by Olga Shalamova, revised and proofread by Jennifer Leslie. www.esl-academic-editor.com
Since 2009, Todor has been a member of the international “Eikona” art group (http://eikona.org/).
He has had eight solo exhibitions and exhibited with several international groups.
Todor is an active member of the Belgrade art scene and his secular art includes portraiture and abstraction. Although he has been painting icons since 1993, the themes of his exhibited work from 1999 until his last exhibition in 2003 were abstract and secular. Through iconography, Todor’s intends to bridge the gap between church and contemporary art. The title of his Master’s thesis is Iconography As Contemporary Painting and through it icons have been recognised by academia as part of contemporary visual arts.
In 2002, Todor began teaching at the Academy of Serbian Orthodox Church for Fine Arts and Conservation in Belgrade (www.akademijaspc.edu.rs)
He has been an Associate Professor since 2007 teaching courses on icon painting at Bachelor and Master’s level and writing about church art. His research interests are art theory, art history (Byzantine) and international theology. Todor has published several articles, a book and participated in several international conferences about art and art theory.
In 2015, he was awarded a Doctorate of Arts from the Faculty of Fine Arts (FLU) at the University of Arts in Belgrade. The title of his dissertation is Icon – Between the Sign and the image . The title of his PhD art project is Icon – Between the Imprint, the Picture and the Word.
Todor’s work was first shown in Russia at the Third Icon Painting Symposium in Saint Petersburg during 2010 . His work stood out: he refused to copy the prototype! Art critics and iconographers frequently discuss concepts such as copying, stylization and imitation that are tendencies among contemporary iconographers. The remarkable quality about Todor’s work apparent at the St Petersburg Symposium in 2010 was that he refused to stylize his work to imitate an historical period. Instead, found his own language without loosing the image’s power of expression.
Tradition is apparent in his icons not as a set of rules, but as a living testimony to God in contemporary language. Although he has been dedicated to iconography since 2003, the connection between the artist and contemporary art has guided his research into iconography.
Todor’s images stand out from the fastidiously copied icons produced by the majority of contemporary iconographers. Todor’s work has power; it can be compared with catacomb frescoes that capture the essence of the early Christians’ reverence for the testimony of God.
His icons are informed by on-going research in theology and iconography and meditation about the current condition of icon painting. His work provides answers to several questions about Eastern Christian liturgical art, but nevertheless, at the forefront is his painting technique, which is similar to the medieval prototype.
Why did you reject the copying method, based on tracing, especially as it was used in Serbia when you started painting icons?
Important decisions in my artistic life usually occurred in the company of books – or, let’s call it theory. I was lucky at the time I began icon painting as some of the theoretical work of Father Stamatis Skliris had been published in Serbia. He is an unusual and inspirational Greek icon painter and I was influenced by his theoretical work, inspired by his theological education. In short, he applies the achievements of neopatristic theological synthesis to contemporary church arts and I realized the authentic approach to this kind of art has a theological and ecclesiastical dimension. Among the core ideas of neopatristic theological renewal, I’ll refer to the thought of Father Georges Florovsky who identified the goal of contemporary theology as not simply turning back to the fathers, but turning to the spirit of the fathers or to the mind of the fathers (The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Volume 4, Belmont, MA 1975, 15-22).
I’ll illustrate this concept: if somebody learns the writings of Saint Basil the Great by rote and recites them in a public place, does this person become a theologian? God save us from this! Even if such a hypothetical person understood St Basil’s writing, nobody would ask him to recite the texts. Why then is a similar thing expected of painters? The Medieval Church never asked painters to reproduce the work of great painters or epochs, but simply to reproduce the faces of saints, and events about the history of salvation. Style was never mentioned by Byzantine theology except in the domain of artistic invention. If it were otherwise, Medieval Art would have lacked stylistic development.
In the Middle Ages, artistic style would change radically in a few decades, and yet we observe unchanging style in the icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. It would seem apparent we have not understood the spirit of the fathers where church art is concerned. In my opinion, the same spirit of art we proudly use as our role model teaches us not to copy.
