11 Comments

  1. First off, I want to thank Olga and Todor Mitrovic for this thought provoking interview. Todor comes off as someone searching wholeheartedly for authenticity and willing to ask the difficult questions about copying, about the role of the artist, about the encyclopedic historical and technological gaze we cast today on sacred art and the effect this has on how we view what is traditional or canonical. His questions open up more than any discussion we have seen to date on OAJ about the difference between a living language of image making and a kind of nostalgic simulacrum.

    His ideas have pushed my own thought further than before, but having said that, I cannot avoid serious problems I come against in the answers proposed here and the presuppositions on which those answers are based. For example, I was surprised by the comment about how it would be strange to have someone stand up and recite St-Basil, how this would be inauthentic and how this argument is used to push the idea that iconographers should innovate to find authenticity. The thing is that we do ask people to stand and recite St-Basil, they are called bishops and priests and we call it the liturgy of St-Basil. And every Orthodox person who says their daily prayers stands every day and recites the theology of St-Basil, the prayers he has written for the Church. True theology is prayer as the saying goes. This connection to the ancient saint and reciting his prayers does not prevent us from having our own more personal petitions of movements toward God, it does not prevent new hymns or prayers from entering our liturgies if they are deemed worthy to do so.

    One does not need to oppose a desire to copy the ancients to the organic change taking place in iconography or liturgical practice. I agree that one needs to be careful of falling into mimetic archeological reconstructions of the past, but why does this have to be opposed by a need to actively pursue innovation for its own sake? This belief that there is inherent value in innovation is as empty and delusional as the desire to copy every brushstroke of ancient icons. Both those extremes, that is the desire to absolutely fix (.ie historical preservation societies, archives, museums, documentary photography and video) and the desire to absolutely change (.ie avant-garde art, fashion, consumer society, ADHD) are two sides of the same malaise in contemporary life. Fighting the desire to “fix” with the belief that there is some kind of absolute value in “innovation” is just swinging the pendulum to its other extreme. The satisfaction we derive from the new is not a holy one but the fruit of avant-garde utopian thinking which has strangely merged with entertainment culture. Our fascination with the new is caused by acedia and is no more a living participation in the Church than is rote repetition.

    But even if there is an absolute desire to change, what change are we talking about? The statement that “on the pictorial level, the language of contemporary art shapes the way contemporary man thinks and is the only universally recognizable language we have, however imperfect” is extremely problematic. How exactly does contemporary art, that hermetic and elitist language of galleries, collectors, financial speculation and exploded visual relationships affect anyone but the very social elite of our world? And even if contemporary art would be “the only universally recognizable language”, this contemporary art has all but put aside painting since at least the 1970s, at least since Andy Warhol. And even if one takes contemporary art as a kind of image of the contemporary world, its actual “innovation” period lasted about 10-15 years tops, by 1920 there was nothing truly “innovative” being done in painting and artists today are simply repeating and commenting on what the Cubists, Surrealists and Dadaists were doing in 1916. How exactly does that matter to the churchgoer? Todor’s icons appear to us basically as Matisse and his contemporaries applied to icons, which is fine, but the self-conscious exploration of the idiosyncrasies of early 20th century modern painting (a century ago now) is no more becoming an “active Christian being-in-the-world” than copying Rublev icons from an ipad. The visual language that shapes how contemporary man thinks is not contemporary art, it is rather video, photography, advertisement, pornography, hyperlinked instant access to all archived historical images. In several comments made by Todor, he seems to be aware of this. Google and cell phones have a million times more pull on “how contemporary man thinks” than any living contemporary artist today.

    The resistance I feel when reading what Todor expands upon might just be due to our different cultures. I do not live in an Orthodox Country, in fact I live on a continent who’s entire identity is based on innovation and new ways of doing things. Because of this, when I hear the argument that the Church has to have an evangelical approach by seeing what of the contemporary world it can bring into its liturgical life, it is not that I totally disagree on the principle, but my eyes glaze over slightly. This is because where I live, we are surrounded by everything from Christian Hip-Hop to Christian Death Metal. We have seen everything from Disco masses to Cabaret Christmas songs. We are drowning in sparkling empty innovation and even the Catholic Church is still hung-over from a binge of horrible modernist architecture and art on which it embarked since Vatican II. So when I, here in North America, look at Todor’s icons, I probably do not see the same thing as Russians or Greeks do.

