Barely Known Masterpieces of Russian Icon Painting

Barely Known Masterpieces of Russian Icon Painting

We are happy to share with you the article Barely Known Masterpieces of Russian Icon Painting about the collection of Oleg Kushnirskiy, written by Maria Santi, an art historian and author of three bestsellers Simply About Art. What Are They Silent about in Museums, About Love and Money. The History of Art over a Cup of Coffee and Luck of a Genius. From Servant to Prophet: How High Art Was Invented.

Barely known masterpieces of Russian icon painting

Russian religious art of the 17th–19th centuries is far less known than the great masterpieces of the pre-Mongolian period (11th–13th centuries). This gives even greater emphasis to the collection and work of Oleg Kushnirskiy, who not only selected, preserved and restored, but also introduced a collection of small icons of the Synodal period (18th — early 20th centuries) into scientific circulation.

Who might benefit from exploring this collection?

Today we consider every kind of performance, every kind and form of easel painting as “art”. But rarely do we realize how different these phenomena, all of these artforms are. In this regard, Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection is of prime and foremost interest to those who study religion (namely – Christianity and Orthodox Christianity) of the mid-17th — early 20th centuries, as well as those academics and researchers who are interested in movements that opposed to mainstream religious tendencies. Researchers and connoisseurs of Russian icon painting will find a plethora of diverse scenes, exclusive artwork and the ways in which the spirituality and worldview of the Old Believers was reflected in icon-painting. The collection’s website allows one to see the multi-layer painting on each icon, zooming in and enjoying every minute detail. The icon painting of Palekh inspired both lacquer-box painting and illustrations to Russian fairy-tales. The book titled Russian Icons of the Mid-17th — early 20th centuries. The Collection of Oleg Kushnirskiy also holds fascinating articles, written by leading experts, shedding the light on both — the history of icon  painting and the historic landscape of icon collecting and — in a broader sense, the flourishing of humanitarian thought — in the late Soviet Union. On the one hand, there were officially no icon collectors in the USSR, yet on the other hand — they were, in fact, there. Oleg Kushnirskiy was one of the vital links in the chain of the highly risky business of Leningrad icon collecting of the second half of the 20th century. Today, professional art historians and connoisseurs mark his rare gift to assemble collections that clearly exhibited the highest taste, eye and logic. People, who study the history of barbarity, might ask the question — why were there so few icons left? No matter how much you study iconoclasm in all its forms, you will still be struck by how little was left, by how much was thrown into the flames.

It is a luxury — to remember history in all its diversity. And studying the past, a person finds himself in a unique state of impartial all-knowing.

A wide range of recipients will appreciate the beauty and expression of the pieces, published in the catalogue.

The idea that works of art must be properly understood is a later concept, thought up by academics, who’s main labor lies in the crafting of words. The practical notions of art are far richer. When the recipient appreciates beauty, when he or she is engaged in perception, when a person is mesmerized by the artwork — that’s enough. This is the way of perceiving art, hallowed by generations and millennia. That’s how the legendary Renaissance patrons — the Medici clan — treated artwork. The icons from Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection can be examined for hours on end, reminiscing about Russian fairy tales. Rare saints, the old (two-finger) sign of the Cross, the reliefs and stampings. But beauty is the main thing. All that lies beyond is the art historian’s analysis. Yet some traits remain common for the outstanding works of art, hailing from different eras and regions.

Significance of the collection

The interest in exploring art of the Russian North is on the rise, because new discoveries are always exciting. To study the forgotten is an inevitable process for an enlightened society, yet, unfortunately, not all artworks live to be discovered. So, let us exonerate the pioneers. Like the ones, who first appreciated the impressionists, before their works became mainstream; the ones, that brought them, to the pedestal. And today, one needs courage to see and state that 19th century icons have their own artistic value and merit.

It’s odd how people are inclined to seem to judge, catalogue or even discriminate artwork by genre and medium. You might not have the time or interest in a field of art, but that’s different. After all, there is good realism, there is bad realism. There is interesting abstract art, and there’s “so-so” abstract art. In the 19th century, most of the public attention was turned to secular art. In the Soviet period they fell in love with the peredvizhniki, while religious art remained beyond public attention. That’s how it was. But the merits of the icons — from any period — can only be appreciated and understood if you properly look at them. One shouldn’t judge an entire strain of artwork if it merely comes from a period, when it wasn’t mainstream.

Admiring only the famous is the “safe space” of art history, an approach to art that is at best beset with cowardice. But that’s not the only approach, is it? Studying radically different works of art we can truly see the span and magnitude of human talent. After all, if one only follows the mainstream, a researcher or connoisseur is at risk of missing what was always beyond the frameworks. One might marvel at Repin’s masterpieces, or at Makovsky’s pristine ladies, yet in spite of all their genius, their opponents from the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts continued to create and successfully sell significant and notable artworks. Likewise, icons were in constant demand, they were regularly brought to life by outstanding masters. But they don’t write about that nowadays in textbooks.  And what did the commissioners and contemporaries see in them? Beauty? Tradition? Pathos? It’s easier for us to raise the question, than give a proper answer.

One way or another, iconographers of the Modern Period relied on the best graphic samples, yet created highly varying icons, of which we can single out the best.

The study of the 46 icons from the 17th — early 20th centuries from Oleg Kushnirskiy, presented in the given edition, one will find the predominance of traditional pieces, hailing from Palekh, Mstyora, Kholuy, the Old Believer centers of Guslitsy and Vetka, as well as other Central Russian regions. The given array of later-period masterpieces allows us to trace the artistic evolution, with the painting style and color selection becoming darker and drier by the end of the 19th century. All of the pieces, saved, preserved and brought together into a single collection by Oleg Kushnirskiy, allow us to experience generations of artistic evolution in the Russian Empire.

Contemporary life and art allow us to examine icons from a new perspective, in new contexts. The masters of Palekh would work in the winter, sending off carts of icons to their commissioners. The commissioners, in turn, would offer handsome prices to receive these ornate, intricate pieces into their prayer corners and chapels. Icons that would illustrate and illuminate the entire church year, with all of the most important feasts. Now, these icons — expressions of both exquisite artistry and authentic piety – find themselves once again on the market. And now they’re seen not only as a “calendar reminder” of a feast, but as a timeless work of art and a testimony of history. And their place is in museums that in new secular society gradually replaced churches in their reverence towards masterpieces of Christian art.

Maria Santi