Nevyansk icon old Russia traditions
Nevyansk icon old Russia traditions and the context of the 18th — 19th centuries art
The Russian icon-painting of modem history period is known to have been studied less extensively than that of the ad Russia. Art-critics started to show a particular interest in the 18th – 19th centuries icons only Quite recently; for the Urals it were the 1980s.
The icon-painting of that period in the Urals and in Russia as a whole may be divided into three trends. The first one, having much in common with the contemporary West-European culture, was concerned to filling the orders of the official Orthodox Church, supported by the Holy Synod and the State. The second trend — Icons mainly intended for dissenters communities and based on Old-Russian and Byzantine traditions. The third was the folklore icon-painting widely popular among the various strata of society. Closely related to the archaic art, this trend was hardly liable to any changes in the course of time and manifested itself in all regions of Russia. As for the first and second trends, in the Urals they were spread unevenly: the first one predominated in Kama and Trans- Ural regions, while the second was typical of the Mountain Urals — the mining-and-metallurglcal area, which became the stronghold of «the Old Beliefs».
It may seem absurd, but the fact is that the industrial foundations of new Russia were laid in the Urals by refugees who stubbornly opposed Peter the Great’s innovations, combining practical efficiency and creative abilities with predilection for patriarchal ideals. Thus the majority of technical inventions and new artistic crafts (malachite and jasper articles making, iron casting, engraving on steel) were indebted for their origin to the traditionalists of medieval Russia. The stylistics of the Urals region dissenrers’ icon-pain- ting took shape already in the times of Peter the Great, but its flourishing period, stimulated by the rapid expansion of local economics, fell on the second half of the 18th — first half of the 19th centuries.
The term «Nevyansk school», denoting the Urals’ dissenters’ icon, is a conventional but not an arbitrary one. The town of Nevyansk grew out of the metallurgical works settlement, which was founded at the upper reaches of Neiva river in the late 17th century and soon became the dissenters’ centre of the Urals. It was Nevyansk where in the second half of the 18th — first half of the 19th centuries the most prominent icon-painters lived and worked. Among Nevyansk school icons we number, however, not only those created in this town: Nevyansk painters, when carrying out different orders — from small house icons to monumental mutli-tier sacristies, — founded new workshops in other towns, spreading their activities along the great mountain range up to the South Urals. The icon-painting traditions handed over from generation to generation, the formation of the painters’ dynasties, the confirmation of basic iconographical types, stylistic features and tempera technique methods — all these made it possible to speak of the original Nevyansk icon-painting school.
Elongated figure shapes, exquisite postures, refined painting, gilded backgrounds are considered to be the typical elements of ttiis school. Gold-leaves were usually laid on polyment — the reddish-brown paint covering gesso ground — which imparted to gold an intensive warm tone. Gold filled centre part and margins, it was in the pictures of window sashes, domes and spires, it shone in the skies. Its glittering was responded with gleams of gold paint, modelling the three-dimensional appearance of multicoloured draperies; in the icons with cut-in casted copper folders and crusifixes it combined with the glitter of gilded bas-relief. The precious metal was wonderfully enriched with colouration, engraving and nielloed pattern. The golden polyphony resulted from contrasts of textures and surfaces, quaintly refracting the rays of light. An icon seemed to radiate the light from itself.
The colouring of Nevyansk icons is remarkable for its decorative style. One and the same work and even one and the same element of Its composition may combine various hues of red: warm bright-pink and vermilion with added white and ochre; cold crimson and pure vermilion; mauve and purple. Wide is the range of green and blue colours with various tints of greenish-blue. Discrete bright spots group round dark-purple ones forming a united whole applying ochres, hues of grounds and gilding. Nevyansk masters knew all the niceties of their craft and were able to harmonize the expressive means of painting with other decorative materials.
Nevyansk icon precisely reflected the «Old Believers’» view of the world — their eagerness for unity while standing in opposition to the synodal Church and to the real life around them showed itself in the predominance of common features over individual ones in muitifigure compositions and scenes with below figures, which may be characterized as «depersonalization of image». When giving up their realistic gains local icon-painters seemed to follow the percepts of protopope Awakum, the spiritual leader of 17th- century Russian schism, who used to stigmatize the icons of Simon Ushakov as the «fleshly loveliness». Stereotyped images now were somewhat enlivened by dynamic foreshortenings, passionate gestures and the specific rhythm of draperies: shrouding the figures diagonally, twirling and scattering in ripples or falling right down and seemingly growing in numbers through golden intervals reiteration.
The impersonal kind of images, particularly typical of the leading Bogatyrevs’ workshop, may be defined as comely, plumpcheeked, with prominent eyes set wide apart, swollen eyelids, short straight nose, rounded chin, curved line of faintly smiling lips — all the features being drawn closer in vertical aspect. At the same time we should not miss inimitable, as for their expressiveness, images in single-figure icons and centre parts depicting life of the saints. In the deeply lined faces of the prophet Elijah, St John the Baptist, St Nicholas Thaumaturgos the dark first coatings (Russ, «sankir») appears to be in striking contrast to ochre paint lavishly deluted with white — one can find here the reverberations of The- ophanes the Greek’s dramatic tension.
