The icon is better than the computer

Icon-painting is inevitably associated with antiquity, with religious dogmas, with the inviolable canons. That is with things that are difficult to imagine in our dynamic and constantly changing world. On display at the exhibition are works of several contemporary artists. "i" talked to the supervisor of the exhibition, art director of the icon-painting center "Russian icon", Elena Knyazeva.

- The icon has become one of the obligatory items of the "Russian set": matreshka [Russian doll. Tranl. note], balalaika, vodka, caviar. And one of the most lucrative commodities. At the same time in Russia the traditions of true icon-painting have been preserved . So what is the icon in our days?

-- What the icon is - I can't say in no uncertain terms. It is at once "a devotion image", and an object, work of art, a collectible and a commodity. It must be sure to say that first of all an icon is made not to feast your eyes on it, but to see through it a different world, the Divine one. This is its original mission. But it is not only worshippers that take interest in the icon, but also non-believers and very often - foreigners. The matreshkas-balalaikas boom is over, while the icon market has become deeper and more diverse.

- Catholics and protestants don't have the icon as understood by the Orthodox. But the non-Orthodox place icons in their homes, sometimes in their churches as well

-- I even know a story, a legend, if anything, about the consecrated reproduction of an icon that was placed in one of non-Orthodox churches in Western Europe. And it began shedding holy ointment, became a miraculous one. The attitude of Western collectors to the Russian icon has also changed. Earlier they sought only after antiques, now they buy modern pieces too. In other words, for them new icons have become part of today's art.

- Isn't there a paradox, to return, for the sake of modernity, somewhere far back. After all the living tradition of icon-painting broke off somewhere in the XVIII century, then they began painting, in point of fact, religious paintings - or reproducing old specimens.

- I can't altogether agree with it. Indeed, there was religious baroque painting, there was painting on religious motifs, like Vasnetsov's or Nesterov's. But though the Church Fathers do say that liturgics, and consequently, the icon cannot change - it does change, live in time, the attitude towards it changes. It sometimes may prove more modern than anything else.

- Something like postmodernism, when there are neither any preceding nor subsequent ones?

- Maybe, it is an apt word. Though it is overused. More likely, the point is that the icon is borne of the need for communication with the prototype but in different epochs this need, being the same, is realized in different ways.

- Don't you think that the icon as a device for communicating with God can be compared to the computer, and the totality of the iconic canon - to something like the Internet?

- Well, possibly. After all, the icon lives together with us, changes together with us, as information in a computer And besides, on the Internet there already exists a reference guide of iconic canons: he who wants to paint, for instance, the image of the Savior, may open a page and learn everything on this subject. Though, I believe the icon is a more interesting and powerful device than the computer.

- The icon is one of the most marketable commodities on the art market. What will you say about it?

- I won't deny it. You know that icons may not be sold. There is an expression, "exchange for money". Our workshop, when making a commissioned icon for sale, sells it, on principle, unconsecrated. If we continue the analogy with the computer, we sell it without the "software and connection". As for "phonies" it is an inevitable question they have been and are around. In the eighteenth century they would fake the sixteenth, now they fake the eighteenth. Technologically it is possible to make absolutely anything, no expert will get a fix on it. And it will pass X-rays and color tests. But it is a question of principle. We can do it but won't, and that's it.

- Alena, you do icon-painting but one can often see you at the vernissages of avant-garde, radical art, which it would seem has nothing to do with your occupation. Why?

- Strange though it may seem but as my first teachers I consider Kabakov, Chuikov, Gorokhovsky. And I don't see any contradiction. The icon, after all is in essence conceptual, it is part of the contemporary art process. Malevich said about his "Black square": "I'll show you the icon of modernity". It matters not whether he was right - he was thinking about it. That is why for me, too, contemporary art is very important.

Nikita Alexeev
"inostranets" 2001-2018 Moscow Icon-Painting center Russian Icon