Of course, this statement is polysemic because we don’t know enough about the authentic spirit of Medieval Art, and the practice of copying is a contemporary and unrefined one, incompatible with Medieval aesthetics. In my opinion, church art, approached through its liturgical perspective, must be brought to life by people in actual time. This also means it must be brought to life in an actual cultural context – comparable with, but – at the same time – incomparable with, previously existing cultural contexts. We are invited to transform this actual cultural context however impossible it may seem. Imagine how impossible it seemed during late antiquity to change Roman culture with its demi-god emperors? Christians did exactly this due to faith, and God’s help. It is not expected of us to express the faith of people who once lived on the land we inhabit today, but instead – our own faith. We cannot go to church and say, “God have mercy on us because we are the descendants of pious people who lived here before us”. And this is an illustration of the way contemporary church art is conceptualized: since we do not have the talent, or do not understand what to do – or maybe we simply do not have enough faith – we can only more or less reproduce the art of our forefathers. This position is described as indicative of the modesty of artists, and expresses the highest possible respect to our great tradition. From my point of view, this position lacks humility and modesty and is irresponsible ecclesiastical and artistic behaviour. No matter how primitive and rudimentary our expression is, it has to be done from the heart, through the mind and body, otherwise we are avoiding the responsibility of being part of the Body of Christ. Such expression is part of our attempt to make the Body of Christ present, which is, when speaking about art, making it visible in a material and cultural context. This is why all we can give, all our talent, must be included in the process – otherwise we are denying our skill, burying talents to the ground (to use the Gospel parable), and at the same time doing little more than telling pleasant stories about the Middle Ages.
Is there such a phenomenon as the contemporary icon? If so, what are the elements informing it?
This is a serious question and one to which I cannot give a positive answer. We cannot accurately perceive a future point of view or analyze our epoch from a distance, but we have archaeological experience helping us understand our actions today. The problem is every icon painted today is contemporary. Problems arise when somebody thinks they are painting in the Medieval manner and that there aren’t differences between icons painted today, and those painted in the Middle Ages. Painting an icon the Medieval way today includes contemporary skills, devices and processes completely unknown to Medieval man.
Starting at the beginning, icons are (1) discovered, classified and categorized by art historians; then icons must be (2) cleaned, conserved and restored in order to be seen in their full beauty after which they must be (3) photographed and (4) published, in order to be available to the public. The public includes contemporary iconographers some of whom live in urban centres where those icons are (5) exhibited in a museum, enabling close observation, under good light conditions. If you want to make a real Medieval icon, most of those five, and possibly a few more procedures have to be fulfilled and I ask – can anyone find anything Medieval in any of those procedural steps? Producing a Medieval icon today is a high-tech and contemporary procedure, not only technologically, but also at a conceptual level.
Let me give you an example. When Father Zenon changed his style, skipping centuries and painting icons in the 12 th century manner, it was artistic behaviour unimaginable in the Middle Ages. For such a process you need the help of all five high-tech procedural steps mentioned previously, carefully orchestrated by an artist highly trained in art history and mimetic drawing/painting skills. Needed also is a public audience trained in the hyper-dynamic experiences of 20 th century artistic exchange able to respond positively to dynamic aesthetic developments. These possibilities were not available to artists of the Middle Ages. So, from the beginning, we should be aware of our contemporaneity, and try not to live in the Middle Ages, because from an artistic and theological point of view this is irresponsible. The Middle Ages said much about art and spiritual life but artifacts and information from the time won’t speak to us if we do not enter into the dialogue from our own position.
As with any dialogue, if you pretend you are somebody else – and especially if you believe you know everything the other side has to say – then forget about a dialogue. As with all great art, Medieval icons are full of sophisticated messages and we can speak with them every day, and (exactly because of this) it is almost an insult to treat such depth as a surface to be copied. Old icons are copied because we recognize their depth, but if there is the possibility to learn the language they speak (instead of transcribing visual text we do not understand) it is irresponsible not to explore such a possibility. Learning this language should be our starting point: only when we use this language in creative ways (and it’s similar to the way a poet uses it while writing hymnography) can our icons become actual theology in color.
