When is an icon not an icon?

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Yet another change in location, this time to Florence for a wedding, but with some time set aside to gorge myself on early Renaissance painting.   That means traipsing around a lot of churches (because much of the best Italian art remains in situ) and a long queue to get into the Ufizzi gallery (because some of it doesn’t), emerging at the end footsore and with more questions than answers.

Having immersed myself in Eastern Orthodox imagery earlier this year (see “Secular icons?”) my first response on looking at the earliest works by Giotto and Cimabue was “those are icons”.  Stylistically and in subject matter, there is nothing to distinguish them from contemporary Eastern Orthodox icons: the flat, gilded backgrounds, the poses of the Madonna and child, and the saints, are all identical.  That made me wonder if the Medieval believers had approached these images in the same way that an Orthodox Christian would have done, in which case we need to think of the Renaissance not just in the conventional art-historical terms (epitomised by Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation) but also in terms of a change in belief.    This is important because, in most cases the artists would have been working to strict instructions from their clerical paymasters and would not have had much latitude to experiment with new designs.

A case in point is Giotto’s Madonna and Child with four saints, which looks very much like a row of icons on an Orthodox iconostasis. Except that this was originally altarpiece and that, itself, tells a story.   The Orthodox iconostasis stands between the priest who conducts the eucharist and the congregation whereas a Catholic altarpiece sits behind the altar, so that the congregation (that part beyond the rood screen at least) can see the ceremony and, in particular, the part when the priest elevates the host.   Theological developments in the 13thcentury, therefore, drove changes in the arrangement of church furniture and, in turn, led to some of the changes that we see in art during this period.

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Giotto: Madonna and Child with St Nicholas, St John the Evangelist, St Peter and St Benedict the Redeemer.  Tempera on wood, 1337.   Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

It is not just the position of the image that changed in Catholic churches during Medieval times: subject matter also changes from schematic images painted to prescribed formulae to styles that demanded more mental engagement by the viewer.  Look at Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi, painted about a century after Giotto’s Madonna and Child.   The Madonna and child are still present but are now set in a context that would allow the viewers to imagine that they were participants at the original event.   Note, too, how the subjects in the picture are dressed in contemporary attire and original audiences might also have recognised the patron and members of his family painted into the front of the crowd.   At one level, these altarpieces function as a “poor man’s bible”, bringing elements of the Gospel to the largely illiterate congregations but, at the same time, they are also drawing the viewers into the story, ensuring that they are not just passive observers and, in turn, demanding a response.

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Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi.  Tempera on wood, 1420. Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

As the fifteenth century progresses, we see the influence of the Renaissance in the images growing. In particular, a better understanding of linear perspective allowed artists to place the characters in their paintings in more plausible settings, drawing the viewer into the pictorial space.   Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation is painted onto a wall at the top of a staircase leading to monk’s cells in the Convent of San Marco, so the engagement with the viewer would be brief: no more than a short pause and a prayer before moving on.   The quiet scene depicted here is, perhaps, better suited to a monastery’s cloisters than the busy-ness that we saw in the Adoration of the Magi but, by focussing on just two people, pictures of the Annunciation create spaces that need to be filled if the illusion of pictorial depth is to be maintained.   And so we see, in the background of both Fra. Angelico’s and Leonardo’s Annunciations, the first tentative steps at depicting landscapes.

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Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation at the Convent of San Marco, Florence.  Fresco, 1437-1446.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. Oil and tempera on wood, 1472-1474.  Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

The painting style may have developed through the early Renaissance but one feature that all these pictures still share with their Gothic predecessors, and with Byzantine icons, is that they are still “applied art”: each was painted with a particular purpose in mind, whether for a church or a monastery, and 21stcentury notions of aesthetics have to bear this in mind.   On our trip to Florence this aspect was exemplified by Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper, also at the Convent of San Marco.  This is in rather better condition than Leonardo’s depiction of the same scene in Milan (which is about a decade younger) but is similar in other ways (some think that Leonardo may have been inspired by Ghirlandaio’s treatment of the subject) and, significantly, was also painted life-size onto the wall of a refectory.   Once again, we can see clever use of linear perspective to create an illusion of depth and, in the background, trees that suggest that, instead of looking at a flat wall we are, in fact, looking into an extension of the room that we are in which, in turn, has windows that look out onto a garden.   That gives us an important clue to unlocking the meaning of the image.

