Russian Evolution: Religious Icons After The 'Golden Age'
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page C01
The connoisseur's playbook for assessing Russian icons hasn't been updated in more than 70 years. Medieval treasures are viewed as artistic masterpieces from a distinct Golden Age. All that came later -- including silver frames studded with jewels, and Renaissance-style renditions of saints amid sumptuous decor -- is evidence of a spiritual art form in decline.
Now comes "Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs." The exhibition at Hillwood Museum & Gardens takes an unconventional view. The art form didn't die in 1700, as scholars often maintain -- it evolved.
For evidence, guest curator Wendy R. Salmond presents 43 icons, highly decorated covers and religious books dating from the 18th to the early 20th century. The artifacts were gathered by Hillwood's founder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and two other American private collectors, all of whom benefited from diplomatic postings in Moscow during the 1930s, when Russian art was selectively made available to westerners in exchange for hard currency.
Post and crew collected "late" icons, meaning they were made long after the so-called Golden Age of the 15th century. Salmond contends that late can also be great. All icons serve as spiritual windows to Heaven. Salmond believes that icons of the recent centuries provide a window on Russian society during its most tumultuous years.
In the changing facial features of a saint, Salmond reads the impact of Peter the Great. The modernizing czar not only banished beards and rough table manners as he imported culture from the West, he also tried to rid Russian Orthodoxy of unsophisticated icon painters. Salmond spots the rise of an elite class in the encrustation of pearls on an image of the Mother of God.
Commercialism, even in a country dominated by peasants, sparked a market for icons mass-printed on color presses. In a darkened hovel, where miracles were needed, what saintly spirit would notice the difference?
An elaborate 1912 icon bears witness to the gap between ruler and subject just before the Russian Revolution. Called the "Mother of God Pledge of Sinners," the icon begins with the traditional painting of tempera on wood. But this small painting -- it measures 5 by 3 11/16 inches -- was finished with a cover of finely worked gold studded with pearls and emeralds. The Mother of God wears not only a jeweled crown but also a matching double-strand diamond necklace and bracelet worthy of a czarina's birthday ball.
If a fine icon could resemble a bauble from the Faberge workshop, the exhibition catalogue notes that folk icons created in village workshops were being produced by painters known as "God smearers."
Hillwood's exhibition seeks to illustrate how a coherent visual language evolved in the pursuit of modernization. Greek painters gave way to distinctly Russian characterizations, which faltered in the face of western realism, perspective, shading and purely decorative finesse. Some icon makers tried oil paint, in addition to the traditional tempera pigments mixed with egg yolk. During the reign of Catherine the Great, rococo styling flourished.
One branch of the church persisted with old rituals and time-honored renditions of saints, which are still replicated today, and experts aren't complaining. Richard Temple in London, who is considered the dean of icon dealers, responded to a query by e-mail:
"I personally only like the craftsmanship of the 16th and 17th centuries. Later they seem to me too often gaudy and kitsch," he wrote. An icon that "does not fall into the baroque and naturalistic or European style is still powerful, when it conforms to the ancient symbolic and schematic manner."
Gerard Hill, director of Russian works of art for Sotheby's, has no trouble seeing Russia's troubled social fabric reflected in the jeweled icon covers that Post loved to collect.
"It was symptomatic of the whole period," Hill says.
But when considering an icon's value as art, he also returns to tradition.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company