So finally, my answer to the initial question is: we cannot escape being contemporary in icon painting, but it is up to us to decide how to use our contemporary position. Are we going to use it as an artistic/technological process to hide our spiritual confusion, or are we going to use it as a way of an active Christian being in the world?
How do you create a bridge between ecclesiastical and contemporary secular art in your work and why is it important?
For me the question of importance came before the question of ways of artistic execution. My opinion about the question of importance is radical: it is impossible to create authentic ecclesiastical art if we do not engage in a dialogue with contemporary art . It is not an artistic question, but a theological one. We could spend pages of paper on this question, but let’s try to discuss the main points of the argument. The Gospels teach that God did not send his Son to suffer incarnation and death on the cross in order to save only the elect and perfect. However hard the notion may seem, the church is not trying to save herself but the whole world, so the Gospels must be available to anyone and everyone in any language. This is the reason not a single Gospel was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, though Christ Himself spoke these languages. The Gospel is good news for the world, not only for our small community, however pious.
The same thing applies to painting: we don’t paint icons only for ourselves, but for everyone, even for those who are not yet born. Moreover, on the pictorial level, the language of contemporary art shapes the way contemporary man thinks and is the only universally recognizable language we have, however imperfect. Parallels with spoken languages are not the only available criteria, of course, and I’m not suggesting we need to discuss every crazy idea emanating from the world of art, or apply it to icon painting – God save me from this! But there are many good and useful artistic inventions occurring before and after the Orthodox Church rediscovered its Medieval artistic heritage at the beginning of 20th century.
After all, can we be sure our artistic heritage would have been rediscovered if avant-garde movements from this century had not happened? An academic and conservative assessment of that period describes Byzantine and Russian Medieval icons as naive but on one of his visits to Russia, Henri Matisse said, after seeing Ostroukhov’s collection of icons: “… what clearness and display of great, strong feeling. Your young people have here, in their own home, far better models of art than abroad. French artists should come to study in Russia: Italy offers less in this field.” [Alison Hilton, Matisse in Moscow , Art Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter, 1969-1970), 167]. We must admit he was one of the few people destined to change the world of plastic arts and consequently, redefine our contemporary visual horizon. So, should we say: Thank you Henri for helping us understand, but now go to Hell – we don’t need you any more! I suggest a different option: If we want to do something evangelical with our Church art, then we need to learn the language of Medieval art and the language of contemporary art. We need to identify the achievements from the second and use them to inform the first. This is the only way the renovation of Medieval art can become the authentic pictorial language of the church, and not some archaeological or museum project, produced for experts or the elite and overlaid with the pious aroma of Medievalism.
Finally, there is a simple liturgical argument about this subject: If our art has a liturgical dimension, it is necessary to bring elements of our own world to the church in order to save it, the world and also – ourselves. We don’t need Medieval carriages, horses or costumes to come to the liturgy; we don’t need Medieval varieties of grapes and grain to produce wine and bread for the Eucharist. We don’t need Medieval rhetoric to explain the Gospels to the people, and finally, we don’t need to recite the homilies of Saint Basil by heart. We need the opposite: if we do not bring something of our own to the communion of Christians of all ages, then we are not wholly taking part in the Sacrament. We are not actors here – but a complete and complicated people with bodies, souls, minds, knowledge and experience. If there is nothing of our visual world here, then part of us is missing. The experience is inauthentic – inside the church/liturgy we live one life complete with Medieval elements and outside – there are other realities. We do not need elements from the Middle Ages in our churches and icons but we are reluctant to sever continuity with this great epoch of church life and faith. And, such continuity will not be achieved through imitation, but through understanding the spirit of our Medieval heritage. We must bring our knowledge and dilemmas to the purifying fire of liturgical and ascetic experience, thereby making this heritage alive in ourselves and in the world God has brought into existence.
