Icon Restoration Artist on The Kushnirskiy Collection

Icon Restoration Artist on The Kushnirskiy Collection

Marina Diker-Koshkareva is a professional icon restoration artist. In an interview with the Russian Icon Collection, she discussed her impressions of Oleg Kushnirskiy’s icons and how the collection catalog helps her in her daily work.

You are a restoration artist. Could you tell us a bit more about the specifics of your work?

Marina Diker-Koshkareva: I am a certified artist-restorer and an art historian. I studied to become a restorer of easel oil and tempera paintings (including paintings and icons), graphics, and gilded carvings. For over seventeen years, I have been involved in various types of restoration work, including handling museum artifacts and monumental paintings—frescoes in cathedrals. Currently, I have a narrower specialization—icon restoration. I take on private commissions, mainly restoring family heirlooms.

What role do printed publications, including catalogs of private and museum collections, play in the work of a restorer?

When restoring items from private collections, we sometimes don’t know their provenance, as clients do not conduct detailed historical and laboratory research. In this context, catalogs and printed publications are very helpful in studying the material, dating, and determining the school to which the piece belongs.

Losses on items are quite common. For example, inscriptions or entire fragments may be missing on an icon. In such cases, detailed printed materials become simply indispensable. Every restorer compiles their own collection of publications that help them in their daily work.

How useful has Oleg Kushnirskiy’s icon collection catalog been for you?

The abundance of inscriptions is especially characteristic of icons with border scenes, which are represented in the Kushnirskiy collection. Recently, I was working on an icon from Palekh, and the catalog helped me date it precisely, as the image exactly matched the data presented in the catalog. It was amazing and gratifying—thanks to the catalog, we were able to fully decipher the lost inscriptions and texts. Such moments are the most valuable in a restorer’s work.

What can you say about the quality of the catalog as a professional?

The catalog is excellently done. It’s important that, along with high-quality printing of all reproductions, the book includes enlarged fragments of the icons, allowing for in-depth study. Having such a printed edition is crucial for me as it significantly facilitates my work with details, enabling me to copy them. This is more difficult to achieve with a digital version. And, of course, the comprehensive art historical and iconographic analysis of all the icons is extremely important. Such catalogs are rare, their print runs are small, and restorers have to literally hunt for these books.

How would you characterize Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection itself? What caught your attention when studying the catalog?

I find this collection very interesting because I often work with icons from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The collection features icons with border scenes and various feasts, which is a valuable reference for me, helping restore the names and locations of border scenes. Additionally, Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection includes many icons from Palekh from different periods, allowing us to see the differences between, for example, the early years and the second half of the 19th century.

Icon Restoration Artist on The Kushnirskiy Collection

The Resurrection—the Descent into Hell, with the Holy Trinity and Church Feasts in 16 Border Scenes. Last quarter to the end of the 18th century. Palekh. The Oleg Kushnirskiy Collection.

Please tell us about the features of the 18th-19th century icons, especially those from Palekh and Vladimir, represented in Kushnirskiy’s collection. What distinguishes them from other icons of the same period?

First, Palekh and Vladimir icon painters strictly adhere to the traditional school in the preparation of materials. All the works I have dealt with are made according to the canon. The wooden panels are prepared very carefully, which prevents them from warping. They always use pavoloka—a cloth applied to the wooden panel before the application of the base coat. All this significantly affects the preservation of the icons.

For the border scenes and inscriptions on these icons, melted gold was often used, which unfortunately is prone to wear. In the catalog, one can see that the gold on the letters is partially lost but the inscriptions retain their characteristic script.

As for the painting itself, icons from Palekh and Vladimir villages are characterized by their miniature and detailed painting technique. Even in the smallest border scenes, every detail is thoroughly painted, and melted gold is used to highlight the clothing. 

What technologies are currently used for restoring 18th-19th century icons?

In later-period icons, layers of inscriptions and numerous repaints are not that common; however, the surface is repeatedly coated with varnishes that significantly darken and change color over time. Removing the later layers of varnish is the most difficult and time-consuming stage of restoration, for which special solvents are selected. Upon completion, the difference between “before” and “after” may be most pronounced.

Overall, restoration technologies are divided into traditional and modern. We mostly employ traditional materials. This is the classic Russian school of easel painting restoration.

For consolidation, we use sturgeon glue—a time-tested and reversible material. It is prepared from the swim bladders of sturgeon: they are soaked, left overnight, and then boiled. We also employ synthetic adhesives as necessary. To recreate the losses of the base coat, we use traditional gesso, and for restoration, we apply melted gold. To tint the losses in the image, we use modern paints. These are made from natural pigments and synthetic resins, ensuring that they do not change color over time; they are easily reversible and ideally suited for restoration. Then the surface is coated with modern, non-yellowing restoration varnishes with added protection.