Research series: Russian Art and Artists (13) – Icons, and Wassily Kandinsky

The Mother of God of Vladimir [Constantinople; 12th century; Tretyakov Gallery]

The art of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) especially, to my mind, the paintings made from around 1910 to 1916 on the cusp of full abstraction, is among the most experimental, fascinating and exciting work of the 20th century. Before we get there, however, I’d like to explore Russian Icons a little – primarily because of their connections to Kandinsky’s art and thinking as we will see, but also because it was only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that Icons began to be viewed as works of art; much more than that, however, as a genre, they represent, symbolise, Russia’s understanding of itself.

The Mother of God of Vladimir, or the Theotokus of Vladimir (detail top of page) is one of the most beautiful and most revered icons in Russia:

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.” In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus to holy Prince Mstislav (April 15th) and was installed in the Devichi monastery in Vyshgorod

[Orthodox Wikipedia]

Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya icon of Our Lady [16th century, Russian Museum]

With the attempted invasion of Kievan Russia by the Mongol Empire led by Tamerlaine (aka Timur), the icon was removed – translated – to Moscow:

Orthodox tradition states that later, in 1395 Timur, having reached the frontier of Principality of Ryazan, had taken Elets and started advancing towards Moscow. Great Prince Vasily I of Moscow went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the Oka River. The clergy brought the famed Theotokos of Vladimir icon from Vladimir to Moscow. Along the way people prayed kneeling: “O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!” Suddenly, Timur’s armies retreated.

Since then:

The histories of Moscow and of the icon of Vladimir Mother of God are eternally inseparable. How many times did the Mother of God save the capital city from enemies through the grace of her holy icon? This icon has linked Apostolic times to Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ to Vladimir Rus’, and later to Muscovy, the Third Rome; as it is said, “there will be no Fourth.” The kingdom of Moscow was formed by divine providence and embraced the mystical ties of ancient empires, historical experience and traditions of other Orthodox peoples. The miracle working Vladimir icon became a symbol of unity and succession.

[The Catalogue of Good Deeds]

That the Icon is said to be painted by St Luke directly from the Virgin Mary, and to have passed from Byzantium to Moscow carrying all the symbolic weight of Orthodox belief, is the pivot of Russia’s sense of itself in the world.

A 15th-century depiction of Princess Olga being baptised in Constantinople

(from the Radzivill Chronicle: part of UNESCO’s amazing Memory of the World project).

Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ who became a Christian. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus’ officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus’ is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.

These were times often depicted by the Wanderers artists in the late 19th century as they revived the sense of Russian history and tradition. In 1880, Vassily Perov for example portrays early Christians praying in secret during pre-Christian pagan times, in 1892 Mikhail Nesterov recalled Princess Olga and in 1890, Viktor Vasnetsov depicted the baptism of Vladimir [all Kiev Museum of Russian Art].

When Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christinaity, artists from Byzantium came over to Kievan Rus to decorate the newly built churches and to teach local painters the skills of their work; and it was in Russia that icon painting really took hold, especially in the cities of Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow. One especially important master of Moscow was Andrei Rublev (1360s-1420s):

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) [see Tretyakov Magazine and there’s Tarkovsky’s mesmerising loosely biographical film Andrei Rublev.]

The ‘School of Novgorod’ is also particularly fascinating as it was the only Russian city spared the Mongol invasion in the 13th century due to being surrounded by marshes making it inaccessible, and so although the painting of icons is a very strict, inherited, hardly-ever-changing tradition, there is a distinctly Novgorodian style.

Saints Boris and Gleb

The Novgorod Icons Gallery notes:

The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to “Sts. Boris and Gleb” from the Church of same name in Plotniki – heroic in spirit and superb in its colour – scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father’s throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.