We know iconography has changed with church history, how do you think it will continue to evolve?
This is a profound question. Theologically speaking, it is easier to explain what God is not than to imagine what He is . The apophatic answer to your question is simply this – if icon painting is a creative and personal process, then it is impossible to think about the future in positive or positivistic terms. From such a position it is easier to understand why contemporary icon painting is stubbornly resistant to change: some of us are happy being told what we do is good, that the future holds few surprises or disappointments and we can remain ignorant of our mistakes. On the other hand, the unpredictable nature of artistic endeavor is a problem whenever we try to conceptualize it. Personally speaking, I am more concerned with what should not be done than with positive statements. I don’t think we can achieve the stylistic unity possible in Byzantine times, but I don’t think we should strive for this. Immediate stylistic recognition of icons and frescoes throughout the Byzantine Empire was an element defining its Christian and imperial cultural identity. I will insist at every step of our discussion that the differences between Medieval and contemporary culture have to be taken seriously if we want to be sincere about church art and church life in general. Christian culture today has a different basis for preaching the Gospel and is under no obligation to rely on centralized imperial power networks. Maybe a stylistic lack of unity would be the way to express – through the plastic arts – the openness of the Orthodox Church to all people from every corner of our confused world. I don’t know if this proposal would work, but the question of stylistic unity needs to be discussed.
I’m more convinced when it comes to my next proposition: church art should carefully rethink the function of complicated narrative cycles included in icons and especially, on the walls of churches because we are literate and inundated with a variety of narratives every second of our existence. Especially persuasive are the forms of mobile visual narration – in films and video games. Trying to narrate the sequence of events through static pictures to a literate audience misses the point of the medium. If we put icons in competition with films and video games, we miss the point. Church art – in my opinion – should strive to offer something different: the simple and solemn, static picture/vision radiating with inner power. The simple and static picture/vision full of layers – on a pictorial and theological level – can be watched for hours. The simple and static picture/vision capturing the eye of the beholder, body and soul, mind and heart, with such strength the person would not want to leave. And finally, the simple, static and solemn picture/vision is so different from the informational melting-pot rumbling around beholders every single moment of their lives, they will be convinced they have entered a world transformed by God’s grace and love. Icons must be great art not because somebody wants to be greater then somebody else, but because only great art can express so many messages in one single picture/vision. I’m not convinced any of us have the potential to realize such a picture/vision, even partially, but I’m convinced it is worth striving for, and I believe miracles happen – even today.
Your PhD research includes chapters about Medieval concepts which the contemporary renewal of church art has not taken into consideration, or has interpreted inaccurately. Would you describe some of these concepts?
Although my PhD thesis was concerned with contemporary icon painting, it changed direction to include research on Medieval art. Through previous research into theory and practice, I realized we do not know enough about this subject. We know a lot about the Middle Ages, but our knowledge is insufficient when it comes to making decisions about contemporary church art. It is insufficient because it does not help us produce art that is not a copy – our art must be recognizable as an authentic scion of great Medieval art.
Contemporary art historians have contributed much to increase understanding about the function of icons in the Medieval context and once we understand the reasons for those artistic decisions, we will be able to make our own decisions. More importantly, we will be able to define which Medieval artistic conventions are applicable today, and those irrelevant to a contemporary context.
I don’t know if much of my doctoral research on this matter is useful, but some aspects of Medieval art are clearer now, at least for me. For example, the kissing of icons was not a regular part of liturgical practice during the first millennium of Christianity. On the other hand, ritual kissing between laity in the nave and between clerics in altar during the Eucharistic kiss of peace was usual. However, by the end of millennium the kiss of peace ceased to be given in the nave and was restricted to the altar as it is today creating distance between those two liturgical spaces. The clergy was responsible for this development, arguably resulting in distancing laity from tactile participation in the liturgy.
On the other hand, in the 12th Century, wall decorations became accessible to laity, as paintings were included in lower areas previously covered by marble and icons were placed in important locations, around the altar screen. Interestingly, during this period the ritual kissing of icons officially entered liturgical practice and moreover, it seems icons were used to close the gap created between the nave and the altar.
