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History of Russian culture replayed through exhibition



The plight of iconography within Russia is not just the story of the country's spiritual history, but that of its tumultuous society.


The University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman opens an exhibition of 45 icons "? or religious images "? from Russia, ranging from the reign of Peter the Great in the 17th century through the Bolshevik revolution in the 20th century "? works which illustrate the jarring effects of social change.

Showing through Aug. 31, "Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs" focuses on the shift from traditionalist "golden age" Russian icons to examples from the Romanov era, when outside influences began infiltrating Russian art.

The exhibit catalogues 300 years of Russian history, when the society opened up to the West. Ghislain d'Humieres, the museum's director, explained how the icons exposed the changing political winds of early Russian life.

"Peter the Great, the first Romanov emperor, was all about Europe because he wanted to open up Russia to the world and to really show Russia was at the same level," d'Humieres said. "He didn't want Western Europe to laugh about Russian culture; therefore, he hired German, English, French and Italian architects to build St. Petersburg."

The Westernization of Russian art extended to all areas, including icons. That influence led Russian artists away from the flatness of Byzantine-styled icons, toward more modern techniques of realism and relief. 

Once the Iron Curtain fell on Russia, the icons produced over the last 300 years were considered a blight by the Bolsheviks because of their Western influences.

"Many churches were raided and the icons were destroyed," d'Humieres said. "There were bonfires of icons in the process of fighting the church as representing the former regime, so they piled icons and burned them."

The grinding poverty and vicious winters in Russia also prompted families to collect icons in bundles to use as firewood. The works of the golden age were salvaged, while many later icons "? considered inauthentic because of their Western inspiration "? were destroyed or sold to tourists cheaply.

Fortunately, traveling collectors could buy up large amounts of the icons inexpensively and ship them to other countries. The exhibition features many such pieces purchased by ambassadors and their families, such as late socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post and her Soviet Union ambassador husband, Joseph Davies.

The more striking pieces in the collection are those with elaborate oklads, which are borders of bronze, gold, ivory, silver or other valuable materials made specifically for the icon.

"It was a way of venerating and celebrating the icon," d'Humieres said. "It was a way to embellish, as well as something for an aristocrat to give to a church as a way of thanking them. So if a prayer was answered, this was something to give instead of money as a way of thanking."

Icons produced during the Romanov dynasty are now acknowledged as legitimate and valuable works, d'Humieres said, with Russians now embracing the once-maligned pieces that were sold off in bulk to tourists.

"They are now aware of the value of the icon, and you see the opposite happening where, in the last 10 years, Russian billionaires are going around the Western world and buying Russian icons to bring them back to Russia," he said.

"?Charles Martin


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