In terms of the painting:

Softness is the distinctive feature of the Russian Orthodox icons of Boris and Gleb. Usually, they represent frontal, full-length images of the princes, which seem to float in the air. The faces of the saints are somewhat sad but display concentration and kindness. In their hands, they hold the attributes of martyrdom and princely authority: crosses and swords. Boris and Gleb are dressed as princes with fur hats on their heads. The colour palette… is distinguished by richness and consistency. [Russian Icon Collection]

Add to that, ochre, green and red are dominant colours in Novgorod icons.

Another very famous icon image is that of St George (Patron Saint of Novgorod/ Moscow):

St George and the Dragon (Novgorod School; early 16th Century; c/o Ruzhnikov Gallery, London):

The icon is painted in rich colour typical for the Novgorod school. St.George on a rearing white charger, shown against a rocky landscape, slays the winged monster as it appears from the lake; the hand of God emerges from a segment of heaven on the top right of the composition and blesses the saint. An angel crowns St.George with a martyr’s crown, symbolising the victory of good over evil. The tower on the right represents the city, the king and inhabitants witness the battle.

Icons such as these – singular paintings, as it were – would be in churches and also people’s homes where they would reside in the Icon or Red Corner; small versions could be carried around and, in large churches and cathedrals the images would be built up such as on the iconostases which separate the sanctuary from the nave: here, for example, is the glorious interior of the Dormition Cathedral, Moscow [see Russian Art & Culture for full article].

One of the strangest, perhaps, icon images – especially for west European viewers – is that of Saints Stephen and in particular Christopher:

Saints Stephen and Christopher

That Christopher is represented with a dog’s head may stem from his being an outsider from an Eastern tribe. His faith in God conquered temptation, only to lead to his beheading. Rarely portrayed, even in Russian Orthodoxy, he is nevertheless the renowned patron saint of travellers Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher – Orthodox Arts Journal. And one more extraordinary icon:

Elijah ascending to Heaven [Novgorod]

Here the prophet and miracle worker Elijah ascends alive to Heaven on his chariot in a ball of fire; and it is believed, echoing Christ’s Resurrection, that Elijah will return to earth “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (The Book of Malachi), ie. at the end of the world, the end of history, when St Michael sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead and signal all souls to the weighing scales for the Day of Judgement.

Looking at all of these, what is so important to remember is that:

a religious icon in Russian Orthodoxy is considered a window to the Heavenly World. One should not look at an icon as a work of art bearing certain aesthetic features and merits but as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is a special devout attitude to the icon, which sets Orthodox traditions apart from others.

Russian Icon

It is in light of this Orthodox way of seeing icons that we might understand Kandinsky’s thesis for paintings that bypasses naturalistic representation and turns instead to an orchestration of lines, a chorus of colours and juxtaposition of forms that reach straight into the viewer’s soul. This would lead him, ultimately, to pure abstraction. My interest here, though, is in the pathway towards that abstraction and particularly Kandinsky’s ongoing references – even whilst he was painting in France, then Munich – to Russian history, folktale and Orthodox icons.

A ‘gallery’ of early paintings is one of medieval Moscow and fairy-tale romance:

Kandinsky: Sunday (Old Russia) [1904; Netherlands]

Kandinsky: Couple Riding [1906; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

The Gallery notes:

The “Riding Couple” belongs to the large group of Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, in which he conjures up a poetic world of images full of enigmatic diversity with fairy-tale- like, freely conceived sceneries. The magic of distant, long-gone times, into which such scenes are always transported, increases the impression of mysterious unreality. From jewel bright particles of colour, the image of a young, tightly entwined couple in Russian costume is created, riding along between stylized birch trunks and under the golden net of their leaves in the dark foreground. Behind them, the arch of a silent, sparkling river is visible, on which the white sails of two Viking ships, messengers of an indeterminably prehistoric time, appear in the mosaic of colour spots. Across the river, the silhouette of an old Russian Kremlin city with colourful domes and towers appears like an apparition over the water.

