Icons and Art in the Twentieth Century
Icons have played
a key role in the liturgical, theological, and intellectual life
of Russia, and this is true in the field of Russian music, as
well. Let us recall, among other things, that Kandinsky--that
“modernist” par excellence of the twentieth
century--said that he already had an existential familiarity with
the synthesis of the arts (what at the end of the nineteenth century
was called Gesamtkunstwerk or synesthesia) in
the izbas of the Vologda Oblast and “in the Moscow churches,
and especially in the cathedral of the Dormition and the church
of St. Basil the Blessed.” “In these magical houses
I experienced something I have never encountered again since.
They taught me not to look at the picture sidelong, but to
move within the picture, to live in the picture. . . . The
“red” corner (red is the same as beautiful in old
Russian) thickly, completely covered with painted and printed
icons of the saints, burning in front of it the red flame of a
small pendant lamp, glowing and blowing like a knowing, discreetly
murmuring, modest, and triumphant star, existing in and for itself.
When I finally entered the room, I felt surrounded on all sides
by painting, into which I had thus penetrated. The same feeling
had previously lain dormant within me, quite unconsciously, when
I had been in the Moscow churches, and especially in the cathedral
of the Dormition and the church of St. Basil the Blessed.”
The choice of these two Moscow churches is no accident. For, both
of them are lined with frescos or wall paintings to which are
added the wall of iconostases covered with icons.
The link between
icons and the Russian avant-garde manifested itself in a striking
way, one could say exoterically, during the Last Futurist
Exhibition of Paintings 0, 10 in Petrograd in late 1915, when
Malevich installed his “Suprematism of Painting” as
the “Red/Beautiful Corner” of Russian Orthodox houses
with, as central icon, the Quadrangle (what later on people took
to calling the “Black Square against White Background”),
which he called “the icon of our times.” This gesture
was not meant to signify that it was to be an Orthodox icon, with
its liturgical-cultural function (in the sense of the Seventh
Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II, a tradition that has remained
intact in the Eastern Church). For, ecclesiastical icons make
no sense without the conjunction of the human and the divine in
the incarnation of Christ. From this Orthodox point of view, the
Malevichian icon, which could be said to manifest only a deus
absconditus, is incomplete and has an air of Monophysitism
The Art Historian Nicolai Tarabukin (1889-1956)
Tarabukin is known
as a great Soviet art historian who, beginning in 1917, devoted
his studies to the innovative arts, and quite particularly to
left-wing art (the avant-garde), teaching during the 1920s at
Proletkult (Proletarian Culture), at Vkhutemas (Higher Art and
Technical Studios), at GAKhN (the State Academy of Artistic Sciences),
and at the Meyerhold Theater. In France, people are familiar with
translations of his brochures from the very early 1920s: L’expérience
de la théorie de la peinture (Towards a Theory
of Painting) and Du chevalet à la machine (From
the Easel to the Machine), which analyze Soviet Constructivism
and Productivism. Most of Tarabukin’s books, like those
on the Gothic-Renaissance-Baroque, and the remarkable essay on
Vrubel did not appear during his lifetime. The same goes for The
Philosophy of Icons, which remained in manuscript form until
1999. This work may seem to be a surprising one to come from a
theorist and historian of art known rather for his rigorous study
of forms and styles who relegated the thematic aspect of works
to the background. And this choice of subject matter is all the
more surprising as, in contrast to Father Pavel Florensky, Tarabukin
was a layman--a believer, certainly, but someone whose experience
with prayer, he tells us, was “weak.” And yet here
we have a man who declares, in the Second Letter of his Philosophy
of Icons (entitled “The Meaning of Icons”): “When
applied to religious creativity, aesthetic criteria become, quite
suddenly, extraordinarily impoverished and narrow-minded; such
criteria can shed light on but a tiny portion of its brilliant
content. The aesthete or the philosopher who goes about analyzing
religious creativity aesthetically appears a rather pitiful figure
of a man, like one who tries to measure the volume of the sea
with a dipper. One can, and one should even, speak of an icon
aesthetics, but that is but one tiny feature of a very profound
content, one problem in a larger whole. Moreover, that feature
is conditioned by this whole; the former can be understood only
by starting from the latter. And this whole is the religious meaning
of the icon.”