    Like I said, I think he is posing very important and profound questions and I do not want to discount what Todor is trying to do in his icons either. But especially considering his departure in Florovsky and the neopatristic synthesis, it seems to me that searching to change or “flip” the instant pictorial archive of the history of iconography (which his indeed accessible due to technology and the sophisticated modern capacity to instantaneously zap through history), searching to change a near infinite amount of quantitative data into opportunities for synthesis may be more fruitful than looking to early 20th century modernism. The capacity to surf through 2000 years of images makes it possible to see patterns emerge, similarities and meeting grounds delineated across diverse styles and geographic areas, and it is these patterns rather than either the rote copying of icons or the never ending search for innovation that can lead us into the future of iconography. This move does not ignore our historical position, and modern art can be part of this search for common ground, but the wide scope of visual access to ancient images can be used to cross centuries of accumulated divisions in the Church, while still creating a sense of the familiar in churchgoers rather than seeking to unsettle or titillate them with the shock of the new.

    1. Jonathan,

      I think you are correct in finding a different perspective in the sense that what Todor speaks of as evangelization could well seem something already overused and, indeed, dead, in the USA. Not so in Serbia; in fact, the urgency of his search for a way to bring the iconography of the Church into dialogue with contemporary expression seems to me remarkable. The anti-Church mentality is still very much something agains which pious Serbs struggle.

      One point: when you mention what Todor says about St Basil, I think there is a misunderstanding. He says “We don’t need Medieval rhetoric to explain the Gospels to the people, and finally, we don’t need to recite the homilies of Saint Basil by heart. We need the opposite: if we do not bring something of our own to the communion of Christians of all ages, then we are not wholly taking part in the Sacrament. We are not actors here – but a complete and complicated people with bodies, souls, minds, knowledge and experience.” I do not at all read that as meaning that we do not need to know prayers by the Fathers, or that we should not serve the Liturgy of St Basil. It’s just an example of the way in which tradition can become sterile if it has no life.

      1. Thank you for your Comment, Fr. Ivan. It is always good to hear from you. I purposefully shifted his discussion from the homily to the prayer because I thought it was indicative of his approach. I did it to insist that iconography is not an explicative practice as is rhetoric and homiletic but a communal and participative one in line with liturgy, architecture and music. You can see how he struggles with this aspect of iconography, how for example he prefers painting without commissions and that is also the crux behind his answer to the question about sobornost and his insistence on the unicity of authorship. I think the last question we should be asking is what we are bringing “of our own” to the communion of the saints, it is usually not the best idea to enter communion thinking we have something special to offer others. Rather we should be looking to serve Church to the best of our capacity. Aspects of our individuality will always show, aspects of our culture as well, but we should not be focused on that, we should not be actively searching to be original anymore than we should actively be searching to create technically accurate reproductions of the past.

        1. Fr Ivan Moody

          I’m just not reading this the same way you are. I understand him to be speaking of the community as expressed through the person. He says, “The icon includes the concept of personal responsibility because it emerges from the ecclesiastical dimension. Communitarian and personal principles are inseparable in the Church. Our Christian common deed is personal. In liturgy this means the bishop/priest is an actual person standing in front of the community in the place of Christ expressing unity through prayer directed personally to God the Father. In art it means the communion is expressing itself – its own concept of community – through an actual person – the painter/author. There isn’t an impersonal way to express the concept of community in Christian life, and if there was, I believe we would have anarchy or a kind of hippy communitarianism in church and in art”, and I understand his work to be conceived in that spirit, which does not seem to me at all to be exalting the personal *above* serving the Church; on the contrary, he would be denying his own God-given talents if he did not contribute what only he can.

          1. Johnathan,

            I’m sorry to join the discussion so late, but as an illustrator myself I can relate to Todor’s view. I understand and agree with your concern for individualism and how it can be problematic for one’s soul even to focus on “bringing something new” to the table. That being said, where would we be if young Athanasius decided that at 24 years old he has nothing to add to our church theology and opted not to write “On the Incarnation”? I know, a bit of an extreme example.

            I remember asking our local priest why we don’t rewrite theology in modern terms, and he just sent me an article called “Strip the vanity of the heretics”. This attitude might be the safest, but it’s really not going to help the new generations when our arts, hymns and stories are are told in a language they don’t understand or relate to.

            This isn’t about the artist, when I illustrate a picture it’s never so I can sign it and call it mine – then leave my mark on orthodox history forever! That’s not why we paint. Art is to me a dialogue with God, and a partaking in His creativity. This is more about the Spirit speaking through the ages in contemporary languages the people would understand and less about the artist themselves.

            That’s what I think anyways 🙂

  2. Paul Stetsenko

    Looking at these icons is like trying to remove your eyes with a cheese grater.

  3. Dear Jonathan,
    I think there are always bad examples of how to modify the text of the liturgy or how to celebrate it really badly without modifying it.

