‘I Despise Michelangelo’

PHOTO by Anton Denisov / TASS
Russia's modern-day iconographers talk about art, faith and Donald Trump

If you ignored the increasing role of the church in Russia over recent years, then the profession of iconography could be seen as completely outdated. Afisha.Daily interviewed three iconographers and found out how their work is commissioned, how much they earn and what they think about modern art.

Alexander Lavdansky

64, founder of the Kinovar workshop

I grew up in a non-religious family. My father was a successful and high-ranking engineer. I studied at an institute of applied mathematics but I was always fond of painting – I created avant-garde paintings and my work was even included in some public exhibitions. Then I was baptized and it was as if a new world had opened up to me: I discovered icons. I quit school, moved away from secular paintings and took up iconography. My father was devastated that his son did not get a STEM degree and started doing who knows what, but he eventually accepted it.

It was tough to paint icons in the Soviet Union. In theory you could have been sent to prison for it. I began my work when they'd stopped doing that though, so the authorities either fined iconographers or just painted over their icons. Priests generally managed to bribe their way out of those problems. I remember one time I was working in Ukraine, and one inspector was quite relentless. They greased his palm, but he kept coming back. Our team had to hide in some bushes while the priest poured him gorilka (Ukrainian vodka) and settled the matter.

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What are your clients like?

There are some people who paint icons for specific customers, but there’s less artistic freedom in that. Either you have a client who trusts your vision or you have to adapt to suit the tastes of those who are paying you. A woman once told me that she had had a vision of the Madonna and wanted me to paint that. I refused. She might have seen something, but I hadn’t. I prefer to paint icons for churches: there’s always a lot of work to be done there and they let trust your artistic approach.

Sometimes you have to work on-site, when you’re painting murals. For example, at the minute, I'm having to travel to Makhrishsky Convent near Alexandrov. A mural is like art mixed with extreme sports – you really need to be healthy to do it. Sometimes you work in 15 hour shifts on rickety scaffolding or in the freezing cold. In 1989 we painted a village church out in the boondocks near Kolomna. The electrics were terrible: there were wires everywhere and the walls were constantly leaking. I guess something shorted out, because we got shocked whenever we touched the walls with our paintbrushes. The shocks weren’t that strong, though, so we joked that it made the murals livelier. In late 1970s I worked on a mural which was really high up. My scaffolding was installed on wooden beams, one of which was balanced on a rotten windowsill. It broke while I was painting and although the scaffolding didn’t collapse, it lurched pretty violently. I managed to hold on, but only just. It gave me quite a fright. Almost 40 years on, I still remember it vividly.

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How do you choose your subjects?

There is a certain Church canon when it comes to painting churches, which was established in the 16th century. Sometimes we consult the priests, sometimes they ask for something specific. Once, a cathedral dean requested that we paint him among the sinners in hell in The Last Judgment mural. He was quite an eater and this was his form of atonement. So we obliged and painted a demon poking him in the gut with a hook, although the face wasn’t quite right... In late 1980, back before the Romanov family had been canonized, one priest asked us to paint them anyway. Suddenly a bishop, who was strongly against the beatification of the royal family, arrived. The priest who commissioned the work was really scared and asked my team: “There’s lot of you – stand by the wall and block out the mural.” I guess someone grassed, because the bishop conducted a thorough inspection and eventually asked us to move away from the wall. The cat was out of the bag. They left the mural intact, though.

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How much do iconographers make and spend?

Before the economic recession and sanctions, oligarchs showered churches with gifts, and iconographers were earning good money. Today we still have a lot of job offers, but the pay is lower. A small icon costs up to 30,000 roubles ($480). Renting a workshop on Khitrovskaya Square costs 11,000 roubles ($180). The place has a lot of character though. Katorga tavern (which was well documented by Vladimir Gilyarovsky) is right below it, and the workshop itself was once a flophouse with bunk beds. The paint cost varies: lazurite is quite expensive as it’s a semi-precious stone. If you want high quality, you need to ship it from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan. The delivery is complicated, so one kilogram costs around 40,000 roubles ($650).

The church is doing well now and a lot of temples are being built, but there is not a lot of interest in iconography. There’s been a stylistic shift as well. We create Byzantine icons, as the late Patriarch Alexy II preferred them. The current patriarch is not fond of Byzantine art and prefers the academic style.

What do you think about modern art?

