Icons from Yaroslavl, Russia
Religious icons, almost by definition, occupy a hazy zone of expression between fine art and folk art. They are not supposed to reflect the character or interests of the person who makes them—they are not really supposed to express anything personal or individual, in fact. Rather they serve as generic objects of devotion—mere conduits to the things or people they represent—and the “artists” who make them dedicate their lives to reproducing standard forms and images again and again, as an act of reverence, of prayer.
This being the case, we would expect that throughout history, icons would look pretty much the same. In fact, they don't. Variations inevitably creep in, because to make the same thing again and again is a crashing bore, and besides, long-standing artistic traditions in different parts of the world insure that icons painted in Kiev, though perhaps very similar to one another, are going to have a different flavor from the ones painted in Rome. There were also disputes among orthodox iconographers as to what various figures actually looked like. For example, opinion was divided during the early centuries of Christianity whether Jesus should be depicted with short frizzy hair (the Semitic form) or with flowing hair parted in the middle (the Zeus form).
Many people today (including me), aren't much interested in religious icon, which seem to come in only two forms: a gilded Virgin Mary hanging her head in swooping fashion over a little baby, and a bearded, severe-looking crusty old man with an elongated face reminding you what a worthless and insignificant being you really are. The first is sentimental, the second is unpleasantly harsh. Who needs them?
If this is your attitude toward religious icons, a visit to the Minnesota Museum of Russian Art will come as a revelation. They are currently housing an exhibit of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century icons from Yaroslavl, Russia, a city 150 miles northeast of Moscow. The paintings have the golden glitter and lavish ornamentation that we might expect. What may come as a surprise is how large many of them are, and how consistently they move beyond the simple (if sometimes vaguely numinous) representation of rather wooden apostles, saints, and prophets, to depict ambitious historical scenes and narrative sequences that resemble the ones we see in Italian church frescos of an earlier date.
In fact, as I wandered the hall of the Museum of Russian Art, I was reminded repeatedly of the connections between religious iconography and Renaissance art. These were the styles that Giotto, Duccio, and Simone Martini, and other Italian stylists were “liberating” us from back in the trecento. Four hundred years later, they were still popular in Russia, and they don't look so shabby even today. However we may feel about the awkward postures and somewhat limited range of subjects, no one can deny that these paintings are dazzlingly rich in materials, craftsmanship, and (dare I say it) spirit. I was battered by gentle jolts of mystery, reverence, and even magic, time and again as I moved through the gallery, and the Russian hymns being piped into the darkened room only added to the effect.
I took a special liking to a shade of pale aqua green that was used as a background in several of the paintings, but a rich wine-in-tomato-sauce red was the more common choice. There was a great rendering of Ezekiel's Spaceship on the second-floor. A number of the scenes were too complex to decipher—it would have been nice to have a miner's headlamp and a printed sheet explaining all the goings-on. But there were also plenty of John the Baptist and nativity scenes, and in any case, we can re-read those stories anytime. The paintings bring us face-to-face with an entirely different way of looking at things that comes across, not only in the representations themselves, but also in the dazzle of the materials and the sobriety of the facial expressions involved.
A room in the back has exhibits explaining where Yaroslavl is, why it's such an important city in Russian history, how the paints used in the icons were made, and how the different schools of Russian iconography developed.
Modern Art from India
The exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts called “India: Public Places, Private Spaces,” covers a far-wider range of styles and themes, but the effect is less satisfying. Too much space is given over to over-blown video projects that can only be called trite, and more traditional photographic essays often seem unduly stylized to no real effect.
Navjot Altaf's wall-sized video installation, Lacuna of Testimony, consists of an immense bank of TV screens that depict a single image of incoming waves. A set of mirrors on the floor reflect the same image. Very slowly, fragmentary images of the Gujarat riots of 2002 replace segments of the surf. So? The theme would have been far-better served by a conventional documentary depicting the actual riots and probing their causes.
Another vast section of the exhibit has been given over to a room with a giant digital screen lined with dancing females. There is a cursor on the screen, and as you click on the dancers, they start doing a different motion. It's fun to play with...but does it really tell us anything much about India, or about anything?
Similarly, one of the photo essays consists of fourteen photos showing a chubby young man serving tea to his elderly father. The young man happens to be naked—which may have been intended as some sort of statement about imperialism. What it really shows, perhaps without intending to, is that the young artists of India have been as heavily influenced by superficial media styles from the West as their grandparents were influenced by British customs.
On the other hand, the show also contains plenty of traditional slice-of-life photos, and some genuinely surreal takes on Bollywood traditions. One very impressive work by Jitish Kallat offers a life-sized 180-degree digital panorama of a typical street.