How to Look at the Russian Icon: An Interview with an Art Historian

How to Look at Russian Icons: An Interview with an Art Historian

Some time ago, collector Oleg Kushnirskiy, director of Russian Icon Collection Ilya Kushnirskiy and our long-time friend, Russian icon expert and collector Sergey Khodorskovskiy, participated in the radio show “Pro Art,” hosted by art historian, writer, and TV and radio presenter Maria Santi. Inspired by that conversation, the Russian Icon Collection, in turn, decided to talk with Maria Santi about how to look at icons today, why the generally accepted hierarchy of art needs to be revisited, and what makes Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection of Russian icons stand out.

As an author writing about art history, you are known for adopting a non-academic approach to discussing art, aiming to make it more accessible to broader audiences. So let’s talk about ways of looking at Russian icons. What should one pay attention to so the icon reveals itself to the viewer? 

Maria Santi: In schools, art history students are often taught to see the differences between time periods, regions, art movements, and schools. However, life is always more diverse, and there are always instances that elude rigorous classification. For example, you may find similarities in El Greco paintings and works by Expressionist artists of the early 20th century. Or, you may come across a 17th-century Dutch landscape that looks very much like a typical English landscape from the 18th century, although there is no indication of any direct influence of one artist on the other. Such coincidences are very interesting as they highlight some commonalities in human history and in our perception of the world. So whether it’s a Russian icon or another art form, I would encourage everyone to always approach art with curiosity and an open mind. Art is communication, and what you see in it given your background, personality, and experience, is what matters in the first place. And to really see things, you need to allow time, not just take a snapshot of an icon or a painting and run further but tune in to the artwork and connect with it on a subtle, emotional level. Once you established a connection, you can deepen that relationship by delving into history, social context, etc. 

Antique Russian icons remain a niche theme, even among specialists, and they are not widely exhibited in museums or galleries. In your opinion, what factors contribute to waves of interest in specific art forms, movements, or periods?

On one hand, there are numerous tools available today for studying, measuring, and predicting the popularity of various phenomena or products. The entertainment industry, including giants like Hollywood and Netflix, invests significant resources in employing teams of experts and market analysts to understand current interests and trends. However, there are numerous examples of films that failed to gain the expected attention despite predictions. Similarly, Paris enjoys global admiration while there are many other equally beautiful cities that remain less recognized. Some things just defy explanation and can only be accepted as they are. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put effort into bringing other phenomena into the spotlight, including icons. Just as art is a form of communication, promoting it also relies on communication. This is precisely what the team behind the Russian Icon Collection is doing through the recently released catalog and activities around it. 

To answer the question of how Russian icons could be promoted, I think they should be presented to the public in the context of their time, historical events such as conflicts among princes, political dynamics, and relationship with the Church. All this adds a human dimension to history, allowing one to relate to it. 

Art history as a discipline has traditionally employed a framework and hierarchy of grading artworks, categorizing some as first-class or masterpieces while defining others as less important. How do you think we should study art and art history today? 

The value and significance assigned to artworks are not fixed or absolute but rather shaped by various factors, including historical context, cultural perspectives, and evolving artistic theories. I believe that in the 21st century, there will be a significant trend toward studying art forms or phenomena that were once considered less important. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, many renowned masterpieces have already been extensively studied, prompting scholars and enthusiasts to explore lesser-known works. Secondly, societal conditions have changed, leading to a shift in focus. Nowadays, historical books often delve into the everyday lives of ordinary people rather than solely focusing on kings and rulers. This change in perspective is also evident in the art world, as both private collectors and institutions are showing interest in even mass-produced items and commodities to gain a better understanding of the past and its connections to the present. Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection of Russian icons from the 17th to 19th centuries exemplifies this trend, as it focuses on items that were considered less noteworthy compared to relics from earlier periods. When studying art, including icons, we can employ various approaches and, among other things, focus on what they can reveal about the historical context in which they were created.

How would you describe the significance of the Kushnirskiy collection overall?

I was particularly fascinated by the story behind these icons. Created in remote Russian villages from the 17th to the 19th centuries, they endured the historical turmoil of the Russian Revolution and multiple waves of emigration, eventually finding themselves in America. It was there that they were discovered by a Russian immigrant in the 1990s. With great care, he restored them and assembled them into a thoughtfully curated collection. There is something truly cinematic about this. But as they say, life is often stranger than fiction.