The Refectory where we find The Last Supper is now the gift shop for the San Marco museum, but there are wooden benches along two of the walls where you can sit down and try and put yourself into the place of the monks and their visitors who would have eaten their meals here.   The painting creates the illusion that they were eating in a room that seemed bigger than it really is, and where there were a dozen or so extra guests whose presence was a constant reminder of one of the most important events in the Gospels.  This is the acme of Renaissance thinking: scientific and mathematical principles being utilised to create a work of art that, in turn, synergised man’s relationship with God.   C.P. Snow described what he saw as a profound gulf between arts and sciences in the Two Cultures, written in 1959.  Even then he could conceivably have extended this observation to three cultures by including religion too.  That would have been an anathema in the fifteenth century, when the boundaries between art, science and spirituality were much more fluid.  We’ve learned a lot in the intervening five hundred years but, at the same time, there is much that we have forgotten to remember.

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Domenico Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper in the Small Refectory at the Convent of San Marco, Florence.  Fresco, 1486.

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The church of Santa Croce rising above the rooftops of central Florence in May 2019.    The photograph at the top of the post shows a view of Florence from Fiesole.

Unorthodox icons …

Towards the end of my most recent trip to Bucharest I came across, almost by chance, the Art Collections Museum, located on Calea Victoriei about 10 minute walk north from the National Museum of Art.  It brings together a number of collections that have been acquired by the state over the years, keeping each intact so that they reflect the taste of the original owners rather than reassembling them into broader thematic groupings.  On the day of my visit it was almost deserted, with attendants outnumbering visitors, despite this being the first Wednesday of the month, meaning that admission was free.   Their eyes followed me as I browsed, and their footsteps tracked mine through the empty rooms.

A museum such as this inevitably has some parts that enthral whilst other parts that fail to enthuse me. Highlights for me were the expressionist art of Alexandru Phoebus and the odalisques of Iosef Iser, both artists I had not previously encountered who had brought emerging ideas back from Paris and Berlin.   Then I walked into a room with a wall closely-hung with some very striking icons.  Two aspects struck me: their luminosity and the almost cartoon-nature of the scenes.  Imagine what Roy Lichtenstein might have produced were he to have brought his Pop Art sensibilities to religious subject matter.   The luminosity, I discovered, was because they had been painted on glass – a practice that arrived in the largely Catholic area of Transylvania from Hungary in the late 18thcentury.  This period coincided with the destruction of Orthodox monasteries and, with this, the loss of traditional icon painting skills.   Glass painting was, initially, a secular art form but, over time, it became a medium for religious imagery, initially drawing on Catholic representations of religious themes but gradually returning to Orthodox themes.

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Three glass icons from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

The Catholic influence is apparent in the narrative content of some of the images that I’ve included here (see the Lamentation over the Dead Christ on the right-hand side of the top row and the centre of the bottom row, and the Last Supper on the left-hand side of the bottom row). Compare these with more traditional icons (see, for example, “The art of icons …”).   The middle image on the upper row is the Mystical Winepress, drawing on the metaphor of Christ as the true vine (Isaiah 27:2-5, John 15:1).  At the bottom right there is a rather strange-looking image of a figure with three faces but just four eyes).  This is a depiction of the Holy Trinity: God being simultaneously three persons and one.  It is also the image, of those I have chosen to depict, closest in style to traditional Orthodox icons.

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More icons on glass from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

It is hard for a modern viewer, steeped in the visual culture of the 20thand 21stcenturies, to appreciate the impact of these images.  These were produced at a time when painters in western Europe were preoccupied with realism and capturing the dynamism of the world around them.   These are pared-back, almost cartoon-like depictions.  On the one hand, they are folk art, produced by artists without formal training; yet, at the same time, they are depicting such familiar subjects (for the audiences) that a suggestion of the subject matter is all that is needed.  Icons on the wall of a gallery are divorced from their context and analysing them in terms of visual representation does not do them justice. Icons in a church or in the home of an Orthodox believer are catalysts to deep spiritual experiences and can achieve this without sophisticated painting techniques.   Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, says we have to “become like children” (18:3) and, remembering how cartoons were able to draw me into imaginative worlds when I was young, perhaps it should not be a surprise that such apparently simple images make effective icons.

 

Challenging art …

I took the opportunity of a trip to London to slip into the Hayward Gallery to have a look at the Andreas Gursky retrospective.   I’ve been interested in Gursky for some time as, like fellow German Anselm Kiefer, he is someone who uses his art to ask big questions (see “The fine art of asking big questions” and “Anselm Kiefer and the art of algae”).  Gursky is principally a photographer rather than painter or sculptor though, like Kiefer, he works at large scales.  The Rhine II, the picture at the top of this post, is 3.5 m long and 2 metres high, for example.   Taking a picture on a mobile phone doesn’t really do it justice, particularly as Gursky’s works, though they look naturalistic, are the result of extensive digital manipulation.   In this case, he has turned a landscape of the River Rhine near Dusseldorf into a near-abstract composition.   This involved digital manipulation to remove all evidence of buildings on the far side of the river.