Kandinsky combines the romantic nostalgia of Symbolism with Post-Impressionist colour; the mosaic, or stained-glass window effect liberates the colours from ‘realistic’ representation, allowing them to shine in their own right. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, he would write:

“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, they eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

That liberation of colours is further enabled by ‘reaching back’ into an imaginary Russia; and perhaps one of his most extraordinary early pictures is:

Kandinsky: This Colourful Life [1907; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

We see a variety of characters from Old Russia, some of whom we’ve met before; in the foreground, just to the left, is the Madonna and Child, just behind them stand Boris and Gleb; to the right of the tree we see St George on horseback and, far right, our romantic couple are about to kiss. In the background there are sword fights and children’s games, a boat is rowed along the river (Volga) and we see a church and cemetery: stories, imagination and death being all part of this colourful life. Just up, to the left of the church steeple/cupola is fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga’s house and, looking up further, at the top of the hill, is Moscow.

It’s an extraordinary accumulation of Kandinsky’s ideas, heritage and inspiration. Art historian Hajo Duchting writes:

The painting is meant to depict all the worldly and spiritual aspects of Russian life past and present, aspects that touch upon death and the belief in resurrection, as well as strife and the small joys in life.

Whilst ‘Colourful Life’ is understood as a turning point, these Russian aspects will continue to influence the development of Kandinsky’s paintings over the next few years as explores colour even further in his painting and we the colour saturation intensifies in, for example “Picture with Archer” [1909; MoMA] in which we see the figure on the horse at the forefront to the right, some men in medieval costume to the left and, in the middle of sky and landscape a city with cupolas that could, again, by Moscow:

and becomes brighter, clearer…

The Blue Mountain [1909; Guggenheim, New York]

Vasily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art. 

That colour saturation now begins to change and the forms become less substantial; there’s increasing light, movement and fluidity to the picture:

Composition IV [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

And yet…

can you see Boris and Gleb, the two figures on the lower right?

the three central figures holding sabres (?) who seem to be guarding the blue mountain (blue, the colour of Heaven), well these are members of the celestial army which, according to legend, resides in the mountain and will emerge ready to save Russia and the Sainsts in time of need.?

and to the left in the foreground, under the rainbow, is the River Volga, with the oars of the rowing boat.

Above the rainbow, you might even see a calligraphic line suggesting a horse (the horse of St George), and in the top left? Those two ‘figures’? Well, look at the sky just above them – the red and orange seem to be the shape of a dog’s head. Those two figures are Saints Stephen and Christopher.

For Kandinsky, all this symbolism and this new art implies a turning point, a new dawn: spiritual and social renewal; apocalypse and resurrection.

Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.”

Art Forum

Most pertinent, then, is perhaps this glorious glass painting:

All Saints I [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

In simple outlines and bright colors, regardless of proportions and spatial logic, the artist assembles the figures of All Saints’ Day under the yellow trumpet of a monumental angel. Among them are St. George with shield and lance, a female saint with a burning candle and the large couple holding each other wrapped around each other, perhaps the two princely martyrs of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb… The holy society stands under the clear antagonism of brightness and darkness, salvation and destruction… [and] on the left above the trumpet of the angel [St Michael, from the Book of Revelation, sounding the last trump], the Kremlin city on the hill shines…

Moscow being, of course, the Third – and final – Rome.

And when, due to World War I, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914, he began working towards this extraordinary vision of the city:

Kandinsky: Moscow I [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

We seem to be standing in Red Square, whirling around looking at everything at once, cupolas and factory chimneys; there is a joy of life in the city under the rainbow; and, very probably, that is Boris and Gleb standing at the centre of it all: a triumphant vision.

And if, as Kandinsky believed, spiritual renewal would come with artistic renewal, then Moscow was the place to be, for the avant-garde artists were continuing to experiment fervently…

edith-sitwell-npg-1

Russian Art & Artists (13) – Russian Icons and Kandinsky

If you are enjoying this series and able to contribute I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes!

£5.00

Next time (Saturday 26th June) we’ll catch up with Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Futurists!

***

About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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