (1917), Head of an Usbek Boy (1921) or Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) by Petrov-Vodkine (all in the Russian Museum, St Petersburg). Jawlensky was deeply influenced by Russian Byzantine aesthetics in the representation of human faces. He gave them mystic nuances through the use of a sumptuous, refined palette, and achieved a balance between the strong emotional power of the colours and expressive ascesis, which bordered on abstraction in the last meditations of the 1930s.
Jawlensky and Malevich, each with his own pictorial schema and iconological view, took the human face as a metonymic paradigm of the Face of the World throughout their work.
The hieratic aspect of the work of Larionov, Natalya Goncharova, Tatlin and Malevic is derived from the icon as much as from lubok, archaic art, or from the Nabis. A single gesture sums up in the image the myriad gestures repeated over years, or even centuries, in our everyday life or work. Filonov, in his Promethean project of recreating the entire world on the surface of the painting, borrows formal and thematic procedures from icon painting. Thus in the Formula of the Proletariat from Petrograd (early 1920s) in the Russian Museum, he uses the combination of an unusual number of parts of the body (as in the icons of The Mother of God with Three Hands or The Holy Trinity in the shape of three eyes), hieratic poses, and the representation of two feet separately or faces only (as in icons with a metal overlay or riza).
Tatlin was trained in the technique of icon painting and integrated this skill into his paintings from 1911 to 1913: an impression of eternity in faces and poses, coloured light emanating from within the forms, as in The Sailor in the Russian Museum, and the flesh tones of the Nudes painted in 1913. The levkas, a mixture of chalk and animal glue which forms the first luminescent white background on the icon panel, was used in Tatlin’s relief constructions in 1914-15. In the Nudes (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, and the Russian Museum, St Petersburg), the contours, especially the curves, are treated with the straight line found in Picasso and Braque’s early cubist work, with the same aim of constructing the picture in an architectural way. In Tatlin’s work, an extra impetus comes from Michelangelo’s imposing Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel, with a leaning towards sculptural forms in the Nude in the Russian Museum. In these paintings, he seems to be already preparing for the synthesis of painting, sculpture and architecture that he achieved the following year, in 1914, by creating the genre of Painted Reliefs, Relief Constructions and Corner Reliefs.
We should not lose sight of the fact that Tatlin started his career as an icon painter. Admittedly, the female nude is hardly a subject for ecclesiastical icons, one of the main principles of which is the elimination of all sensualism, and even sensuality. The nudes of the icons representing St Mary the Egyptian or mad devotees (jurodivye) (such as St Basil the Blessed) are completely asexual (we find the same asexual nudes in Filonov’s work). The sex of Tatlin’s Nude in the Russian Museum is show in a blatantly realistic manner (Gabo’s sculpture Torso later used the same procedure). Yet, these works could not be called erotic, in the way that some European works are, such as the female nudes of Cranach the Elder, Goya or even Manet in which the flesh trembles with the loving touch of the artist’s brush.
Perhaps Father Pavel Florenskij was right to say that oil painting, by its consistency, solidity and carnal nature, its oily, gleaming strokes, is linked to the Catholic culture focused on “phenomenological sensibility” that emerged from the Renaissance. “Although oil painting is better suited to reproducing the sensorial data of the world, and engraving, its rational schema, icons, by contrast, bring out the metaphysical essence of what they represent.”
Nikolaï Punin, in another context, remarked that icon painting “used colour as a pictorial material, as the result of colouring pigments […] Icon painters never understood colour as relationships in the chromatic range, as values. Hence the magnificent traditions of a powerful, healthy art, traditions which have been preserved until quite recently in icon painting schools and decorative workshops.”
The background of Tatlin’s two Nudes is utterly “iconic”. The coloured background on which the outline of the subject is drawn is called the sankir in the technical language of Russian icon painting. Its composition varied according to the period and the school. “Modern sankir,” writes Pavel Florenskij, “is made from burnt Sienna, light ochre, a small amount of Dutch soot, etc.”This layer, which is applied once the wood has been prepared with glue and chalk (levkas), brings out all the beauty of the model through the contour line (opis’) which is coloured to remove all trace of drawing. The artist thus obtains a fusion of the model and the “ontological background” which led Punin to say, with slight exaggeration, that “the influence of the Russian icon on Tatlin is undoubtedly greater than the influence of Cézanne or Picasso.”
In Tatlin’s Nudes, the flesh is carried into a dimension that is other than that of the senses, a purely pictural dimension. The dominant reddish ochre colour is a quintessence of all flesh colour, not an imitation of any one in particular. To quote Punin again: “For Tatlin, colouring means above all studying the pigment; colouring particularly means working the surface picturally. The colour is given objectively, it is a reality and it is an element; the relationship between the colours does not depend on the spatial relationships that exist in reality. Red is red, whatever the amount of light between it and the eye; the ochre on the plank of a palisade and the ochre on the tip of the brush do not differ qualitatively, any difference between them lies only in their chemical composition and the way they are laid down.” Likewise, there is no face in Tatlin’s two Nudes. There is, therefore, no personalisation, no reference to an ephemeral living state. Although we cannot help thinking of the “non-erotic” nudes painted by Picasso and Braque after the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907-1909), we can also see the conceptual influence of Neo-Primitivism in which nudes (those of Larionov, for instance), even if sexual, have a function other than erotic and are, in any case, beyond eroticism.