The next picture I’ve included is the type of image for which Gursky is best-known: monumental images taken from a high viewpoint and teeming with activities associated with global capitalism.   In this case, he has photographed a factory in Vietnam that is making cane furniture for IKEA.   I look at this work as a descendent of Bruegel’s busy pictures from the sixteenth century except that Gursky’s narrative is very different to anything that Bruegel tried to portray.   Here, the sea of identically-attired individuals all performing variations of the same basic processes merge into a repetitive abstract pattern.   It is the antithesis of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” not just because there is no single “moment” that is being captured but also because the impression of spontaneity is also false: these large images are, in fact, composed from many different images.  It is not always apparent on first viewing but close examination reveals the images to be uniformly in focus from front to back and, in the case of the panoramic views, to have no issues with distortion at the edges.   So Gursky also takes us to that ambiguous territory where images look like they are depicting an actual point in space and time but they are not yet, at the same time, they are conveying truths about the modern world.   We approach his work with an expectation that photographs represent reality.  But they don’t.  Or do they?

Andreas Gursky, 2004, Nha Trang.   295 x 207 cm

Les Mées is another example of a superficially simple image of an enormous solar farm in southern France, with the Alps as a backdrop.  Once again, however, there is post-production manipulation of the image but also, in part a consequence of scale, the invitation for the viewer to contemplate and meditate on what is portrayed.  Here we have the juxtaposition between the regular, angular solar panels completely covering the hillsides in the foreground, and the natural beauty of the Alps behind.   The manmade looks that much more artificial through the juxtaposition with the grandeur of the mountains.   One of the ironies of the image is that solar panels represent a sustainable future yet are, in this location, as much of a visual pollutant as an oil refinery.   This solar farm covers 200 hectares and generates enough electricity to power 12,000 households.  How many more of these would be needed to break the West’s dependence on oil and how many more landscapes would be changed as a result?   Energy always has comes at a price.

Gursky’s talent is to simultaneously draw viewers in to inspect the details whilst forcing them to step back and absorb the whole.  As you realise from the details that the image may not be exactly what first impressions suggest, so your mind is opened to other readings.   We look at these images both as technical creations in their own right but also as commentaries on the state of the world.   Gursky manages to simultaneously challenge our eyes and our thinking.

Andreas Gursky (2016) Les Mées.  221 x 367 cm.

Coda: A week after visiting the Gursky retrospective, I saw The Square at the Tyneside cinema.  If you have not heard of this film, it is a film about a contemporary art gallery directed by Ruben Őstland.   The plot focuses on the curator of a contemporary art gallery who is trying to present high-minded conceptual art with a moral message relevant to our times so it was hard not to escape the parallels with the Gursky retrospective.   Much of the dark humour in the film arises from the curator’s inability to reconcile these high ideals with his own private life (one of the key sequences involves a one night stand with a journalist – played by Elisabeth Moss – whose name he subsequently cannot remember).   One gets a sense when seeing art in the hushed sepulchres that are contemporary art galleries that these have a quasi-spiritual role in a largely secular age.   I have no problem with this, especially if the art makes people think about their place in the modern world.  But that does place a great responsibility on the artists and curators, in turn creating the potential for storylines such as that in The Square.   Ruben Őstland has done for contemporary art what Graham Greene was so good at doing for the Roman Catholic church: highlighting the paradoxes that are inevitable when fallible humans struggle to address the biggest questions of all.

The art of icons …

A week off from algae, as I travel around Bulgaria on holiday.  In between exploring mountains (and, I admit, pulling a toothbrush from my knapsack on a couple of occasions for a sneaky diatom sample), I have been learning about the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox icon painting, as a break from my normal scientific and artistic routines.  My interest was piqued by a visit to the superb icon gallery at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest last year, though this mostly served to demonstrate how little I knew, either about icons or their context in Orthodox worship.

Context is important because, in our secular age, we are most likely to encounter religious art in a gallery rather than a church.  My initial response to an icon, such as that in the image below, is to place it into a Western art historical context.   I note the relatively simple modelling of the features, depicting archetypes of religious figures and the flat background.  There is no attempt to place the figure in three-dimensional space, as most religious painters from the Renaissance onwards would have tried to do.  They were trying to draw the viewers in, creating space inside the picture that encouraged them to engage with the subject matter.  Painters of the Counter-Reformation, such as Rubens, went further, painting the protagonists in their religious paintings life size and dressing them in contemporary clothes to encourage viewers sense of participation.

An icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Bankso school of icon painters (late 18th / early 19th century) in southern Bulgaria.  The image at the top of the post shows the iconostasis at Mānāstirea Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania.

By contrast, by flattening everything but the subject’s physiognomy, the Orthodox icon painter projects his subjects into our space, encouraging a different type of engagement.   Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of contemplative prayer, in which knowledge of God is attained through meditative practices such as repetition of a meaningful word or short phrase.  In this context, icons can serve as objects that help viewers to concentrate their minds while they step away from the everyday world and towards the divine realm.  One manifestation of this is that there is typically more activity in an Orthodox Church, compared to a Catholic or Protestant church, outside of organised services, as worshippers make their own private devotions in front of icons.

This use of repeated phrases suggests parallels with eastern religions – the Hindu incantation “Om mani padme hum” being the best-known example.  Look, too, at the right hand of Christ in the icon below.  That, too, resembles the symbolic hand gestures – mudras – found in Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices.   Whether there is more than a superficial resemblance, in this particular instance, is a moot point.  Christ’s hand is raised to confer a blessing on the viewer and the position of the fingers is related to this.  They spell out “ICXC” –  IhcoyC XpictoC, or “Jesus Christ”.   The confusion with eastern practices arises, I suspect, from the way that the fourth finger is bent over to touch the thumb, similar to the Chin Mudrā.

On the other hand, there would have been ample opportunity for exchange of ideas along the Silk Road.  Early Christianity extended much further east, and Buddhism further to the west before the rise of Islam. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that the principle of monasticism, for example, may have been brought into the church by early missionaries returning from the east and, if this is the case, then it is possible that practices associated with monasticism would also have flowed east.  And, equally, there is no reason to assume that the movement was entirely one-way or solely between Christianity and Buddhism.  Our first reaction on walking into Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria was to notice the physical similarities with the huge Madrassas that we saw in Uzbekistan earlier this year (see “Reaching for the stars …“).

What we can see an Orthodox icon, in other words, is a product of time and place, only if we also recognise that time and place are continua, that ideas can flow and that there is a ‘natural selection’, of sorts, that selects and shapes these to fit local circumstances.  Traveling broadens the mind, without a doubt, but sometimes you need to unload your preconceptions in order to free up the mind to see the world through fresh eyes.

The courtyard of Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria with the Church of the Nativity on the right.

Miniature masterpiece …

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I had an hour of spare time in Edinburgh last week, and dived into the Scottish National Gallery, conveniently positioned just five minutes from Waverley station.   There is plenty in the permanent collections to make this a worthwhile diversion but, today, and totally unexpectedly, I was in for a particular, treat, as Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch was on display, loaned from the Mauritshuis in The Hague.   It is a tiny picture – measuring just 33.5 by 23 cm – but it is a wonderful little canvas, depicting – as the name suggests –a lifesize goldfinch, one of the most regular visitors to our bird table here in Bowburn.

My interest in Dutch painting occasionally spills over into this blog (see “How to paint like Vermeer” and “A wet afternoon in Berlin”) and Fabritus plays a small but important role in the story of the Dutch Golden Age, being a pupil of Rembrandt but also, possibly, a mentor to Vermeer himself.  He provides the elusive link between these two great masters (though the link with Vermeer is only circumstantial).   He was killed at the young age of 32 just after this picture was painted, when a magazine of gunpowder exploded in the city of Delft where he lived.   Looking at the picture – which is, in effect, a trompe d’oeil – the similarities to Vermeer become apparent: the modest subject matter, the attention to detail and, in particular, the realistic treatment of light and shadow.  The tiny picture draws the viewer into its world and, in Edinburgh, it completely overshadows the much larger works that surround it including, ironically, one by Vermeer himself.

My last encounter with The Goldfinch was via the printed word: Donna Tartt uses an encounter with this picture (on loan to the Met in New York in her treatment) as a plot device in her novel The Goldfinch.   It thus joins Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring in the exclusive club of novels named after great Dutch paintings.  That has got me thinking … what other novels have Dutch paintings as their titles?  Send me your suggestions  …

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A rare excursion behind a telephoto lens: a goldfinch photographed in our garden, May 2016.

