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Colours of Eternity
Text Elina Rubinova
The exhibition “Masterpieces of Russian Icon painting of XIV-XVI centuries” is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of iconography as art.

Icon «Our Lady of Odigitria” («Georgian »). End of the XV century

his exhibition, run by The Museum of Private Collections, one of the departments of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, has already been called the event of the season. One does not have to be a Russian or an Orthodox believer to enjoy the exhibition. It’s hard to say what is the most impressive aspect of this exhibition – the flaming golden colors of beautifully restored exhibits, sophisticated Russian iconic history, or the dramatic history of private 20th century art collection, complete with serial wars, revolutions and property expropriations. After the revolution of 1917, large number of icons was destroyed; precious icons were taken abroad and sold on the Western market. However many ancient pieces of art miraculously survived the turmoil as if proving their divine origin which was ascribed to them by Orthodox believers: theologically, icons are revealed images of invisible things.

The initiative for this ongoing exhibition came from the Private Museum of Russian Icons that has been open in Moscow since 2006. It was supported by the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum that provided excellent curator’s work and museum space to host over 130 icons from 23 private collections both from Russia and abroad. Most of the exhibits – over 90 pieces, have never been on display. Mrs Alina Loginova, an art critic and curator of the exhibition, says that “despite the fact that museum space was tight, it was crucially important to position the exhibits properly. The exhibition is not organized chronologically, but aesthetically. The largest icons of the XV-XVI centuries, the real gems of this exposition, are in the main exhibition hall in the atrium. The second floor offers smaller and very rare XIVth century works, the later period of the XVI century is represented at the balcony level with a wide variety of items.”

Exactly a hundred years ago in 1909, after centuries of general perception that icons were painted by believers only for believers, they were finally rediscovered as artifacts. The Russian private icon collectors – Stepan Ryabushinsky and Ilya Ostroukhov opened the first private icon museum. Later, in 1913, they showed their collection of ancient icons at the celebrations dedicated to of 300 years of Romanov dynasty. For the first time, the drying oil and dust on the icons that made them very dark was cleaned off. Vivid colors became visible: painted in egg tempera on wooden frames covered with a layer of gesso (a primer) artists apply to a surface before painting on it. Gesso makes the surface stiffer and thus colors shine.

To make the surface shiny, the icons seemed to be aflame with hues made of glowing embers and molten gold. It was in those days that Henry Matisse visited Moscow and first came into contact with icons. This had a tremendous impact on his future work. Matisse is known to have said: “I am in love with their moving simplicity. In these icons, the soul of the artist who painted them opens up like a mystical flower. I spent 10 years searching for what your artists discovered in the 14th century.” At the beginning of the 20th century, icons became the source of new expression and artistic innovations; the Russian avant-garde which rejected realism and developed its own laws of perspective, is clearly rooted in icon painting.

Icon «Crucifixion».The end of 1520-1530 ies. Moscow region, Collection of К. Voronin

In the USSR, the only private icon exhibition was held in 1974 at the Museum of Andrei Rublev; thanks to the efforts of several restoration experts and art historians. Mrs Alina Loginova, one of the organizers recalls: “it was a matter of tremendous will and courage to organize such an exhibition. Most collectors stayed anonymous for security reasons – art collecting, further more collecting religious objects, was perceived as something antisocialist and financially illegal.” The Soviet period put a brake on things, but icon-collecting as well as icon painting never died out, even under the long years of Communism. There is now a flourishing collectors market and this current exhibition is a vivid acknowledgement of this fact.

The list of contributors to the exhibition comprises both famous restoration experts of the past decades (collections of K. Voronin, M. Elisavetin, Vorobiev’s family) and a new generation of collectors, such as businessmen Mikhail Abramov, the founder of the Private Museum of Russian Icons, former rock-musician A. Lipnitsky, gallery owner and widely known collector of provocative contemporary art Gary Tatintsian, and American businessman, Mr. Gordon Lankton.

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