I enjoy 19th century paintings. Famous artists painted religious themes during that period – take Karl Bryullov, for example. I like Renaissance as well. Although not Michelangelo – I despise him. Yes, it’s great art, but it has completely moved away from faith. Contemporary art has completely degenerated. A person nails himself to pavement and a crowd gathers around, applauds and walk away – that’s not art. An icon, unlike a postmodern performance, is for the ages – like Egyptian pyramids, Assyrian bas-reliefs, which can only be chopped down with axes or destroyed with dynamite.

Philipp Davydov

41, art historian, founder of the Living Traditions iconography workshop

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When I was 12, my father became a priest. We moved to a village in Latvia, where he was given a parish. I had no affinity towards any particular profession after school, so my father, who painted icons (and still does) offered to teach me his craft. At first he taught me himself, and then I enrolled into an Academy of the Arts to study art history. It really helped me, as understanding of painting was enriched by knowledge of the icon’s place in world culture. Today, I and my wife have our own workshop. We generally work with private clients, rather than temples. Working with architecture is interesting in the sense of the painting’s interaction with space. I had a job at an Anglican church near New York and the parishioners gave me the best compliment. They said that it was as if my mural was always there.

Can an icon be modern?

We try to make icons suitable for modern people. For example, lately we’ve been moving away from gold, as people have a different attitude towards it these days. In the middle ages if a person was wearing a gold chain, he was obviously a wealthy merchant. Today if we see a person with a thick gold chain, we think he has no taste. There is another issue here. Some of my colleagues take themes from ancient times, but adapt them with a 21st century approach. They perfect the straight line, they create a perfectly flat surface that looks like a mirror. So a man-made painting starts looking like a poster. They essentially produce hand-made prints.

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What do iconographers think about modern art?

As an art historian, it saddens me that art is losing its aesthetic appeal. In order to understand a piece of modern art you first need to read a wall of text next to it. I’m fond of pieces that work without a written explanation. For example, Bill Viola’s Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.

Alexander Chashkin

70, iconographer

When I was young I painted landscapes and never gave a thought to iconography. I found my voice when I turned 27 and I decided to become an opera singer. Although I did get accepted to an opera studio, after studying there for 4 years I couldn’t make it into a conservatory. So I started singing in a church choir. That’s where I had my fateful meeting. A woman who sang with us there was hosting the famous Sampson the Elder. He was an English lord or something, who was shot by the Bolsheviks but miraculously survived (although Wikipedia has a different account of his biography). So this old man requested that I paint icons. I initially refused, as I didn’t want to do religious painting – after all, I was working at a sovkhoz (a state-owned farm) at the time. But eventually I caved in.

My first real commission was painting an ancestral temple in Yasnaya Polyana, where Tolstoy’s ancestors are buried. Some Americans came there, looking for an artist to paint an Orthodox cathedral in Washington. They chose me, so I went to the United States for three years. I met a lot of interesting people there – Mstislav Rostropovich, for example. I was also acquainted with Donald Trump – although no one thought he’d be president back then. After I came back to Russia I became the head iconographer of the Moscow Patriarchy.

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Who commissions your work?

In the past, people thought that iconographers were wealthy. Today only amateurs paint icons, as it’s too hard to find work and the earnings are barely enough for food and shelter. The same holds true for other countries. When I worked in the United States the patriarchy was paid, but the actual iconographer received only $800 per month. If someone offers to pay me, I don’t mind – I need to make ends meet. But more often than not I work just for God’s glory.

What’s the relationship like with priests and parishioners?

In the US people can ask you to paint a mural of their patron saint on a temple wall. Sometimes these people also ask for the image to look like themselves. Rostropovich was mad after he saw my painting of Prince Mstislav. “Are you kidding me? I’m bald, and your prince has hair down to his shoulders!” Sometimes I refuse jobs. Alexy II invited me over once I'd returned from the US, and asked me about the plans to paint the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I said that it would be impossible to recreate the old temple – there were no artists capable of that mastery - and we’d have to paint heresy, anyway. The dome of the demolished cathedral bore the image of God the Father – a bearded old man – which is banned in the Church canon. Everyone came down on me: “How dare you lecture the Patriarch?” I refused nonetheless.

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Are there atheist iconographers?

Iconographers are just like other people – there are no saints among my colleagues. However, the artist still has to have faith. If an iconographer paints without faith, all he produces is colourful pattern. There are not many non-believers in this profession.

What is happening with religion and society?

Orthodoxy is dying out. It’s a formal process, which began when Yeltsin was president. Thank God the current president has faith. Sure, there is a growing interest in iconography, but it’s not that simple. The majority of churches have mediocre murals and icons. Many clients want to do it quickly and cheaply. The church must transform people, which requires iconographers of a higher quality, and priests who can get the word of God across, so that people hear it.