Abstracting from reality …

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In a recent post, I mused on the blurred boundaries between “representation” and “abstraction” when applied to the microscopic world (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)”.  These reflections sent me back to one of our earliest winners, Mario Sironi’s image of a Southern Right Whale swimming through an algal bloom (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”), to test these thoughts.  My reflections were mostly concerned with the microscopic world; that Mario’s image deals with one of the largest organisms on earth just helps to make the point.  At the heart of representational art lies the ability of an independent viewer to relate a two dimensional image to a “sense impression” (or “schemata”) lodged in their mind.   That means that if the viewer does not have the same schemata as the artist, then an image that was intended by the artist as representational will not be recognised as such.  The artist usually assumes that viewers will possess a catalogue of such schemata that are broadly similar to his or her own.

Most people who depict the natural world – whether by photographs or other media – confine themselves to the macroscopic and the obvious.  This means that there is a strong chance that the viewer will possess the appropriate schemata and both “recognise” the image and make appropriate mental connections that allow viewers to add layers of context in order to interpret a picture.   A picture of a lamb, for example, should be recognisable as a juvenile stage of Ovis aries.  This, in turn, may be used by the artist to suggest an interpretation.  To a 16th or 17th century viewer, a lamb included in a portrait of a child suggests youthful innocence: an interpretation that may be lost on a modern viewer who sees, simply, a child with a lamb, but lacks the mental connections to read more deeply into the image.

When the microscopic world is used as subject matter, the distinctions begin to blur yet further – the images themselves might be “realistic” but still not be recognisable by the lay viewer, and the reduced number of mental connections will limit the ways in which the picture is interpreted yet further.   One person’s “representation” can become someone else’s “abstract” image.   The idea in the painting above is to take an image that is representational – most people would recognise that two whales formed the focal point – and then to “nudge” it over the border into abstraction.   The interplay between the greens and the blues of the water brought to mind some of Mark Rothko’s juxtapositions of colour.   The whales and their attendant foam could, in turn, be reduced to a few lines of black and white paint, providing a focal point for the canvas that sets it apart from Rothko’s signature style.   In retrospect, I could probably push the image a little further towards abstraction than this experiment …

I see antecedents for this work in Piet Mondrian’s explorations of the boundary between realism and abstraction around 1912.  He painted a whole series of images of trees that gradually, over time, were stripped back from recognisable Post-Impressionistic landscapes to a point where form was asserted over content, the palette was reduced and, eventually, the schemata of a “tree” disappeared altogether.

My point is that the boundary between “realism” and “abstraction” is not a fixed point, but depends upon our own sensory experiences.   Those of us who portray the world of microscopic algae need to remember this.  Perhaps the same argument can be posited for the boundary between “representation” and the “other worlds” theme that I mentioned in my earlier posts?   Again, we need to consider our audience: my aim in my paintings and in these posts is to convey some of the wonders of the natural world that most people overlook.   The question we need to ask is whether we are fulfilling this role as ambassadors for the hidden world of algae if most of our audiences are just seeing shapes and patterns?

Reference

Gombrich, E.H. (1960).  Art and Illusion.   A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.   Phaidon Press, London.

A stamp of approval …

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A small parcel arrived from Germany last week bearing, in addition to a seasonal offering of Lebkuchen, two stamps featuring diatoms, part of a series of stamps termed “Microworld”.   A little detective work has revealed this picture to be the work of KAGE Institute of Scientific Photography, based in an impressive castle in Baden-Württemberg, about 60 km to the east of Stuttgart. Their website modestly includes Spiegel Online’s description of them as “Prominentester Mikrofotograf der Welt” (“most famous microphotographer in the world”).

Of course, after all I have written about the poor perception of algae in the wider world, it is good to see diatoms being honoured with their own stamp, even though false-coloured scanning electron micrographs (SEMs) rank low in my estimate of ways to depict the microscopic world.   This relates to a deeper concern about the way in which we see the world through microscopes.   It is a theme that I want to develop in a post in the near future; but it also overlaps with a broader concern about the reality of microscopic images more generally

SEMs beguile us with three-dimensional impressions of the microscopic world but they also present the transparent as opaque and everything is monochrome. The latter is a temptation to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop to show off their skills although, in the process, they remove the image a little further away from “reality” and towards “abstraction”.   Is that a problem?   In artistic terms, the answer must be “no”, so long as we are honest about what is happening. Having abstracted the image (i.e. removed it from … ) its context, we are free to evaluate it purely in terms of artistic merit. We have had SEMs on the Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist that work as abstract images; however, one of the critera that the judges look for when drawing up the short list is to find basic authenticity and honesty in the images. That raises a whole lot of questions when dealing with the microscopic world, but does suggest a limit to the amount of image manipulation that is acceptable.   The key point, in my opinion, is to ensure that the viewer never forgets that these organisms are part of the natural world and not products of the imagination of an inferior Salvador Dali clone.