(A few months ago I posted some magnificent enamel icons by Russian artist Evgeny Baranov. So impressed was I at his skill that I asked him if he would accept to do an interview for us. What came out of this interview is not only his personal story as an artist, which is fascinating, but also a microcosm of the transformation Orthodoxy and its arts have gone and are still going through with Communism and its fall in Russia. )
What brought you to enamel work and to iconography?
My mother was an economist and my father was a livestock specialist (zootechnician) – so they always wanted me to choose some useful and pragmatic job as they’d chosen for themselves. And actually they were not very happy when it came up that I wanted to become an artist.
But once day, I suddenly I followed my friend to the entrance exam of an art college – and tried to pass it, just for fun, because seriously there was no chance. For example, to test our painting skills they wanted us to produce a still life picture in watercolor technique – and, in fact, it was my very first experience of using watercolors. Somehow. fortunately, I passed exams. Despite the will of my family, despite my awful health (my right eye is almost blind and the left one has a high myopia of -8. So I just faked documents about my health.), despite everything I began studying in the Fedoskino Miniature Painting School as an “(Rostov) enamel artist” in 1981.
The Fedoskino Miniature Painting School was the only school of enamel painting in the entire Soviet Union. It was the best school not only because it was the only one: all the classrooms and workshops were brilliantly equipped with a full set of possible instruments and all the existing soviet enamels and paints. Our teachers and mentors were all masters of the “Rostov enamel” factory, historical center of Russian enamel painting. Unfortunately this strong and successful connection between the art college and the factory collapsed as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 90s. But in 80s everything was brilliant: training course started with everyday tasks to copy this or that of the best known realistic paintings: from intimate portraits to complex multi-figure compositions. But practically no word was spoken about iconography – only a few articles of “Art History” briefly looking at Andrey Rublev.
During my years of study I was never really interested in enamel art. Mostly I was excited about water-color and graphic art, which gave me more emotions at the time. Enameling didn’t look impressive, and may be even seemed boring.
Eventually, I missed almost all my enamel classes and had no experience in enamel painting, but made huge progress in graphic art and water-color. At that time enamel painting didn’t make any sense to me. What did an enamel artist have to do in the USSR in the middle 80s? the Rostov enamel factory massively produced brooches and earrings with faded flower compositions and souvenir jewel-cases with boring ethnic landscapes. Can it really be interesting and thrilling for a young artist, who has started his career at the age of 18 and is thinking about great and magnificent works? Of course not! So, in my first years I did only “big paintings” – I painted theater set design, drama posters, made wall paintings and stained-glass windows. I was the first professional artist in my family.
PERESTROIKA was running those years and small privately-owned businesses were growing fast. Many of them dealt with jewelry and souvenir production. I noticed how many colleagues were making good money sitting at home and commercially painting giant amounts of flower compositions on enamel – replicas of “Rostov finift”. They made good money doing that. I decided to try the same – fortunately enamel oven and materials were very cheap. At that time I realized, that I have skipped enamel classes and didn’t have enough skills to do commercial enamel painting (To be successful that time you needed to produce about 100 pieces a day.).
So, at the end of 1980s I started with hand posture and enamel technique. I did not know a lot of theory about it, so I decided to invent my own technique. After a couple of years I’d made good progress, not in the art part, but in skills – I could make enormous amounts of enamels with basic paint – up to 400 pieces a day!
The political situation in USSR was changing every day. State boundaries were opened and the market was slammed by cheap bling-bling from Turkey. Women with a lack of foreign goods took notice. In a moment they turned away from Rostov jewelry. In the spring of 1993, demand for enamel so tragically decreased, that many artists had no job and money for a long time – I had no orders for 6 months and tried to sell my reserves somehow.
Then fortunately a miracle happened – Greek merchants came to Russia. They needed traditional enamel. Artists immediately woke up – they had orders, they had work – they again were able to earn something. Greeks seemed strange at that time, because they needed icon-painting and those artists with a lack of money and orders jumped in. After years of the Soviet Union there were no good literature and art albums about icons. Some artists tried to make replicas from small pictures at the back side of the pocket calendars, where they could hardly recognize details and texts. So they imagined some missed details by themselves! But Greeks (regular re-sellers) did not know the ropes about icons either and took almost everything, especially they were interested in the cheapest pieces.
Then a very remarkable change happened in my life: I was baptized. I became the only Orthodox Christian among all of my relatives, including even my grandmother, who was religious, but Lutheran, not Orthodox. I started attending church, fasting and collecting rare books related to Orthodox art. Then one day I came upon an album of excellent quality reproductions, and it was the collection of works of Archimandrite Zeno. The art of Orthodox icon was revealed to me in all its beauty and grandeur, once and for all I lost interest in any of other arts. Icons have given me both spiritual fulfillment, and an enormous aesthetic pleasure. I knew what I wanted to do next. I wanted to draw icons, but smaller… and on enamel.
