“In Album”
Excerpts from essay by Ilya Kutik (translated by Andrew Wachtel)   

Queen Elizabeth I and Pinturicchio: Bas relief, Silhouette and Frame A few works in this album are in direct dialogue with the genre of the silhouette and also with Malevich’s tradition of the new icon: specifically Copper Queen (2007) and One and a Half Boys in Red (2007). 

In order to appreciate how our two artists understand the concept of the new icon and why they do so, we need to ask: what is an icon in the contemporary world anyway?: is it a religious object or an art object (after all, icons were never traditionally art objects)?  The position of the non-Orthodox majority, even without any attempt at aesthetic argumentation, would be the latter (they would likely see the religious, but first and foremost [for them] paintings of Giotto or Rafael in the same way).  And in that case, if we take the argument a bit farther, the religious subject of the icon, its center (let us say the depicted saint or the Holy Savior) becomes almost the same kind of aesthetic phenomenon as a tiger or a diamond.  It is beautiful, they will say, and that is all there is to it.  That is, no explanation is required.  Since even in “simply beautiful” there is a kind of sacred secret, something mystical.

…This is why Igor & Marina choose as the subjects of their new, secular icons those images which are generally recognized (and therefore instantly legible to all) in our post-confessional and globalized world.  And the frame for their secular icons becomes that which is usually called the background of the painting.

…Even if I were to try, in this short essay I could not paraphrase all of the ornamental designs of Igor & Marina or even partially explain their multitudinous meanings. Therefore I would like to concentrate on just a few paintings in which the frame is more metaphysical than ornamental; that is, where it exhibits a metaphorical richness that engenders a narrative.

In contrast to the kind of ornamented space that is typical for any well decorated icon frame, the background to the diptych entitled Copper Queen (2007) is of a uniform, very deep “cognac” color.  This makes sense: Queen Elizabeth I was known for her deep red hair.  But this is merely the first key to the background color.  That is, it becomes a key only when we look at the right side of the diptych, a stylized official-style portrait en face (or in half profile) of the Virgin Queen in red tones; her hair, eyes, clothes and the painting’s background are linked through this reddish color scale—in all of its subtle variations—which is almost a form of grisaille.

But if we look at the left side of the diptych, we see, in place of a detailed portrait of the queen, an absence.  To be more accurate, now we see, as if cut out of a piece of metal (and following exactly the contours of the image on the right side), a silhouette: a reddish space.

In other words, the left side of the diptych has become, quite literally, a metal frame for the right—painted—side.  We see a new type of secular icon, preserving all the formal features of the two-piece traditional icon (the board and the frame).  It is as if the artists are showing us how an icon is made; they are laying bare the device (to use the term of the Russian formalists) at the level of both craft and symbolism.

In the painting One and a Half Boys in Red (2007) it would seem that we have exactly the same compositional principle, only presented in a much more complicated fashion.  In the center of the painting we see three portraits of a boy, one of which (on the far left) is almost a perfect replica of the famous Ritratto di un Ragazzo, 1500) of Pinturicchio (1454-1513), which currently hangs in the Old Masters Museum in Dresden.

What is more, the portrait is also en face (or in half profile) as was that of Queen Elizabeth in the painting discussed above.  However, the second portrait of the boy, in the center, is not as complete as the first one (the one on the left); only the boy’s face has been fully painted, while his hat and all of his clothing have been replaced by white emptiness which, if we recall the words of Michel Pastoureau, is equivalent to the meaning of gold in the art of the middle ages.

In the third portrait of the boy, the interior of the far right painting, the face (in addition to the hat and clothing) has also become a white silhouette outline: thus, the painted portrait completely disappears in the white contours that have been reproduced on the canvas. If one knows nothing about the traditional icon, the philosophical meaning of this progression disappears and all one sees is a kind of painterly paraphrase of the famous cry of Maksim Gorky’s hero Klim Samgin (which long ago became a Russian catch phrase): “Did that boy ever exist?” (Russians use this phrase when they want to express doubt that something actually happened).

This painting, however, depicts a real philosophical event, which in theology is linked most of all to the formula of the Holy Trinity, and is best known in the Russian tradition through Andrei Rublev’s famous icon Old Testament Trinity (beginning of the 15th cent., now in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow), which depicts three beautiful angel-youths sitting at a table on which there is a single goblet (in applied religious art this Trinitarian formula would become an actual form—the folding triptych icon).

Pinturicchio’s fully angelic boy in Igor & Marina’s painting is not so much a variation on the Dresden painting but more a development of Rublev’s artistic idea of the Holy Trinity. Specifically, following Rublev, the thought that the three angels (three hypostases of God) are similar and equally beautiful, contains within itself (the idea is, as it were, dissolved into the picture) the theological argument regarding filioque between the Christianity (that would be called Orthodoxy) of the Roman Eastern Empire and Western Christianity (Catholicism) that led to the great schism between the churches in the 11th century.

Igor & Marina’s painting does not discuss the issue of what is the icon and what is the frame but rather whether the border between them -- as between the hypostases of the Trinity – is a product of thought (rational) or remains completely intuitive (personal, emotional).

To put it more simply: just as a person’s shadow (silhouette) depends not on the person himself but on the sun, so the hierarchy of the beautiful depends on a higher authority than us.

At the same time, however, we need to keep in mind that in Igor & Marina’s painting the right side acts as the frame for the whole left side while the central section (that is, the part which shows only the boy’s face) exists here like the face of an icon seen in the cut out space provided by the frame.

In other words, that which in the icon is seen as a sum, that is, what we see at the same time and in 3D, laid one atop the other (the board + the image [with its layers of paint and colors] + the frame with its openings for the image[s]), has been carefully dismantled here, divided into three dimensions but exhibited on a single plane—the canvas.
1 Filioque is a modification by the Catholic Church to the understanding of the Holy Trinity in the Nicene Creed, according to which the Holy Spirit does not proceed solely from God the Father, but from the Son as well.  The Orthodox Church disagreed with this interpretation, citing the Holy Writ in which it is said that Jesus was baptized by the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the question of filioque is a question regarding the hierarchy of the Trinity.



Igor & Marina
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