Whatever traditions had played their part in formation of Nevyansk style, it was mainly based on the 17th-century Russian art, which became the protograph for all icon-painting schools of later periods. As for Nevyansk school, it was founded on the traditions of the mid-17th century Moscow Armoury painters, later on developed in Yaroslavl, Rostov and Kostroma. Nevyansk Icons combine the features of two baroque style versions: the one (close enough to manierism) which was widespread in times just before Peter the Great and the other of post-Peter period. The most characteristic elements of this style include: pretentious golden cartouches, framing the inscriptions in gold on dark-red; magnificent convoluted thrones; heavy patterned draperies; restless wavy contours of clouds and skylines. The baroque style as the manifestation of people’s expressive perception of the Universe, was gradually strengthening its positions in Nevyansk icon-painting till the very end of the 18th century and retained significance up to the mid- 19th century, when it linked to the phenomenon of «second baroque».
Typologically related with baroque, Nevyansk school in its Golden Age chronologically coincided with the period of classicism in Russian art — the latter style also had a share in the development of icon-painting stylistics. At the turn of 18th — 19th centuries classicism was established in the Urals’ architecture and Nevyansk painters of the time worked to orders for matching the Empire style interiors. In due course the painted architectural backgrounds in the icon compositions commenced resembling the interiors of classical temples. Strange though it may seem, classicism in combination with medieval canon revealed the linear principles of icon-painting. Classicism, however, affected the dissenters’ icon-painting rather slightly compared with the oil-painting technique icons, made by the pupils of St Petersburg Academy of Arts and by their followers.
Romantic tendencies also had an influence on Nevyansk icon. The favourable atmosphere for this influence was prepared by the dramatic interpretation of the world and the «religious pessimism» of the dissenters who perceived themselves to be the outcasts of the Church and the State. Though devoid of distinct formal features and concealed amidst baroque stylistic elements, romanticism contributed to the reconsideration of icon’s space (the process which started as far back as the 17th century). Traditionally divided into centre part and marginal vignettes, this space now became an imposing plane panorama, as though looked at from various view-points. Romantic attitude of Nevyansk painters reveals itself in the golden skies — the «divine sfumato» shining over the symbolized nature; in the scenes with the Magi worshipping the infant Christ, with Joseph resisting temptation, with the fight between the Angel and the Devil (these scenes are laid in the garden against the background of picturesque ancient ruins), with bathing of the Child (the scene takes place in a small cavern looking like an artificial decorative grotto). Romantic as well are the landscapes: river-valleys with grazing herds, cliffs with drooping grass and roots, tidy parks fenced with elegant grilles and bowls placed at the pillar-tops.
A number of themes, adopted by Russian iconography from 17th-century West-European illustrated Bibles and prints, fitted in well with the Urals realities. «The Nativity of the Virgin» resembles a horizontal picture, the scene of which is set in the rooms of Empire-styled palace. The Angels appear to Abraham in picturesque «English» garden in front of a splendid mansion — a hint at the local industrial magnates’ environment. Some icons depict a typical landscape of the Urals with pine and fir woods running down the mountainsides. The valley of Jordan often resembles the hilly banks of Neiva river as they look when observed from the top of slanting Nevyansk Tower (the tetter’s contours may be guessed in the pictures of small towns in the background). In such a way the romantic tendencies easily turn into the realistic ones.
But neither romantic nor realistic elements could change an icon into a secular picture as all of them are submissive to the dogmatic meaning. Thus, grotto or cavern symbolize the Sacral Refuge, a model of the Universe; ancient ruins—the heathen world; mountainous landscape — the divine heights of the spiritual element; fenced garden — the virginity of Mary, the Mother of Christ; vaults and arches — the firmament. Theological sources, though freely interpreted, were undoubtedly known to Russian dissenters and revered by them.
Certainly the dissenters’ attitude to the world did not stay immutable. The outbursts of schismatic fanaticism were fading away, the influence of the official Church and secular life conditions was steadily growing. «Numerous merchants do a lot of trade here, while the majority of merchants are at the same time the gold-mine owners. The pity is that nearly ail of them are dissenters, or raskol- niks, – this fact, however, doesn’t prevent them from being the worthy members of society, not alien to the pleasures of social life,» — that’s what one of the Ekaterinburg correspondents wrote in 1843 to the editor of «Repertoire and pantheon» magazine. The above-mentioned state of things could not but tell on Nevyansk icon-painting, which started to drift towards decorative art; an icon became just an article of luxury meant to represent its owner’s wealth and prosperity.
Nevyansk painters, nevertheless, in the second half of the 19th century managed to create a number of remarkable works of art. Up to the very end of the century they were trying to preserve the stylistic features of the original models. But with the creative process becoming more and more mechanical by its nature these features were doomed to gradual degeneration. Integrity was replaced by eclecticism, ascetic ideals — by sentimental loveliness.
Nevyansk school traditions were passing away, but not without leaving a trace. In the course of its development this school had a substantial influence on folklore icon-painting with its more vital creative potential, on local book-miniature, on wood and metal painting, on the Urals’ artistic culture as a whole.
The profound study of Nevyansk school proves it to be an outstanding phenomenon in the history of Russian art which helps us to form a true notion of the 18th — 19th centuries icon-painting. In its flourishing period this school produced numbers of genuine masterpieces. The rigorous life-condrtions of mountanainous industrial region as well as by no means ideal manners and customs of merchants and gold-mine owners introduced a note of impassi- onate preaching into the works of dissenters’ icon-painters, but the unfavourable social environment never prevented them from perceiving the everlasting artistic values. G. K. Wagner, the connoisseur of Old-Russian art, wrote about protopope Awakum: «He went down in history not as a dissenter but as a person who was able to express the eternity of heavenly ideals — that is why his dramatic life and creations appear so modem up to this day». These words may just as well be applied to the best icon-painters of Nevyansk school.