A national idea is a state of mind of its bearers. It has its own dynamics and acquires fresh tinges at different historical periods, while preserving its main distinctive feature – an ability to react to life's challenges. The arts belong to one of the spheres that conveys the character of the national idea, and offers limitless abilities for self-knowledge and the establishment of priorities for national consciousness.
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The mature art formed thousands of years ago during the Byzantine Empire laid the foundations of the visual culture of Ancient Rus – which resulted in masterpieces of the highest artistic level, such as icons, mosaics and frescoes from Greek Christianity (The Virgin of Vladimir, 12th c., The State Russian Museum; Mandylion (Image of Edessa), 12th-early 13th c., The State Tretyakov Gallery; The Virgin Orans – Great Panagia, 1114, The State Tretyakov Gallery; Ss. Peter and Paul, 12th-1st ½ of the 13th c., The State Russian Museum; mosaics and frescoes of Saint Sofia Cathedral in Kiev, 12th c.)
Old Russian masters could at best participate in the creation of these masterpieces only as talented apprentices – because these images could appear neither in reality nor in their artist's imagination without the centuries-long tradition.
Symbolic and formal perfections of the Byzantine canon, with rare exceptions, were burdened with active psychological meaning. This is how Mikhail Alpatov describes the state of the iconic image: "An expression of poignant ambiguity penetrated icons of the 12th. It was an idea of holiness that manifested itself in exertion, side glances, an austere and sad look." At first, this idea of holiness was the model for Old Russian icon-painters.
A talented apprentice was gradually becoming the founder of a new feature in the great visual culture he inherited. This culture absorbed a unique fusion of Old Russian Christianity and national character that allowed it, at its best, to enlighten everything it touched.
This iconic image is the reflection of its painter's inner world. Rarely can an icon surpass the spirituality of its painter by the depth of its meaning, yet have traits that go beyond human nature and are treated as God's grace.
This monastic feat helped unleash the spiritual potential of the Old Russian icon-painters to perceive and convey the traits of the Highest World in their work.
It took some time for the idea of genuine holiness to appear, was gradually discovered by generations of Russians in the context of harsh historical reality – which came with suffering and awareness of life's tragic seriousness. Meanwhile people managed to preserve their pure sense of the world – one only children have – and evidence of the latter is the cheerful colourfulness of surviving icons and frescoes, even though they have changed over the years. This unique range of manifestations of the inner world was harmonized by patriarchal idea and introduced to the young Christian state.
The Byzantine empire endowed classical Antiquity with spirituality. Ancient Rus set the Byzantine canon free from excessive psychological meaning while giving unrivalled examples of enlightenment in the world art – the image of the Holy Face.
The national idea in visual arts is literally represented by its bearer. The summit of this idea is a personality that has absorbed all the character traits valued in the culture throughout its existence.
Russians of that time sincerely believed in the pure, ideal world, shorn of passions. This belief was embodied in masterpieces of the Old Russian art which indicated the rise, realization and summit of the "Russian idea".
The most mature features of the enlightened holiness are seen in facial images of Andrey Rublev's icons – these purified faces are free from human passions of the world and are the result of spiritual contemplation (The Zvenigorod Deesis, The Trinity, in The State Tretyakov Gallery).
This new meaning shone through different icons – created both in the capital and the provinces – with varying degrees of success.
One can consider the perfect sense of composition depicted on the Russian icons of the 14th-16th centuries as a peculiar form of enlightenment, which reflects the harmony of the inner world of a Russian icon painter of that time (The Descent From the Cross, 14th c., The State Tretyakov Gallery; The Entombment - Mourning, 14th c., The State Tretyakov Gallery; The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek, The State Tretyakov Gallery; The Crucifixion, Gregory The Theologian, 1502, Alexis the Metropolitan with Scenes from His Life by Dionisi, The State Tretyakov Gallery).