Philosophical and Theological Context
The main part
of The Philosophy of Icons is made up of fourteen Letters
addressed to his “dear friend,” which is reminiscent
of the epistolary format of Father Florensky’s theological
dissertation, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay
in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters (1914). There is no
doubt that the passages in that treatise on art and mathematics
gave Tarabukin a decisive impetus to write The Philosophy
of Icons, even though he himself was neither a philosopher
nor a theologian. Another impulse was to be given to the young
Tarabukin by the famous lectures of Prince Yevgeny Trubetzkoy,
which appeared between 1915 and 1918 and which took their title
from his first lecture, “Speculation in Colors, on Russian
Icons and their Place in the Destiny of Russia.” Finally,
when he completed his text--clearly sometime in the late 1920s
or the early 1930s--Tarabukin undertook a dialogue with Florensky’s
Imaginary Numbers in Geometry (1922) and Lev Lossiev’s
Dialectic of Myth (1930), traces of which are to be found
in The Philosophy of Icons. The head-on opposition to
Western art, from the Gothic onward, which is to be found among
all Russian authors writing about icons (and particularly in Florensky),
becomes in Lossiev and in Tarabukin a violent rejection of Western
Various Approaches to Icons
it could be said that there are four types of approaches to icons--approaches
that take into account the specificity of this pictorial art form
whose status is totally different from the kind that developed
in Western religious painting. It is no accident that Russian
vocabulary distinguishes ikonopis (iconography, i.e.,
the painting-writing of images) and zhivopis (zoography,
the painting-writing of life). The first type of approach is theological;
icons are here considered to be a “theology in colors,”
nay, purely religious. In this category, one could mention Theology
of the Icon, a remarkable book by Leonid Ouspensky, the lay
icon painter who lived and worked in Paris. The second type of
approach is purely philosophical and deals with the issue of images
as this issue was raised during the crisis of iconoclasm in the
seventh and eighth centuries. Works by Marie-José Mondzain
in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s can be mentioned from this standpoint.
The third approach involves taking the onto-theological aspect
of icons into account, but it does so while placing this aspect
of icons in the service of their formal features, icons being
the creation of something beautiful, a branch of painting in general.
One finds this approach in Father Florensky, particularly in his
Iconostasis or, in the West, in the classic book The
Icon: Image of the Invisible; Elements of Theology, Aesthetics,
and Technique by the German Jesuit scholar Egon Sendler.
Finally, a fourth type of approach considers Russian icons as
“the beginnings of Russian art,” to borrow a phrase
from Nikolai Leskov, the author of The Sealed Angel (1873),
a novel that contains a brief treatise on icons. This type of
approach could also be linked to The Russian Icon, a
book by the Russo-Ukranian painter Alexis Gritchenko that was
published in Moscow in 1916, and quite particularly to the pioneering
work done by the painter Lev Fedorovich Zhegin (1892-1969), The
Language of the Pictorial Work (The Conventions of Ancien Art),
which was published posthumously in 1970.
Specificities of Icon Art
Philosophy of Icons belongs, in the main, to the first
type of approach, the religious one. That is paradoxical, we said,
for an art historian who is reputed to be “formalistic”!
In the First Letter, entitled “Paintings and Icons,”
Tarabukin declares: “Paintings, like all artworks, are individualistic;
in the case of icons, they are prayers expressed in figurative
terms. . . . Paintings can have a religious or worldly content.
Icons are not only religious but also ecclesiastical.” In
the Second Letter, entitled “The Meaning of Icons,”
one can read the following: “Worldly paintings act in a
contagious way. They carry the viewer away, take him by the throat.
Icons are not an appeal; they are a path. They show the ascent
toward the Archetype. One does not look at icons; one experiences
them and prays to them.” In the Third Letter, “Miraculous
Icons,” he states forcefully that “icons, like all
rituals, are traditional, canonical, and sanctified by the Church,
which, and this goes without saying, would not be the case with
just any object.” In the other Letters, Tarabukin lays emphasis
(as does Florensky) on the opposition between Catholic sacred
art and the Orthodox painting of icons: “Catholic painting
narrates; Orthodox iconography prays.” In the Ninth Letter,
“The Outward Means of Expressing the Inner Meaning of Icons,”
Tarabukin studies in detail the specific techniques of icon painting.
The composition of icons stands out on account of its extraordinary
self-enclosure. It is a microcosm that contains in itself the
macrocosm. It renounces all that is worldly. To this end, it makes
use of the composition’s tripartite division, the parallelism
of planes, the repetitions, and the symmetry.
of icons is indissolubly linked to rhythm. Rhythmic repetitions
fulfill the role played by meter in versification and poetic rhyming.
Iconography does not think in a Euclidean way. It rejects perspective
as a form of expressing an endless space. The world of icon painting
is finite. In place of a blue-sky background, icons have a golden
background, which symbolizes that the events being contemplated
in icons come from outside the delimited boundaries of earthly
time and space and are represented, rather, sub specie aeternitatis.