    It’s not a secret, that all creative researches are based on experiments, which may seem very odd sometimes, but they are the only way to go forward.

    And for Paul, – I sincerely regret if these images hurt your senses. I suspect I feel the same when see someone painting an icon of the Mother of God looking nice and lovely.

  4. I have seen his work before and I am grateful for the interview and to learn more about his process. I think relating Icons to contemporary art is a courageous thing to accomplish, drawing fire from both camps. However, Mitrovic’s Icons are great examples of art that can also speak to the contemporary art world and God knows, Icons are needed there! Bravo, and thank you, Orthodox Arts Journal for publishing an artist’s work even if it is not fully to your taste. With God’s help we will all be able to make Icons that bring Him to a world that is in great need of Him.

  5. Liana Galabova

    Thank you very, very much for this interview! I am so happy to see this next step after the book I have read last year! It is really very nice to have something so profound theoretically and practically useful – also available to English-speaking iconographers! And let us hope this interview will help removing timbers from many eyes – even without any grater 🙂 What I look forward is more complete reportage from church with mural-paintings by Todor Mitrovich that appeared on the Internet only partially – when it will be completed. Besides numerous very good points and argumentation in his work, d-r Mitrovich is remarkable with the fact that he does not provide model for copying and does not suppose one would start copying his style. This humble attitude allows him to be free to set his icons free to speak and preach, after long years of silence in museums, galleries, souvenir shops, repositories, etc. What I also expect is the voice of the huge and talented groups of Russian and Romanian iconographers who already appreciate and develop ideas of professors Skliris and Kordis without copying their style and works, but by creating new, sound and authentic icon-painting traditions recently.

  6. Todor Mitrović

    Hello to all!
    For the beginning, I am very grateful to editorial board of OAJ for decision to publish this interview and, more specifically, to Olga, Philip and Jennifer, for making it happen.
    Since this dialog was not made as an attempt to produce some kind of undisputable manifesto or artistic credo, but was imagined – at least from my point of view – as an invitation to wider discussion about questions raised, I’m happy that, at the very beginning of its public life (in English language), this discussion is already opened. This is why I’m also grateful for all the comments – however critical some of those might have been. Moreover, I consider the augmented and constructive critics only as a huge help if we want to be closer to truth and improve what we do in that direction. From this point of view, I’d like to expand discussion on questions raised in comment of Jonathan Pageau – maybe as a set of additional notes to original discussion with Olga and Philip.