The late Medieval Church preferred visual to tactile communication between those segregated spaces. The visual separation of the altar from the nave through enclosing the sanctuary with a barrier represents the conclusion of that process. The icon became recognized as reparation for increased liturgical segregation. From such cognitive heights, late Byzantine art was invited to comment upon and explain the liturgy, and to represent previously invisible aspects of the Eucharist – the Transubstantiation of the Body of Christ – described as Melismos – in iconographic terms.
Through this context, the relationship between the human body and icons acquired a special kind of dynamic. The way icons were depicted influenced human behaviour especially in relationship to the human body, and, in return, human behaviour and human physicality influenced forms of artistic expression. To elaborate on my conclusions, we would need more time and space than this interview permits. Moreover, I have not researched the ways those conclusions could be interpreted by contemporary church art, as something has to be left for the future.
Only one interpretational direction seems apparent to me at the moment: the problems icons were expected to respond to in the Middle Ages may not be compatible with those of concern to contemporary church life.
What is the most important dimension of the icon? What tasks do you set yourself when you paint an icon?
The first responsibility is to give our best every time. Every time we paint, we must bring everything we know – our energy, creativity and experience – to the painting surface. It is our Christian duty. The second responsibility is included in question 6: It is not possible to create ecclesiastical art if we do not engage in a dialogue with contemporary art.
At this point I need to emphasize the ways in which this should be done. I won’t discuss the ways I have been trying to do this, because it is impossible to describe in positivistic terms. Moreover, no one can be (or should be) confident they have produced the best possible outcome to this challenge. As far as I am concerned, finding ways to resolve this challenge is one of the most important responsibilities of icon painting today.
Artists need to find the most appropriate way to bring the tradition of iconography to the contemporary aesthetic context. Not everything from contemporary art can find a place in the icon, but, on the other hand, not every artistic convention from the Middle Ages is necessary for contemporary ecclesiastical life. The demarcation and the dialogue between the icon and contemporary culture cannot happen in theory and, consequently, does not belong to the doctrinal aspect of church life. Instead, it represents the most important task of the icon painter.
My opinion is that the only way to find ecclesiastical balance in this cultural-theological dialogue is to let artists explore both aspects. We can’t make theoretical decisions; they must be substantive pictorial proposals. If we want reasoned proposals, artists should be equipped with theological knowledge, liturgical and ascetic experience, and an education in the arts and history. The church should encourage this.
This brings us to the beginning of my answer, where I said that we must work hard and give our best. The third important responsibility is to be critical about our work. I am trying, as much as possible, to be a neutral beholder, while painting. This means during the artistic process I’m trying to judge my work as if done by somebody else. This is the only way to use all the equipment I have already mentioned for the realization of the second important responsibility. There are other responsibilities that could be categorized as important, but let’s stay with these.
If we take the first responsibility seriously, then everything becomes important – every brushstroke becomes the reason for making crucial decisions. This is exactly the way it should be, but trying to conceptualize it is not the way to conclude our discussion.
What is the most interesting and most difficult ?
The most interesting is discovering new artistic solutions. The most magnificent moment is when something new happens unexpectedly, and you realize your role is to recognize this new quality and leave it there.
In such a moment you are happy like a little kid discovering the beauty of the world, without the dust and grime that will cover it during the years of growing up. This creative relationship with life is something artists can bring to the church and, in my opinion, it has a deep theological dimension. It is not a coincidence that only three holy fathers have the title Theologian in their names – Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Gregory and Saint Simeon. They were authentic poets in the theological context of their time. There is a mystical connection between theology and the arts that, in my opinion, can’t be explained through reason.
And about the difficulties: From my point of view, the most challenging experience occurs during the painting process, when you start believing you don’t know anything, and all your experience is worthless. If you work hard and paint authentically such a crisis happens frequently – with almost every icon. I tell students, when they have a crisis, that it is normal, not pleasant, but important and a good experience. If you don’t survive the critical moments while painting an icon, then you should be suspicious about your position. It is easy to flatter ourselves and try to avoid a crisis and criticism – and, of course, painfully human.