“In icon painting, the spatial moment is not separate from
the temporal one. The world is understood, it could be said, in
the manner of Hermann Minkowski, who says that neither space nor
time exists separately, but that the world exists as a n-dimensional
spatiotemporal unity. . . . Inverse perspective is the representation
of space that is found beyond the terrestrial world, presented
in another (i.e., inverted) aspect than the usual one here below.
Inverse perspective is the visual representation of the concept
of the other world. But as concepts (any concepts) are not representable
on their own, but only thinkable, the visual expression of concepts
is imaginary. In Imaginary Numbers in Geometry, Florensky
says that in representation there are visual images and there
are some images that seem to be visual.”
What follows are some quotations from Florensky’s book,
which allow Tarabukin to conclude: “The world of icons is,
in its own way, real and concrete. In icon painting understood
as meaning, subjectivism and psychologism are absent. . . . The
icon painter has an entirely other relation to the flat surface
than the one, for example, that Egyptian painting or Greek vase
painting had. . . . The icon painter thinks in four dimensions
and constructs a conception of spherical space, with the two-dimensional
flat surface as his basis.”
The Place of Icons in the Transition from the Nineteenth
to Twentieth Century
The debate that
began in post-Soviet Russia bears on the way in which icons are
to be presented and considered today. Starting from the evident
facts that icons are not works of art like other ones and that
their full meaning resides only in an ecclesiastical polyphony-symphony,
some Orthodox believers would like to see the most venerated images
that had been removed by force be returned to the churches. Today,
the Mother of God of Vladimir (12th century) is placed
in a church adjacent to the Tretyakov National Gallery in Moscow,
and one can see people come into this same museum to pray in silence
before Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity (early
15th century). The monk Grégoire Krug, an iconographer
who died in France in 1969, stated that the presence of icons
in the secular world has a meaning: “It is in this way that
icons that are prayed to, those whose purpose is to serve prayer,
complete their salvational action in the world. They can leave
the church, be found in a museum or in the homes of collectors,
and be part of exhibitions. Such apparently incongruous conditions
are neither fortuitous nor absurd.”
In fact, throughout the twentieth century Russian icons have catalyzed
the at-once utopian and prophetic movement of metamorphosis and
transfiguration of painting in general, as well as of life as
a whole, toward what Bruno Duborgel calls, in opposition to the
“iconoclasm of a surfeit of naturalistic images and in rupture
with it,” “the iconophilic obsession with approaching
an experience of the Unfigurable.”.
François, and Nicolas Lossky,
Nicée II (787-1987). Douze siècles d’images
religieuses. Paris: Cerf, 1987.
Duborgel, Bruno. Malévitch. La question
de l’icône. Saint-Étienne: Université
de Saint-Étienne, 1997.
Florensky, Pavel. La perspective inversée/L’iconostase
et autres écrits sur l’art. Trans. Françoise
Lhoest. Lausanne: L’Âge d’homme, 1992.
Larchet, Jean-Claude. L’iconographe
et l’artiste. Paris: Cerf, 2008.
Nicéphore. Discours contre les iconoclastes,
Trans. and intro. Marie-José Mondzain-Baudinet. Paris:
Ouspensky, Leonid. Theology of the Icon.
Trans. Anthony Gythiel with selections translated by Elizabeth
Meyendorff. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992.
_____, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of
Icons. Trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky. 2nd ed.
Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982.
Sendler, Egon. The Icon, Image of the Invisible:
Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique. Trans. Steven
Bigham. Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1988.
Troubetzkoï, Eugène. Trois études
sur l’icône. Paris: YMCA-Press/O.E.I.L., 1986.
Yon, Ephrem, and Philippe Sers.
Les Saintes Icônes. Une nouvelle interprétation.
Paris: P. Sers, 1990.
Zibawi, Mahmoud. Eastern Christian Worlds.
Preface Olivier Clément. Trans. from French Madeleine Beaumont.
English translation edited by Nancy McDarby. Collegeville, MN:
Liturgical Press, 1995.
_____. The Icon: Its Meaning and History. Pref. Oliver
Clément. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.
Malevich. Head of a Peasant (two versions, late
Transfiguration (16th century, Berat Church, Albania).
Andrei Rublev. Old Testament Trinity (Moscow, early
School of Rublev. Nativity (Moscow, c. 1410-1430).
Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Northern Russia,
The Prophet Elijah (School of Novgorod, 14th
Synaxis of Mary Mother of God (School of Pskov,
Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Paul (Byzantium, 13th