"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slavic Iconographical History and Developments

Just yesterday I finally received from Penn State Press a book which I noted at the beginning of the year: Jefferson Gatrall and Douglas Greenfield, eds., Alter Icons: The Russian Icon and Modernity (Studies of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University), x+276pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Passage into the modern world left the Russian icon profoundly altered. It fell into new hands, migrated to new homes, and acquired new forms and meanings. Icons were made in the factories of foreign industrialists and destroyed by iconoclasts of the proletariat. Even the icon s traditional functions whether in the feast days of the church or the pageantry of state power were susceptible to the transformative forces of modernization. In Alter Icons: The Russian Icon and Modernity, eleven scholars of Russian history, art, literature, cinema, philosophy, and theology track key shifts in the production, circulation, and consumption of the Russian icon from Peter the Great s Enlightenment to the post-Soviet revival of Orthodoxy. Alter Icons shows how the twin pressures of secular scholarship and secular art transformed the Russian icon from a sacred image in the church to a masterpiece in the museum, from a parochial craftwork to a template for the avant-garde, and from a medieval interface with the divine to a modernist prism for seeing the world anew.
With many plates, in both colour and black and white, this handsome book opens up absorbing areas of exploration. It begins with an introduction by Gatrall, and ends with an afterword by the well-known historian of the Russian Church, Vera Shevzov. In between, we have eleven articles by some well-known scholars, including Shevzov, Robert Bird, John McGuckin, and John-Paul Himka. Those articles are in four sections: (1) Empire of Icons; (2) Curators and Commissars; (3) Intermedial Icon; (4) Projections.

Those interested in Pavel Florensky (about whom Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies will be publishing an article in our upcoming fall issue) will find two articles of note: "Florensky and the Binocular Body" by Douglas Greenfield; and "Florensky and Iconic Dreaming" by McGuckin.

I have so far read with great interest two chapters. The first is "How America Discovered Russian Icons: the Soviet Loan Exhibition of 1930-1932" by Wendy Salmond. Though many of us in the US today take access to, and understanding of, icons for granted, in the opening decades of the twentieth century almost nobody here had any idea of what icons were, and the tiny handful who did--art historians, anthropologists, and the rest--almost invariably sneered at them as the primitive totems of backwards and stupid peasants, unfit for study or any serious consideration. The traveling exhibition of 1930-32 helped to raise awareness of icons in Russia especially, but it was also a very clever piece of Soviet propaganda. Interest in the Soviet Union was at an all-time high around 1930, and there were many articles constantly in the media. The exhibit was able to play into this interest, showing credulous Americans that an atheistic and iconoclastic regime ostensibly had a high aesthetic and religio-cultural sensibility. In reality this exhibit was used to deflect criticism of the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church (and the various Catholic and other Christian churches), and also used to drum up money by showing the world what fascinating artistic wares existed in the USSR and could be purchased. The Soviets undertook a mass "dumping" of icons and other cultural artifacts onto the international markets in order to raise desperately needed Western dollars to finance the campaigns of collectivization, dekulakization, terror-famine, and other crimes.

An even more fascinating article for me was "Moments in the History of an Icon Collection: the National Museum in Lviv, 1905-2005" by John-Paul Himka, author of the recent and related volume Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians.

As I have noted before, I visited the museum whose history Himka describes in lucid and crisp prose. (More recently I attended an exhibition in New York that had many icons from the museum, now recorded in the lovely companion volume, The Glory of Ukraine: Sacred Images from the 11th to the 19th Centuries.) The museum, as Himka illustrates, was at the cross-roads of all the various major events of the twentieth century: the First World War, during and as a result of which its host city of Lviv passed from being Hapsburg crown-land and capital of Galicia to Russian-occupied territory; the abortive West Ukrainian National Republic, declared on 1 November 1918 and leading to the Ukrainian-Polish war of 1918-19; the German invasion of Poland in 1939 followed weeks later by the Red Army; the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union; and the 1991 independence of Ukraine and emergence of the hitherto suppressed Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, then headquartered in at St. George's in Lviv. In most of these conflicts, the premises of the museum suffered only minor damage from shelling.

The central figure in the establishment of the museum was, of course, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church from 1900 until his death on 1 November 1944. As Himka succinctly puts it, Sheptytsky was a "scion of the upper elite [who] had toured Western Europe and studied its art firsthand. He had a finely educated aesthetic sense, a love of the visual arts, and great wealth." Sheptytsky's family patrimony, in fact, would be widely spent not only on buying icons about to be destroyed--whether by unknowing peasants convinced that wooden churches had to be torn down and replaced with modern brick ones, or hostile iconoclasts in the employ of the communists--but also on the land and buildings in which to house this ever-expanding collection.

The other figure to whom Himka pays careful attention is Vira Svientsitska, who worked for the museum under her father, the director, prior to being sent to the gulag from November 1948 to August 1956. After her release, she worked for the museum until her death in May 1991. She showed great cleverness in persuading the authorities to hang onto the icons, and amass others, by persuading them that far from being of religious significance, these icons were in fact "productions that expressed the Ukrainian people's longing for national and social liberation" (120).

For these and other fascinating stories and scholarly studies, I recommend Alter Icons: The Russian Icon and Modernity, which will be reviewed at greater length by an iconologist in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2012.

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