How does contemporary technology influence icon painting?
I think we have answered part of this question. However I would like to make a positive statement about the contribution of contemporary technology in church art – that is, the expansive palette of contemporary pigments. Chemistry has enabled us to investigate the material world with depth and our existence in the world has acquired a new coloristic dimension. We need to explore this new dimension with caution and incorporate new colors gradually into our icons. Otherwise, our results may seem naive, leading us to conclude that technology brings nothing good to Ecclesiastical art. In my opinion, Russian artists use the contemporary palette in a more subtle way compared with the examples from Serbian and Greek Church art.
However, to avoid using this treasure is not a wise decision. Gold and precious stones are incomparable with rich and sophisticated color combinations that bring radiance and splendor to icons. From a technological and artistic point of view this radiance is a product of the human spirit. In my opinion, human radiance is a better symbolic and aesthetic vehicle for making our churches Heaven on Earth than the glittering of actual gold and jewels. In closing, as far as I understand the spirit of Medieval art, I think the Byzantine masters would enjoy using our contemporary pigment palette.
I believe there is a consciously generated philosophical and visual system in whatever an artist does. As master, the artist can explain every movement of the brush but how does he or she find solutions to problems?
Although I’d like to bring everything to a conscious level, I admit this is not possible. The passion for thinking and reasoning can be dangerous and irrational as is every passion. My experience suggests there is a borderline – not always clear and recognizable – that appears whenever I think about visual form. The borderline is where discursive thinking stops, leaving a space for another kind of thinking – one without words – thinking in colors, shapes and lines.
This is a place where experience of abstract art helps a lot and (in my opinion) it is the intersection between icon painting and contemporary art. I cannot say much about this or provide a methodological description of my experience because it occurs in the realm of pictorial language. It exists in the non-discursive area and elements of this language. Yet it produces faces, figures and scenes, returning us to the pictorial level informed by theory: theology, history and philosophy.
In terms of artistic method, I focus on the border between concepts and pictorial language that determine the raw material of artistic expression. Without the theological and historical dimensions, the beauty of the raw material cannot become the icon and, conversely, concepts without pictorial material lack artistic elements and produce soulless images.
Lacking this human material that can give life to the forms, icons remain pure platonic forms that we call ideas – without personal identity. In simple terms – the artist, through artistic endeavour, brings to the painting surface something of his life and experience, in order for the icon to come alive. We could rationalize this aspect of iconography by calling it personal sacrifice, but (whatever the description we use) I believe it is necessary to have authentic church art. I think for the iconographer it is important to be mindful of the borderline where conceptual and pictorial ways of thinking coexist. We must take care the two dimensions do not separate or collide as we need them together – in an unconfused and indivisible unity.
What do you think about the beholders, who will pray with your icons?
When I paint a commissioned icon, I think a lot about the commissioner, about their attitudes towards church and art, personality, taste, and a lot more. I try to construct an artistic dialogue between their position and my own, sometimes through discussion. I have to admit I’m not always satisfied with the results of this methodology and I prefer painting without commission. That is, painting icons that are exhibited and incidentally discovered by somebody who loves to pray in front of them.
I’m happy if this occurs because it brings freedom to artistic endeavour. On the other hand, I am not convinced this is the best possible method of communication between the artist and beholder, though it is helpful in what I am trying to achieve. I admit such a concept contains a bit of paying back a debt to the world of contemporary painting. With abstract painting, for example, I was not thinking of a specific but ideal beholder – usually from the future – who would understand every brushstroke I had ever made. I don’t know if there is primitive messianic reflection behind this notion or if it implies idealism incompatible with the Christian artist. The truth is, today I think about such problems in different terms. The act of painting an icon should not be primarily understood as communication between the artist and the commissioner – irrespective of how important and educated both people are. Both painter and commissioner (especially when we discuss an official commission that will become part of liturgical life) are not doing this for themselves but act as a personal prism through which ecclesiastical experience can be expressed in the artistic realm.
