An icon is a liturgical image present in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, which is constantly being the subject of creative research. This search is expressed in an artistic attitude, which today we can describe as a ‘new icon’ and which engages an increasing number of artists, at the same time gaining popularity among the audience step by step. In the new icon, the focus is on interpretation – individual, artistic and consistent with contemporary art, not on using the canon or recreating old patterns.
This trend has its roots in Western art, as the traditional Orthodox church icon was very popular among 20th century artists. This fascination can be observed especially at the beginning of the last century, when new sources of artistic inspiration were intensively sought. „Icons are the most interesting example of primitive painting – claimed Henri Matisse in 1911. – Such a wealth of colours, such purity, simplicity of expression, I have never seen before.”
The artists used the icon not only in formal aspects, adapting the schemes to their own needs and transforming them into their own stylistic language, but also in spiritual aspects, discovering mystical power and theological potential of icons. On the other hand, the ‘modern’ icon seen in this way was actually rejected by the Orthodox Church and considered non-canonical. The painter cannot afford to go too far inventive, because he is limited by the revealed archetype and the acceptance of the Church,’ Renata Rogozińska quotes. Its absence is tantamount to preventing the image from being a cult.
Consequently, the question arises: where is the line between what we can still call an icon and what is no longer an icon at all? How can we understand ‘too far-reaching a creative invention’? On the Polish ground, the point of disagreement for years has been the sacral art of Jerzy Nowosielski, which combines canonical and contemporary forms. In his work Nowosielski has made many brave transformations, influenced by artistic trends such as suprematism or surrealism and contemporary philosophy. Icon is not a closed question. An icon is an open question, full of risk – said the artist. His bold attempts to breathe into the icon of the spirit of modernity exposed the artist to constant misunderstanding or even rejection by orthodox communities, which he was very much affected by: I actually make all the believers miserable by painting these icons. They do not like it, they do not understand it.
But the icon is still an open question. This is proved by contemporary artists promoted by the Lviv-based Iconart gallery or artists participating in the annual International Iconographic Workshop in Nowica. This environment boldly takes the risk that Nowosielski spoke so emphatically about. We will not find here canonical copies of commonly known icons. Artists creating in the style of a “new icon” often create new ideas, not having their originals in a traditional icon. Their art is described by a dynamic, innovative approach to the subject, strongly marked by their own individual style. There are numerous creative attitudes that clearly take their inspiration from folk art, Byzantine art, expressionism or suprematism. The most individual attitudes can be observed in artists who have adapted new media to the icon. They replaced traditional material with light installations or lightboxes. But is an icon, so risky using new techniques, separated from a wooden object yet an icon?
Renata Rogozinska says this very clearly: risk by its very nature can lead to negative consequences. (…) However, I would be far from dissuading artists from risk. (…) There is always a chance that, thanks to their work, the semantically worn-out reality of our times will gain a sense of meaning, that the material, common sense world will re-expose the metaphysical perspective.
Paul Evdokimov, Sztuka ikony. Teologia piękna, Warszawa 1999
Renata Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX w., Kraków 2009
Ikona dziś, katalog wystawy pod red. E. Jackowskiej-Kurek, Warszawa 2008
Krystyna Czerni, Nowosielski, Kraków 2006
Jerzy Nowosielski. Sztuka po końcu świata. Wybór i układ Krystyna Czerni, Kraków 2012
Zbigniew Podgórzec. Wokół ikony. Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim, Warszawa 1985
Nowa ikona. Pod red. Katarzyny Jakubowskiej-Krawczyk i Mateusza Sory, Stowarzyszenie Przyjaciół Nowicy 2018
Limits of the icon
“Limits of the icon” – this title (…) suggests that the question will arise: what is and what is no longer an icon? And it actually comes to mind when we move from Russian 19th century icons to the works created in recent years during the International Iconscription Workshop in Novica. These meetings, which have already brought together a fairly permanent circle of artists, are conducive to the search for a contemporary language for icon art. The effects may surprise those who consider the icon to be related to the canon’s repetition.
Ukrainian art has a long experience of searching for its own icon language, including attempts made in the first three decades of the 20th century to add elements of Western European art to the icon. To a large extent the specificity of the Novice environment is determined by artists from Ukraine. However, Polish artists, such as Greta Leśko, who uses the geometrical procedures known from Jerzy Nowosielski’s works, but avoids the trap of poor imitation, also bring significant value to the community of Nowica.
The question of the limits of the icon is particularly strong about the works that completely give up figuration. Elements of abstraction have always been present in the icon, but they have remained subordinated to the representation of Christ, Mary or the saints. In Christian theology, the relation between the icon and the mystery of the Incarnation – the coming of Christ in the human body – is strongly emphasised. In this context, there is also much discussion of contemplating the image of God in man.
So, can works that lean towards abstraction or purely abstract be called icons? The work of one of the fathers of abstraction, Kazimierz Malewicz, “Black Square on White Background” during the 1915 St. Petersburg futuristic exhibition was placed high in the corner of the hall, like icons in Orthodox houses. Can this image be considered an apophatic icon, an expression of a negative theology which, in the face of the greatness of God, constantly reminds us that all we can say about him is not that, constantly too little, and which instead of words chooses silent contemplation?
If we treat as icons the works of Maria Ivaniuta, and especially the works of Krzysztof Sokolovski, which have already been completely disconnected from figuration, then they are apophatic. It does not have to be in any way a diminution of them. It is probably a negative theology, the awareness of facing someone incomprehensible and unrecognizable, and the need for minimalism that gives the possibility of silence is today closest to the longings of contemporary man.
It is worth going back to the question of the limits of the icon. It is not to approach subsequent works with censorship scissors, but to be able to experience the art more deeply and consciously.