Thoughts... and Exhibitions!
1. WORKSHOPS… Workshops???!!
Getting ready to teach a series of iconography workshops I decided to check programs, offered by fellow iconographers. In a few minutes discovered an extensive number of icon retreats all over the world, and suddenly I had a rising desire to choose a course for me to sign for!
I was so amazed, how many opportunities open up when you google “icon painting workshop” or “course”. The ads said you can learn “technique of Byzantine art”, gilding technique, the “language of icons” and their “meaning”, and even to work as a team member with renowned master-iconographers for several days…
I searched really hard, but in the end, I did not find a single one to sign for. It was so disappointing, that it even became the saddest news of the day.
Flipping through photos of different workshops taught in Russia, Italy, the USA, Australia, Greece, and Canada I saw a great deal, and it was not even close to what I was dreaming about. Most of the photographs were showing iconography students copying photocopies of their teachers’ icons, where the most beautiful, deepest, most powerful, and breathtaking old icons were rudely reduced to plainest simplified patterns. I saw dozens of students bending over their tiny little tables, overloaded with dozens of prints, plastic palettes, and other staff, dying to perform most unexplainable actions with most unexplainable pre-mixed hues of colors, composed by their teachers.
What I was seeking for was a kind of structure, which could help to see iconography as a living theology in color, and I only found commercial schools of sacred craftsmanship with very little understanding of the very techniques they teach. It’s not to be mentioned here, that the students’ works which I saw often had better colors and composition, than the works of their instructors. They looked more alive and less betraying their medieval models.
The whole research and the pictures, in particular, brought me to depression, but it did not last long. My brain rejected to stay in obsession and generated a consolation: tough but a good one.
The conclusion was this: if I want to be a serious iconographer, yet there is no extensive program of studies to follow, and the only thing on can do is this, – we all have to continually teach ourselves, getting knowledge from all available serious sources, and shape our vision struggling with conformism.
2. ART or DESIGN?
Another question, – practical AND theoretical at the same time: – Have you ever thought, what should be the relationship between art VS design in a church? I keep thinking it over and over for several months, and my initial point remains as it was: if we make icons for our contemporaries, we should consider their actual needs. But does it mean that we have to always agree with what our clients want us to do, or, belonging to a certain professional guild, we are entitled to suggest an alternative? For us, it’s a challenging question.
Since 18 years ago we had our first commissions, we met lots of priests, who tried to make us follow their very extraordinary ideas of what is an icon and how the church space should be organized. As now we know, these situations are always unpredictable, and maybe in Russia, the ideas are even weirder. Once we worked with a priest, who out of the blue requested us to paint saint Nicholas holding a steam locomotive in his hands. The reason was obvious for him: it was the railway station, which sponsored the church construction. Another priest, (hieromonk, which means he was a priest and a monk at the same time) insisted the Archangels on icons should not have any wings since no one we know had ever seen them or any photo of them with the wings.
Facing situations like this we discovered that the role of an iconographer has to be much more extensive and serious than just being a “church artist” or a “church designer”. In the current situation of almost total iconographic ignorance of the clergy and devastating loss of connection with the traditions of the past, it is the iconographer, who is forced to become the last professional, responsible for the church interior final appearance. It is him or her, who has to think about the beauty, as well as functionality, coherence with the rules, canons and the tradition. It’s the iconographer, who should have the ability and rights to coordinate all the elements of the interior together, preserving the harmony, unity, and integrity of the church as a holy whole.
Well, now the question is how to obtain an authority to speak on behalf of tradition if you are invited to discuss “little changes” to an existing structure, and you are not entitled to have any right to seriously change anything?
The easiest answer is: “do not agree”, but what is the right kind of argument for these people, if you don’t want to lose the commission, or at least to keep some friendly relations, and want to avoid looking like “I-know-it-all” kind of person? How do you defend your point if the client insists?
I have a feeling, that it may also depend on a role, iconographer wants to play in his or her own eyes. Maybe, despite all the workshops, trying to educate us as craftsmen, called to please our priests’ eyes with our lovely icons with overwhelming amounts of gold we can take it much more seriously? We probably might start considering ourselves not only artists (or designers) but also professional educators, sharing the essential knowledge, shaping (and re-shaping) our priest’s views?
Well, at this point I expect your objections, like where one can get spare time to obtain the necessary knowledge to become an expert and how to get the authority to cross someone, who was ordained by a bishop, or a bishop himself or herself?
Again, – I only have my own answer to this, and even I do not like it myself, but now I think it’s the only one:
We must ask for help from professional theologians and art-critics to make our opinion valuable and to seriously root it in the tradition.
We should honestly and fearlessly ask those, who is able to evaluate our bottlenecks, find common ground in our glorious past and help us to get better.
I am sure it will be a long and difficult process, but without the help of renowned professionals, we will always remain a narrow guild of basket makers, complaining about a lack of respect.
Now, as this thought was torturing me for a number of months, and as I have tried hard on my own and I can’t help it, I am turning to you, our dear subscriber and friend!
– If you know a professional theologian or/and an art critic, who would like to think together about contemporary iconography, constructively criticize and to see a better way for all of us to evolve, – would you ask him or her for help?
Any outcome is appreciated!
P.S. Step by step together we generate a General Bibliography for Iconographers, – everybody is welcome to propose valuable titles!.
The time flies and in a few days, the challenge continues – another series of workshops, – sharing/discovering new ideas and widening horizons. It’s such a great time!
Have you ever faced the “varnish fear”? I mean the fear to ruin the finished icon by sealing it badly?
Life was so easy with copal varnish by Lefranc (see our old video), but as many of you know, they stopped producing it! The last bottles we bought a year ago are almost over! Time to experiment with the new version advised by LeFranc (Lefranc Picture Varnish Extra Fine Gloss). I started and even made a new video, but yet the result is too glossy, even with the addition of linseed oil. It’s like a Galoshe! I can not recommend it the way it is.
Some people advised to use highly diluted shellac, but in my humble opinion egg tempera needs some sort of transparent semi-liquid substance to fill the gaps between pigment particles…
If you have any trustable recipe of what can substitute copal varnish from LeFranc, – we’d be happy to hear from you! In the meantime, our own experiments go on and I hope to come up with something good in February! It’s urgent for us as well!
4. NEW ICONS
Exhibition in Melbourne, which we have just mounted in ACU ArtSpace, features 11 works by Peter Blackwood, 7 works by Margaret Broadbent, 5 works by Olga Shalamova and 1 by Alexandra Irini. The Olga’s icons are the ones you see in this Newsletter, – you can click them and see their enlarged versions at our web site. All the other images you can see at the exhibition in ACU Art Space. Welcome!
5. Our Workshops – very short:
The June workshop in New Zealand is full, the one in Queenscliff has 2 available spots. Yet no concrete plans for the USA for this year: – looking for venues with good light.
Thank you for reading our Newsletter! We appreciate your feedback and shares.
Wishing you a prosperous year!,
With warmest regards,
Philip & Olga
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