Revival of icon-painting

At the Museum of the History of Moscow continues to run the exhibition, "The Russian icon at the end of the XX century". On display are over 50 works from 6 icon-painting centers of Moscow. The exhibition founders - the Government of Moscow and the City Committee on Culture.

Now there are few to remember how in 1989 in the underlit side-chapel of the Znamensky cathedral on Razina street (now - Varvarka) opened the first exhibition of the modern icon for many decades. There were presented several masters from Moscow, Vladimir, Kiev, and if my memory serves me right, Kolomna. The exhibition participants seemed to have just returned from some deep underground (though, as a matter of fact, it was pretty much the case): they kept looking about suspiciously and none, except for Boris Bychevsky, wanted to reveal his name and it appeared that both the artists and visitors were expecting the exhibition to get closed at any moment. The icons were plain, for the most part - copies of well-known specimens, clearly intended for the foreign customer. What else after all could they have been? And yet let us give that remote exhibition its due - for the first time the then odd "illegals" who had been stuck in their holes, came together and sent an explicit message of their existence

And today in the halls of one of Moscow's best museums on display are the achievements of the 6 largest icon-painting centers. These are: "Russian icon", to which belonged the initiative of the exhibition, its concept and development; the Association of Monumental Painting under MOSKh (Moscow Union of Artists), the icon-painting workshops of the Saint Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Institute; the United workshop "Canon"; the Moscow icon-painting workshop; the Azbukhanovs' Workshop of carved icons. Along with them, their icons and facial embroidery are presented by masters from the International Artists' Association under UNESCO. The goal of the exhibition, in the words of the director of the center "Russian icon" Elena Knyazeva, is to show that Russian icon-painting is gradually arising from a protracted lethargic sleep, that through the efforts of the capital's masters there again begins to see its revival the Moscow icon-painting school.

There's no need to repeat the grim history of icon-painting in Russia. One may only say that the troubles of the Russian icon began not under the "evil" bolsheviki but much earlier. And the heaviest blow, from which it is has never recovered, was dealt to it in the XVII century by the so-called "secularization" of culture - invasion into it of the secular, mundane. The balanced medieval outlook got irreparably cracked and people of the new time lost for goods the ability to represent on icons not flesh but spirit. Andrey Rublev's incorporeal angels were replaced with the heavy-handed fleshy angels of Simon Ushakov and Yosif Vladimirov. And then came the XVIII century with its non-Russian baroque, the hackwork XIX century and the crisis of icon-painting was becoming increasingly evident. The icons of the early XX century, even the best of them - of V.Guryanov and O.Chirikov with their solitary, as candles amid the hollowness, figures of saints are refined, beautiful and very cold. This is a deadlock. The modern of V.Vasnetsov and M.Nesterov was no rescue of the situation. In what way would icon-painting have overcome the crisis is a mystery to us - the year 1917 interrupted its normal development for decades to come.

Today at the exhibition we see works by our contemporaries. These are no longer self-taught artists who tried surreptitiously to revive the ancient art. These are professionals, masters of their occupation working "in an artel" under the guidance of authoritative mentors. The icons painted by them within the framework of the ancient "canon" and with the proper blessing of clerics comply with all the religious requirements and deservedly take their place in the churches and in the houses. As for the artistic side, here too one should note not only high spirituality but a high level of execution favourably marking off these works from the mass-produced pieces of the Sofrino workshops. I don't want to say anything bad about Sofrino - its production is very much needed, after all, demand for icons today is truly insatiable, up to now in many newly-opened churches they use cards and reproductions from magazines; there is simply a tangible difference between the mass and the author's icons. In spite of the "canon" some icons, particularly those of the center "Russian icon", show an individual creative manner, though quite discernable are the images that inspired the artists: the Moscow, Yaroslavl, Pskov, Novgorod schools of the XV-XVI cc. There are also many blunt copies and there is nothing tragic about it - "copies" have always been revered in Rus no less than their famous originals.

And where is the Moscow school of the XX century which is promised to us by the exhibition participants? Of course, there is none and cannot be any, schools are created for centuries and the new icon-painting returned from non-existence but a few years. So, it will be possible to make judgments about the existence of the school of the XX century some 50 or 100 years from now. One may be talking only about intentions and the first steps being made by our contemporary "God-painters" - difficult, agonizing, often groping. May God help them in their noble cause!

Oleg Torchinsky
"Moscovskaya Pravda" 2001-2018 Moscow Icon-Painting center Russian Icon