There was only one problem: it was totally unclear how to put such a complicated picture as an icon onto such a complicated surface as enamel.
…After the revolution in 1917 and the civil war all the production of church plate (liturgical objects made of fine metals) in Russia was terminated for political reasons and since 1917 there were only two ways to paint on enamel legally in USSR. The first one – works of “high style a. k. a. capital style”, painted by the graduates of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in a realistic manner, relying on the picturesque scenes of classic paintings of Europe. Another one – works of “national style” formed in province by masters without classical art education – they were engaged in mass production of church plates, often copying and processing Western European prints.
Traditional orthodox iconography had been rediscovered near the very end of the 19th century, and by the beginning of the the 20th century it had not significantly developed, when soon it was shut down by the new Soviet government for 60 years. The true rebirth of traditional iconography happened in early 90s. Orthodox churches were rebuild and repainted, murals and iconostasis were reestablished and fixed up. The traditional icon began to shine again in Russia in all its power and glory, but how to put orthodox icon onto enamel – that was the question. I took plenty of hikes and tours to ancient faraway temples, where original traditions and techniques were still safe, and I saw many “live” icons there, contacted many painters. At the same time well-illustrated books of orthodox iconography started to appear more and more, getting better. Even tracings of icons were recovered in one series of books. Thanks to all of this knowledge, tempera icon-writing became much clearer for me, but it was still a total mystery how to put such pictures onto an enamel surface. Tempera is chemically very different from enamel paints. As the Church became stronger – more and more artists tried to produce icons on enamel. I even teamed up with fellow enamelists to solve the problem. And, of course, there was all the free time at home I spent writing copies of my favorite icons on enamel. Everything became much easier when some companies started to import in Russia high quality enamel paints produced by foreign manufacturers. And when I was admitted to the icon-painting section of the Union of Artists of Russia, I finally got a right chance to immerse myself in the necessary environment of great the masters of painting. It became possible to get their friendly consultation and advice, to take part in interesting meetings and joint exhibitions.
How do you create your icons?
Hot enamel in jewelry is made by fusing powdered glass, coloured by metals salts and built up on the metal base by firing. Enamel can be both – transparent and non-transparent. Drawing is made by brushes and paints for the porcelain. By burning in an enamel oven at a temperature of 750-800 degrees, paints penetrate the enamel base. The image is made in several steps, each step is fixed by burning in the oven. The way artists put the paints differ from master to master.
I work with miniature enamel drawing and I use highly sharp needles to put the paints. This is a very laborious method, which involves special experience, gained by years of willing mind and hands. Making one miniature enamel takes about 100 hours.
What are some of the commissions and expositions you are most happy about.
One day, we got the order for the great presidential stamp of former president Yeltsin. Unfortunately I was asked to do the design without my favorite iconic scenes. But I nonetheless managed to put four Holy Mother miniatures there. I was even able to justify them ideologically. Various icons of the Holy Mother had the heraldic meaning of protection – each for East, West, South and North. My sketch was examined in the Heralds’ College, and they confirmed the feasibility of my idea. The product was created.
The First Panagia for Patriarch Alexy II I designed and wrote was with an enamel miniature of ”Our Lady of the Sign” in 1998. Another order, also for Panaghia Patriarch Alexy II has an interesting story. I was ordered iconic miniatures for a Panagia. It was a birthday present for the Patriarch. I had to draw miniature enamels of Saint Michael Prince and Saint Queen Helena, iconic images. These also had to be similar to the parents of His Holiness (I received archive photographs for that). At first I was hesitating, but found the solution. Оn the honorable day of signing the Act of unity with the Foreign Orthodox Church, Aleksy II was with his parents in the Panagia… probably his most triumphant day.
I was lucky and good enough to take part in a wide variety of very important exhibitions of Orthodox art, up to the exhibitions in the administration of Putin/Medvedev in the Kremlin/the White House. My masterpieces were marked with diplomas of various exhibitions. I’ve got the Silver Medal of the Union of Artists of Russia for “Contribution to the decorative arts of Russia”. During the last year I was awarded by the Honorary Medal of Franz Petrovich Bierbaum (this medal was established by Memorial Foundation of Faberge).
How do you see the state of Orthodox arts in Russia today.
The situation with the Orthodox religious art changes nowadays, and I can see these through changes in my team. In the 90s we had some bohemian, riotous atmosphere, and the range of products manufactured by our company consisted entirely of secular jewelry. Then, today, we produce only orthodox religious works. The team gradually cleansed itself of those artists who are no longer interested and bored. Due to close connections with the Church during the last years no longer smoke or drink alcohol near our workshops, as it usually happened in 90s. Lenten menu is surely presented in our canteen. And our CEO is the first one to attend Liturgy.
Today I meet a lot of serious craftsmen of religious art. Together we usually perform mutually beneficial cooperation: an open exchange of experience and technology, mutual enrichment with professional details and secrets of methods and technologies. And such cooperation certainly reveals new unimagined before colors and shapes for orthodox jewelry pieces.