USSR Early Russian Icons

USSR Early Russian Icons

USSR Early Russian Icons

USSR Early Russian Icons

Excerpt

The Russian icon is one of the highest forms of artistic expression in the world. The force of great artistic traditions, characterized at once by exceptional stability and an inexhaustible creative sense, gave rise to a profoundly national form of art which, in its own way, is perfect. Up to the XVIIIth century, that is, over a period of 800 years, this art form preserved its inherent energy and vitality. It is a unique phenomenon in the history of painting. Compelled, as they were, to choose their subjects from within a restricted though nonetheless very wide field, the painters of Russian icons had to concentrate all their talents and energies on the artistic expression of their paintings, and in this they reached the highest degree of excellence. The task of perfecting traditional art forms and the steadfastness shown in artistic creation brought about a remarkable stability and a great wealth of expression in the schools to which we owe the Russian icons. They thus bequeathed to us priceless gifts whose beauty is filled with a profound meaning. The "content" of the icons is far from being limited to their religious significance or to the immediate "story" element in them. Russian icons reflect, in an original and predetermined form, social phenomena and historical events--the sufferings and exploits of the people in their struggle for national independence, the ardour and enthusiasm which characterized the establishment of a powerful Russian State. They have also been influenced by literary elements, mythological ideas stemming from a rollicking paganism. At the same time these icons of early Russia have revealed man's own inner world, his purity and nobility of soul, his readiness for sacrifice, and the depth of his thought and feeling.

The highest expression of icon painting in early Russia is found in the inspired works of Andrei Rublëv, and especially in his celebrated Trinity, where the deep inner significance is incomparably matched by rhythm of line and harmony of colouring. The works of this simple monk, a son of the people, were however but a meteor flash across the deep darkness of the Middle Ages. The way to Rublëv's achievement had been paved by the labours of generations of highly gifted master painters, whose names are unknown. Tradition has it that Rublëv used to spend all his leisure time in absorbed study of the works of his predecessors and colleagues. Throughout the centuries, Rublëv masterpieces have, in their turn, provided inspiration for Russian painters. In the XVIth century, they influenced the work of a painter as outstanding as Dionisius. After the Great October Socialist Revolution, the icon painting of early Russia was freed from its purely liturgical use; it was assembled in museums, subjected to a careful process of restoration, and thoroughly studied by specialists. It stands before us today as a living and inexhaustible source of inspiration. Such painting has ceased to be regarded as cryptic mediaeval art. My generation has been lucky enough to be the first to discover the real Russian icon, beneath the coats of varnish and later inscriptions which obscured it, and reveal to the world a brilliant art that enthrals us by the exquisite harmony of its colouring, the easy flow of its lines, and the deeply spiritual significance of its imagery. By escaping from the narrow framework of religion, and by ceasing to be an instrument for the ruling of consciences, icons have for the first time become the object of free aesthetic appreciation, and radiate a beauty hitherto unknown. We are glad to note the growing interest which is being shown in the Russian icon, and we hope that the publication of masterpieces of this art form in Unesco's World Art Series will help firmly to establish early Russian painting as part of the entire world's cultural heritage.

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