Influences of Russian Icons on Contemporary Art
The wonders of Russian Icon art were not discovered until 1913 following an exhibition at the
Moscow Exhibition of Mediaeval Russian Art where a number of superb examples of icon art from
the 15th and 16th centuries were shown to the public. Major discoveries of old Russian paintings
were made after the Revolution. On October 5, 1918, “a decree of the Council of People's
Commissars, "On the Registration, Cataloguing and Protection of Monuments of Art and Antiquity",
was published.” (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 13).
Ekaterina Dyogot in Russian Art in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century mentioned several
contemporary artists using elements of Russian icon art in their works. The abstraction of icon in
contemporary works was an attempt to “fill in historical gaps, abstraction inevitably came to be
viewed "figuratively," as ready-made image.” Russian artist Mikhail Schwartzmann created his icon
in art and calling it "hierature." (Dyogot) Dyogot described Schwartzmann’s hierat was a division
between “"facial" pictures (people's faces at the moment they encounter eternity) and, from the end
of the 1960s onward, abstractions, which nevertheless continued to recall certain peculiar gothic
spaces.” Central to Schwartzmann’s “hierature” principle was “In life man creates an icon of himself
and after death he leaves an iconic trace of himself entombed. The so-called countenances were the
first step of his transition to emblematic-architectonic hierature.” (“Mikhail Schwartzmann
Retrospective”)Another artist, Edward Steinberg explored religious abstraction in the 1960s and
1970s. The artist followed the model of Kazimir Malevich’s “suprematism but tried to eradicate the
latter's essentially theomachistic, world-building ambitions, and transform his art into quasi-figurative
representation.” (Dyogot) In Steinberg’s expression, Malevich’s objective cross
becomes a Christian symbol, a pale blue background replaces the white, forms take on diminutive
suffixes, and everything becomes infused with a sentimentality and "pity for the fallen" quite
uncharacteristic of Malevich -- rather, seemingly borrowed from Falk's ethics, which played a
significant role in establishing unofficial art in the 1960s (Dyogot).
Natalia Goncharova, born in Negaebo in 1881 to an impoverished aristocratic family with strong
ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The artist turned to Russian traditions “such as icons, lubki
(popular prints), carved wooden toys, and painted shop signs as sources of inspiration.” She was
considered a leading proponent in Neoprimitivism (Kramer 17). Neoprimitivism is described as “a
strong interest in pictorial elements-color, texture, line, and volume-which resulted in a monoplanar
representation, denial of spatial depth, use of patterning, and the blending of text and image.” (17)
In Goncharova’s “The Jewish Family,” she depicted two women, one seated holding a child while
the other stood over the other seated woman. A man stood beside the standing woman. Of
particular interest was the presentation of the two women. The two women wore different dresses.
The seated woman wore a modest robe while the standing woman wore a form-fitting dress with
adornments. The two women wore dresses from two different periods, the traditional and modern.
Goncharova’s seated woman followed the tradition of “Our Lady of Tenderness.” In the painting,
the Madonna, seated cradles a child gently stroking his head. The woman’s posture and tilt of her
head alludes to typical representations of the Virgin Mary (19). The robes were in Marian blue and
red. Another work, The Archangel Michael (1914) was thought to have been based on a 14th
century icon St. George and the Dragon. When Gocharova created these works, obvious reference
to Russian icon art was the two-dimensional use of space and “hierarchical arrangement of the
figures.” (“St.Petersburg as Imperial Tragedy”)
When dealing with traditional themes, the artist often consulted traditional Orthodox sources such as
the lubki (Kramer 20). In “The Elder with Seven Stars (Apocalypse),” the artist derived the theme
of the painting from the revelation of John (20) but differed in interpreting some elements such as
Christ’s hair was black not white, the face in shadows not shining and the feature were outlined in
black (20). The artist also distinguished Christ as Jewish. (See Figure 6) Goncharova departed from
the traditional elongated figures of typical Russian icon paintings and instead only the hands and
fingers were oversized (20).
Fast tracking to contemporary times, a 2004 exhibit entitled Deisis/Anthropology at the Second
International Festival of Digital art 'Art Digital 2004: I Click, Therefore I am' - 1 Moscow Biennale
of Contemporary Art: Parallel Programs. Moscow: ArtChronika, 2005 surprised many art critics
and enthusiasts alike. The work was a joint project of Icon collector Viktor Bondarenko and artist
Kontanstin Khudyakov. The project was a synthesis of “both visual and verbal elements.” The
installation was comprised of “a three-tier Russian iconostasis and a multi-figure deisis. DEISIS is
comprised of 25 entirely independent artworks created by computer programmes.” (“Deisis in
Questions and Answers”) Khudayov created digital pictures of numerous real-life people,
assembled small fragments of them onto a computer, printed them in large format, then varnished
and airbrushed them to look more and more like a painting, without actually being one. The
portraits, resembling an iconostasis, were displayed in a barely-lit room, and were accompanied
with texts written by orthodox essayist Roman Bagdasarov (Degot).
The visual composition was attributed to “the Russian higher iconostasis, in which a network of
semantic and chronological tiers and groups crystallised with the passing of time. Of primary
importance were the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Festival, the Deisis, the Veneration and
Philosophers tiers.” (“Deisis in Questions and Answers”) Khudayov attempted to translate
traditional icon painting elements using computer graphics. The artist used a “digital camera -
computer processing (primarily using Adobe® Photoshop®) - creation of a virtual image - portrayal
on canvas - adaptation with an aerograph” to complete the project (“Deisis in Questions and
Answers”). Degot found some elements of the work closely following icon painting traditions such
as “slav traits with cheekbones and a bulbous nose.” Degot also found uncanny similarities of the
contemporary work to that of Russian avant-garde artist Pavel Filonov.
In the foregoing discussion, the history and origins of Russian icon art were traced so that it
is better understood. Although predominantly influenced by Byzantine icon art, the Russian artist
was able to transcend that and create a work uniquely Russian. Typical Russian characteristics were
the humanist side of icon art, the elongated figures, details and bright colors. He ordering of the
figures in the paintings followed Eastern traditions where the paintings’ scenes progressed from right
What was also unique in Russian icon paintings was the artists’ use of a “combination of
abstract conception with intense emotional quality.” Most icon paintings were executed two-
dimensionally and the artist tend to expand vertically. The Russian icon also “reflects a keen sense of
the distance which divides heaven from earth and a consciousness of the metaphysical character of
the events and objects represented.” (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 20). The context of religion and
faith have changed in contemporary times and contemporary artists exploring religious themes still
refer back to tradition while incorporating some contemporary elements to produce their own
versions of iconography.
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