However important and learned the context, the icon is not a private artistic dialogue. The entire church should speak through these pictures, together with our forefathers and forerunners. If producing and using the icon is generated by someone’s private communicational needs, then why would they need to include the experience of the Middle Ages, for example? Maybe I should not speak about the ideal beholder, but instead the communal ( ñîáîðíèé ) beholder, who is (throughout the liturgical experience of the church) able to behold what we paint from the past, the present and the future.
The way to reflect on the popular argument concerning the aesthetics of the contemporary icon reads like this: If I can’t pray in front of it then it is not an icon . But what does that say about historic records showing us Byzantine prelates could not pray in front of Proto-Renaissance paintings on their visits to Western Europe? Should we now, after rediscovering our Medieval Byzantine heritage, destroy every icon painted in a realistic manner throughout our churches? Luckily, it is not as easy as this, and private concerns are not (or shouldn’t be) the only motivation behind decisions in church life.
What is your attitude to the following statement: Iconography is a collegial (sobornost) creative act?
The answer to this question runs through the previous one. I’d like to emphasize the concept of community ( ñîáîðíîå íà÷àëî ) as one of the most important aspects of authorship in church art. The way we apply this concept in artistic practice is frequently misleading. It is responsible for misunderstandings about this important spiritual aspect of church art: icons can’t have several authors. Icons must not be painted on a production line, as often happens today. They cannot be treated as an industrial item – because the icon is theology in colour. Iconographers refrain from putting their signature on icons due to piety and modesty – not because icons do not have authors!
The icon includes the concept of personal responsibility because it emerges from the ecclesiastical dimension. Communitarian and personal principles are inseparable in the Church. Our Christian common deed is personal. In liturgy this means the bishop/priest is an actual person standing in front of the community in the place of Christ expressing unity through prayer directed personally to God the Father. In art it means the communion is expressing itself – its own concept of community – through an actual person – the painter/author. There isn’t an impersonal way to express the concept of community in Christian life, and if there was, I believe we would have anarchy or a kind of hippy communitarianism in church and in art. If it happens that a project is too big for one painter to execute then a company of painters must have a protomaster who makes the important artistic decisions and is responsible for the final result. The concept of personal responsibility is at the centre of the Christian concept of community and consequently, intrinsic to the life of Christian art.
How seriously is the icon regarded in the Serbian Church?
The answer to this question is easier as I am able to compare my experience of different local Orthodox Churches and regions through having been in these places and from discussion with friends and colleagues.
My answer would be in short: icons are not taken as seriously in Serbia as they are in Russia, Romania and Greece. Serbia is a small country, exhausted from wars and economic crises, so there isn’t much enthusiasm for large-scale cultural projects such as Church painting. Everybody in the Church establishment would say icons are important for our Orthodox identity, but when it comes to painting, the criteria that decides who will get commissions are low price and fast execution. Like McDonald’s – cheap and fast. I would call this between-two-wars mentality: better anything than nothing, and better now than in the future (which usually means never). This position has a positive aspect that I recognize and could exploit: art doesn’t have – let’s be frank – much influence on the life of the Church and wider community. Research implies art does not have the same influence it once had with the public and whilst this gives rise to a kind of freedom it also leaves you with a feeling of loneliness in your endeavours.
This is the reason I believe my work is better understood in Russia, Romania or Greece. It is not the question of love between us (although this would also be okay), but in those places, people respond more to artistic endeavour – and the response can be either positive or negative. Of course, there are open-minded people here who care for art, artwork and artistic endeavour, while others wait, eager to denounce you as a heretic if you do something that does not meet their code of good behaviour. But, whatever position they take, the ramifications of their reactions are not serious and as such lack the capacity to influence artistic decisions. Of course, such a position has its bad side, which doesn’t need to be discussed here. And as I’ve already said, I’m trying to exploit the positive aspects of this situation.