The distinctive feature of Tatlin’s iconographic system, which runs throughout his work, is what David Bourliouk, in 1912, called “Roundism.” Roundism opposes rounded surfaces to units formed by straight lines. It is a trait found in Leger, and even in Malevich in 1911-1912. But in Tatlin’s work it is dominant and conditions all the artist’s output up to and including the Monument to the Third International in 1920 and his Letalin in the early 1930s.
This procedure, which consists in putting a full length figure across the entire canvas, dominating, by its stature, all the other figurative elements which are represented in a smaller size, obviously comes from the structure of the “biographical” icons which show a saint surrounded by compartments (klejma) that recount episodes in this life (see, for example, in diametrically opposed styles: Boris Koustodiev’s famous Portrait of Chaliapine and many of Malevich’s post-Suprematist paintings).
The “inverted perspective” taught by icon painting was of capital importance for innovative Russian artists in the twentieth century in their refusal to be bounded only by the “scientific perspective” inherited from the Renaissance.
At the end of the 1920s, Malevich drew on the archetypes of “Christ Acheiropoietus” (Christ the Saviour?) and “Christ Pantocrator” (Christ in Majesty) to create his own icon-paintings. He did not imitate any particular icon. He constructed an image from the elements of icon painting, elements that he thought out afresh and made his own for the needs of his painting. Several of Malevich’s post-Suprematist faces suggest icons, and yet they have no precise model in icon painting as a whole.
The link between icons and the Russian avant-garde was revealed in a stunning, even “exoteric” way during the “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0 to 10” in Petrograd, at the very end of 1915. Malevich installed his “Suprematism of Painting” like the “beautiful red corner” of Russian orthodox houses, with The Quadrangle (later commonly known as “Black Square on a White Field”) as the central icon, which he called “the icon of our time”. This did not mean that it was an orthodox icon that is an object of liturgical worship, as understood by the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (Nicaea II), a tradition kept intact in the Eastern Church, because an ecclesiastical icon has no meaning without the fusion of the human and the divine in the incarnation of Christ. From this orthodox point of view, Malevich’s icon, which shows only the deus absconditus, is incomplete and smacks of monophysitism
For Malevich, the Suprematist icon had to create a new pictural relationship, going beyond the orthodox icon and easel painting, by developing a new site. It was the expression of an essential image, rid of all figurative clutter, which could be opposed to the imago, the effigy. Its uniqueness was thus restored. Malevich was not only influenced by the formal aspect of icons; he had a brilliant intuition of the philosophical and theological principle of the icon, namely that the real presence is not in the symbolic image represented, but in the relationship between this image and the absent model: “The invisibility of the image is the source of the visibility of the icon.”The Quadrangle oscillates between iconoclasm and iconicity, between the effacement of carnal reality and the manifestation of the only authentic world, the non-objective world (bespredmetnost’). We see a “Hesychast” leaning here, for example, in the Suprematism of Malevich whose great work is called The Non-objective World or Eternal Repose [Mir kak bespredmetnost’ ili večnyj pokoj], which brings to his canvases the silence, minimalist ascesis and harmony of the absence of object.
Through the holy image, the icon painter accomplishes an act which enters into the liturgical life of the Church. The easel painter makes visible the invisible being of the world. A similar aim but a different approach.
Note the extent to which Russian avant-garde art, reputed to be materialistic, was obsessed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two events are worth mentioning: in 1912, a discussion in St Petersburg and the publication in German of Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art,; and in 1922 – the publication in Vitebsk of Malevich’s treatise God is not Dethroned. Art. The Church. The Factory. [Bog ne skinut. Iskusstvo. Cerkov’. Fabrika].
Kandinsky-Malevich: two figureheads of universal art, two pillars of the avant-garde, two founders of Abstraction, who inaugurated and concluded, to put it succinctly, the adventure of the most radical modernity, a modernity which, let us not forget, put a definitive end to over four centuries of ever-recurring codes. Kandinsky and Malevich, who inaugurated and concluded this period by a demonstration of the “spiritual in art, and in painting in particular” and by the statement that “God is not dethroned.”
Although Kandinsky was the first to formulate, in German and Russian, the principle of the independence of artistic creation and the shaping of artistic material, like all Russian artists in the avant-garde, he categorically refused the temptation of art for art’s sake. Art for its own sake appears only in periods when the “soul has been abandoned and stifled by materialistic ideas and unbelief.” In a note added during the revolution to his autobiography Stages [Stupeni], Kandinsky similarly said that such an attitude, that is attached only to the exterior of things, is “atheistic” (bezbožnoe).