Between the 16th and the 17th centuries magnificent examples of enlightened images were shown in the embroidery for church services created by craftswomen in convents where, apparently, the atmosphere of devotion remained for a longer time. This atmosphere allowed keeping the state of the highest spiritual concentration and preserving the true picture of holiness as a divine presence and a constant inner prayer that was conveyed only with the help of canon. The canon was being replaced by realistic, dimensional images of the European art that was penetrating Russia (Icon "The Apostle Peter", embroidery, 2nd half of the 15th c., The State Russian Museum; "St Cyril of Belozersk" pall, 1514, The State Russian Museum; "Anthony Pechersky" pall, late 15th c., The State Russian Museum).
There was increasing interest in the existential content of personality that drew attention to portrait painting. A high-quality image of saint limited by the canon was unattainable to ordinary people and did not always help reach the heavenly world. On the other hand, the little-decorated ceremonial portraits of the 18th century that nevertheless looked similar to the person depicted on it kept the memory of the one portrayed, and even started to adopt the sacral functions of the icon.
The spirituality of the national idea inevitably started to decline as the result of this natural and necessary process. It was forced out at least to some extent by a pragmatic meaning in life.
The portrait becomes the main expression of "the Russian idea" in the 19th-century fine arts.
The portrait is the next genre after the icon when it comes to potential importance and deep meaning.
A series of portraits depicting representatives of Russian intellectuals, who perceived the tragedy of life and the moral state of the society as problems of people's inner world, appeared throughout the 19th century. By and large, these were portraits of "thought leaders", the most educated part of Russian society of that time. The portraits were painted with great mastery and notable for incredibly deep images that made them a treasury of the meaning of life. Since then great thinkers have paid their attention to these portraits as if they were icons – in order to find answers to their questions (Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, Orest Kiprensky, 1827; Portrait of Feodor Dostoyevsky, Vasily Perov, 1872; Portrait of Nikolay Leskov, Valentin Serov, 1894; Portraits by Ivan Kramskoy: Portrait of Lev Tolstoy, 1873; Portrait of Ivan Goncharov, 1874; Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, Portrait of Vladimir Solovyov, self-portrait).
History also provides opportunities to reveal the notion of the national idea that is expressed, for example, in such paintings as: "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581" by Ilya Repin, 1887, The State Tretyakov Gallery, and "Boyaryna Morozova" by Vasily Surikov, 1887, The State Tretyakov Gallery).
The fatalism of historical experience becomes a prominent feature of the national character while observing familiar landscapes and people's lives ("Barge Haulers on the Volga", A Religious Procession in Kursk Province", Ilya Repin, 1881-1883, The State Tretyakov Gallery; "The Vladimirka Road", 1892, and "Above the Eternal Peace", 1894, by Isaac Levitan).
The "Russian idea" flashed in the prophetic portrait of Nicholas II by Valentin Serov that depicted the Emperor with psychological accuracy and great skill on the frontiers of possibility, like the "Phoenix" of the old era when the Russian portrait was founded.
Serov's little painting depicting a scene from court life was a precursor in the way the artist used colours in his monumental work "A Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council" by Ilya Repin that was considered to be the summit of the Russian paintings. Although the painting represents a real situation and historical figures, it has a subtle feeling of fatality in its characters. Therefore colours of the painting – while reminding us of the most advanced examples of icons – present the "Russian idea" of that time as a symbolically ingenious combination of red and gold.
February 9–March 3, 2017
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The national idea can have different definitions, depending on which spiritual, ethical, aesthetic or intellectual aspect, and in which historical period it is considered. It can be expressed in the perfect form of art, and have the importance of a historical task but it still cannot be fully realized at its nascent moment, nor at the moment when the creative genius of the people is taking shape. The national idea is a living organism that has morality, and its ups and downs. Old Russian art like a spiritual tuning fork for the "Russian idea", which preserves an honourable conception of Russia's future with the help of its sound.
March 05, 2017