Icons, folk tradition and innovation

If tradition and modernity are generally considered to move in different directions, the one supporting the preservation of old values and the other expressing the dynamic of change, Russian avant-garde art of the early 20th century proves otherwise. It demonstrates that artistic innovation, at least during that period in time, did not counter tradition but in fact sought its inspiration from it, both from Russian folk culture and Orthodox religious art. This interplay, which actually constitutes a distinctive aspect of the Russian avant-garde, is explored in «When Chagall Learned to Fly: From Icon to Avant-Garde,» an unusual and intriguing exhibition organized jointly by Thessaloniki’s State Museum of Contemporary Art, where it is currently on display, and Frankfurt’s Ikonen Museum where it was shown before coming to Greece. The idea behind the exhibition belongs to Snejanka Dobrianowa-Bauer, the curator of the Ikonen Museum. (Bauer mentioned that her acquaintance a few years ago with Christos Margaritis, the man who manages the Velimezis collection of Byzantine art, prompted her to put together the exhibition.) Two years ago, the director of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Miltiades Papanikolaou, had organized a conference on the relationship between the Russian avant-garde and Byzantine art. Their shared interest led to the current exhibition. Works from the Costakis collection of Russian avant-garde art that belong to the State Museum and from the Dr Schmidt-Voigt collection of the Ikonen Museum, together with loans from museums and collections around the world were gathered to support the exhibition’s concept. The exhibition’s main section explores the connection between Marc Chagall’s monumental painting «Commedia dell’Arte» (a mural-like work that the artist painted in 1959 for the foyer of the new theater building in Frankfurt) and its 14 preparatory drawings with the so-called lubki, popular folk prints (some of them just hand-painted) that originated in the second half of the 17th century and were produced until the early 20th century which were created for the education and amusement of the Russian populace. The similarity between Chagall’s art and the lubki stretches across motifs and formal composition. Animals familiar to Russian popular fables, among them the dancing bear, the rooster, the goat playing the musical instruments or the giant cat (in lubki the cat is often used as a satirical representation of Peter the Great) are each part of a visual code, and appear both in lubki and Chagall’s paintings. There are also hybrid creatures such as the donkey-headed female figure playing the cello that occupies a central position in «Commedia dell’Arte.» And, as the exhibition’s title suggests, there is the theme of flying: The winged flying donkey in Chagall’s painting echoes the recurring theme of flying found in the lubki, where men flying out of chimneys is one of the most usual depictions of flight and symbolizes the fleeing of men who have gone bankrupt from their debtors. The lubki also featured scenes of flight in zeppelins or balloons. Partaking in the enthusiasm of new technological discoveries, it is likely that the Russian avant-garde artists saw flying as a metaphor for change and progress. Besides motifs, Chagall’s art resembles that of the lubki in its free use of color and its emancipation from form (color extends beyond a shape’s contours) as well as in the spatial arrangement of the composition, especially in the way that the upper part of the painting comes into the foreground instead of receding. Like other artists of his time, Marc Chagall was drawn to folk art for what was considered its pristine and unspoiled nature. Another was Kandinsky, apparently one of the first artists to discover «primitive,» folk Russian art. He had his own lubki collection as did Larionov and Goncharova, both of whom were deeply influenced by the motifs, pictorial techniques and aesthetics of the those popular prints. Arranged in pairs so as to produce interesting visual juxtapositions, the works in the exhibition make this influence obvious. A 19th century lithograph depicting a folk festivity is, for example, placed next to a portrait («The Portrait of the Savior») by Alexej von Jawlensky from 1919: Two entirely different images are linked by the shared application of color used in broad brushstrokes that does not agree with the contours of the image depicted. For the Russian avant-garde artists, the folk art of their country provided the kind of artistic liberation that non-Western primitive art did for their Western contemporaries. It is an interesting comparison, for though artists such as Gauguin or Picasso had to look to the distant civilizations of Tahiti or Africa (to an extent, they also looked into their own folk culture), Russian artists did not go beyond their own geographical borders for inspiration. One reason for this «internal» cultural phenomenon can be traced to the so-called early 20th century «Slavophilia,» essentially a movement toward a return to cultural and intellectual roots that reacted against the social tensions created with the country’s gradual industrialization. Set against Western rationalism, atheism and cosmopolitanism, Slavophilia used a conservative approach toward a revolutionary ideology. It is also within this context that interest in Russian Orthodox, religious icons grew stronger, becoming a major influence in Russian avant-garde art. In 1913, an art historian by the name of Nikolai Punin wrote a laudatory essay on Russian icons followed by an in-depth essay on Andei Rublyev; in it he analyzed why icons were the artistic wellspring of a new kind of art. Again, what sounded like cultural conservatism was the voice of progress. Less guided by religious faith than an interest in the icons’ anti-classical canon, pictorial language and metaphysical content rather than any realistic depiction of the world, a large number of Russian avant-garde artists became fascinated with icons – many of them actually working as restorers of icons. In a way, icons and the avant-garde shared a spiritual bond. The art of Kazimir Malevich is probably the most obvious example. The exhibition places his famous «Black Square» from 1915 next to a religious icon of the Virgin Mary holding her Child. The icon is one of the so-called «black icons,» named so for the black surface of layered soot that accumulated through the ages from the burning of candles in the churches. Malevich’s «Black Square» is said to partly derive from those icons. The artist’s suprematist ideas and his belief that pure form and geometry embodied metaphysical ideas led him to think of his paintings as a «naked icon of his time,» the equivalent of a religious icon adapted to new circumstances. The art of Malevich is an example of how the old was assimilated into the new to produce an art tied to social revolution and avant-garde artistic ideas. «When Chagall Learned to Fly» is filled with revelatory examples of this connection between tradition and innovation, each of them distinctive and intellectually challenging. A worthwhile exhibition, it is an excellent endeavor on the part of the curator and is one more addition to the challenging exhibitions organized by the State Museum of Contemporary art. «When Chagall Learned to Fly: From Icon to Avant-Garde» at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Port of Thessaloniki, warehouse B1, 2310.589.140) through August 26.