In 1910, in his article “Form and Content” published in the catalogue of the “Second Salon” of Izdebski in Odessa, Kandinsky proclaimed the advent of the “Era of High Spirituality” (Epoxa Velikoj Duxovnosti) founded on the “Principle of Inner Necessity” (Princip Vnutrennej Neobxodimosti). Art “serves the spiritual”, that is, “serves the divine”. The creative act is a “total mystery”; the artist is not a frivolous creator, “his work is difficult and often becomes a cross to bear.”
In the 1918 edition of his memoirs, published in German in 1913, by Rückblicke, he adds anti formalist and anti materialist remarks such as: “Now I know that ‘perfection’ is only apparent and ephemeral, and that there cannot be perfect form without perfect content: the mind determines matter, not the contrary […] The great Broom of History which will sweep the inner mind clean of the rubbish of outward appearance will appear, here too, as the impartial final judge.”
It is precisely the relationship between an inner and an outer sphere which was part of the core of Marxist-Leninism, vulgarised through all the media that were possible at the time. Alongside repetitive slogans such as “Workers of the world unite!” and, less often, “Religion is the opium of the people”, we find the famous Marxist truism: “Das gesellschaftliche Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein” [The social being determines the conscious being] which sounded like a proverb in the Russian translation: “Bytie opredeljaet soznanie” [Being determines consciousness]. What Kandinsky says is exactly the opposite: he makes an absolute claim for the primacy of the mind.
In 1922, in his treatise God is not Dethroned, Malevich took a similar stance in relation to the Marxist axiom; certainly the concept of being, (bytie) is more complex in the thinking of the founder of Suprematism, since what is, is nothing, that is, from another point of view, the lack of object, bespredmetnost’. But he concludes that “this ‘nothing’, as being, does not determine my consciousness.” So Malevich, too, took the opposite stance from the Marxist formula. He repeated this position in his article “The Tumbler”, in 1923 The tumbler, (in Russian: van’ka-vstan’ka) is a pot-bellied figurine from the far east, sitting cross-legged on a weighted half-sphere which brings it back to an upright position whenever it is pushed. The tumbler is God – constantly rejected, regularly dethroned, and yet always rocking back to an upright position, and never dethroned. The article “The Tumbler” is a highly ironic response to the attacks of the orthodox Marxist Issakov who had rather heavy-handedly denounced any religious deviation in avant-garde art, and had included in that category “the cock-and-bull story of God is not Dethroned“.
This diatribe was later followed by a commentary by the Marxist theorist of Constructivist-Productivist art, Boris Arvatov, who, among other compliments, called Malevich a “degenerate”!
In any case, Malevich retorted in his article “The Tumbler” by presenting the problem of the image in a very acute way. At its negative pole, the image feeds on false representations, those of God or anthropomorphic gods: “All you Socialist revolutionaries are, without exception, in love with antique styles, just as women are in love with the hams of young Apollos. Look at the monuments to the proletariat: no sign of any proletarian, just Apollo wearing Minerva’s helmet.”
Taking up the Marxist formula that Issakov had thrown at him, Malevich remarked ironically: “Does consciousness determine existence or existence, consciousness? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does existence exist outside consciousness or consciousness outside existence? what you think, Comrade Issakov?”
So, at this stage, Malevich claimed, despite what Issakov and those who fought against “God in art” might think, that “God” is not dethroned, because he takes the shape of the idols and is everywhere to be seen in the form of the revolutionary substitutes on which art feeds – so many fake icons.
But nor is God dethroned in his apophatic site which is that of “eternal repose.” It is from this impregnable site that every real image springs, that is to say, the true icon.
The discussion that has arisen in post-Soviet Russia focuses on the way to present and look at icons today. Starting from the obvious fact that an icon is not a work of art like any other, that it takes on its full meaning only in the ecclesiastical symphony-cum-polyphony, a number of Orthodox believers would like to see the most venerated images restored to the churches from which they were forcibly removed. Today, the remarkable Vladimir Mother of God icon [Vladimirskaja Boâ’ja Mater’] is located in the church alongside the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and people go into the museum to pray before the Trinity of the Old Testament by Andrei Rublev. The Monk Gregory, an icon painter who died in France in 1969, stated that the presence of icons in the profane world has a sense: “In that way, the icons that are prayed to (molennye), whose purpose is to serve prayer, accomplish their saving action in the world, and can leave the church and dwell in a museum or in an art collection or join in exhibitions. Such conditions, apparently incongruous, are not fortuitous or absurd.”
In fact, throughout the twentieth century, Russian icons have been a catalyst for the utopian and prophetic movement towards the metamorphosis and transfiguration of painting, and of life itself, into what Bruno Duborgel calls “the iconophile obsession with approaching an experience of the non-figurable,” in reaction to “iconoclasm by an excess of naturalistic images.” In a handsome recent work, Bruno Duborgel sets up a dialogue between icons and Malevich’s art, and more broadly with easel painting in general, seeking to show a “homology which at once preserves the distance between them, guarantees their differences and reveals that they nevertheless regard one another, and even interact at this elevated level,” proving their full contemporaneity.