    * Let’s begin with the comment connected to Saint Basil the Great. Experience tells me that our contemporary analytic mind is capable to deconstruct every possible positive statement given in written form. So if I’d try to answer the argument of St. Basil comment in this (analytic) manner, than I could simply admit the mistake and say: let’s improve my metaphoric comparison by switching the writings of St. Basil with those of St. Gregory the Theologian, or St. Maximos Confessor, who haven’t been writing the text of liturgy but are also a real cornerstones of the teaching of the Church. On the other hand, the strict differentiation of homiletics and liturgy would not be so easy to establish, neither from theological nor from historic point of view. For example, homilies of St. Gregory the Theologian directly influenced formation of famous Easter Canon of St. John the Damascene, which, later on, became inseparable part of Easter Vigil – one of the most important services in contemporary Church life. Finally, icons are not used only in liturgy, and could also have explicatory functions – in liturgy or out of it. And so on… But I am not writing this comment in order to practice the skill of deconstruction, and I think this kind of answers is not sufficient and not important, at all. I do recognize a really positive intention and enthusiasm behind Jonathan’s comments and that is what I’d like to discuss. The truth is that we really do learn some texts by hart in our Church life. Together with few important prayers, we should know the Creed, which is – as we all know – a short theological statement, formulated on first two Ecumenical Councils, as a minimum of common teaching (dogmata) of the Church that cannot be disputed (this is, of course, why the text of Creed could became one of crucial reasons for later dispute with Roman-Catholics). Attending the liturgy, we also learn its text by hart, because it is also something that brings us together in front of Gods face, and – though liturgy itself has changed a lot from the time it was written – we are not fond of any kind of interventions in this text. But, in library of school where I tech we have the complete series of Patrologia Graeca and it looks so huge, on shelves, that even its reading looks like lifetime effort to me. This enormous ‘spiritual data bank’ also contains the teaching of the Church, and it is an important part of its heritage/tradition. But, how can somebody who has not spent lifetime on reading it, take part in this important aspect of Church tradition? Let’s turn again to father George Florovsky ,who truly dedicated his life to interpreting this heritage, for more detailed opinion. “The Fathers were true inspirers of the Councils, while being present and in absentia, and also often after they have gone to Eternal Rest. For that reason, and in this sense, the Councils used to emphasize that they were ‘following the Holy Fathers’ – επόμενοι τοις άγίοις ιτατράσιν, as Chalcedon has said. Secondly, it was precisely the consensus partum which was authoritative and binding, and not their private opinions or views, although even they should not be hastily dismissed. Again, this consensus was much more than just an empirical agreement of individuals. The true and authentic consensus was that which reflected the mind of the Catholic and Universal Church – τό έκκλησιαστικόν φρόνημα. It was that kind of consensus to which St. Irenaeus was referring when he contended that neither a special ‘ability’, nor a ‘deficiency’ in speech of individual leaders in the Churches could affect the identity of their witness, since the ‘power of tradition’ – virtus traditionis – was always and everywhere the same (adv. haeres. I. 10.2). The preaching of the Church is always identical: constans et aequaliter perseverans (ibid., III. 24.1). The true consensus is that which manifests and discloses this perennial identity of the Church’s faith – aequaliter perseverans” (The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Volume 1, Belmont, MA 1972, 103).
    So, about some subjects – written in Creed, for example – there is no need to dispute, and this is why we usually learn those contents by hart, but it seems that more than few questions are far from being solved yet. How all this discussion could be (in turning back from the metaphorical realms) structurally related with the Church art. Well, we should expect that there are, similarly, some aspects of Church art that should not be disputed through our artistic researches. Some kind of credo we all do agree about. But the problem is that art itself was never subject to verbal definitions, and the only place where we can find this kind of credo, this common teaching of the Church – the “power of tradition” which is independent of any special “ability,” or a “deficiency” of its actual witnesses – is the surface of (medieval) icons. Since the Byzantine art has passed through extreme formal changes through its millennial history, this is not an easy task, at all. Should we search in 15th century, or 14th, or 13th, or 12th, or 11th, or 10th…? And where (?) – in Constantinople, or Crete, or Thessalonica, or Cyprus, or Serbia, or Russia…? Which one is the most Byzantine among these virtually very different historical incarnations of Byzantine artistic spirit? In my opinion those are the wrong questions. I’d rather say that the common grounds – or, what we should learn ‘by hart’ – can be only the artistic content, or the artistic behavior, that is common for all of those great centuries (periods) of Byzantine art. In my opinion, the epicenter of such a credo should be posited in the very face of the saint. Its recognition. There are, of course, some other aspects of this art that are historically very stable, so could be also extracted to this hypothetical pictorial credo. But opening of such a delicate discussion would be too much for this comment. I’d like to call upon the groundbreaking researches of George Kordis, who analyzed those problems with highest precision. It can be found in his different publications and, also, in his interview in OAJ. So, I’ll end this additional note with suggestion to everyone interested in discussion on subjects opened in here to consult his extremely inspiring interview.

    * The other subject I’d like to discuss can be posited in space marked by two key terms: contemporary art and innovation. I was using the phrase contemporary art in most general sense of the word(s), in order to avoid modernism-postmodernism discussions, but it seems inescapable somehow. The concept of novelty – at least the way it was promoted by avant-garde movements (from the first decades of XX century) – is outdated long, long time ago in “contemporary” art. Being one of most profound initiators of this process (later on designated by term postmodernism), Warhol paradoxically saved the art of painting – almost self-denied through lyrical abstraction or art informel – which would be otherwise murdered by ‘new’ media. Finally, art was dying and resurrected several times in XX century and painting itself was passing through this comic scenario even more frequently. Reading of this scenarios today really looks like a kind of bizarre joke – though it’s not correct to laugh, because people spent their energy, their lives (and some of them even earned a huge money) playing this game. So, expecting any kind of radical novelty in any kind of art today is, at least… well, not necessary. This is why I have not used term ‘innovation’ (or its derivates) at all – not even once. To “belief that there is inherent value in innovation” (!?) – c’mon, I believed this centuries ago, while I was in primary and secondary school. On the other hand, in Jonathan’s comment the word ‘innovation’ (and its derivates) was used 9 times. Does this tell me that we misunderstood each other? Luckily, word-count is not the key argument in this case. The question is actually very important, uncovering the most subtle dilemmas of my work, for which I have not found disambiguate answers yet. Truth is that there is a kind of need for innovation behind my work. But it is not unconscious, at all, and this is why it – as Jonathan rightly observed – should be discussed in its (cultural) context.
    The religious kitsch is a phenomenon that cannot be escaped in any geographic and cultural space. The Christian Hip-Hop and Christian Death Metal might be inventions of American popular religious culture, but the soulless icons are inventions of orthodox popular religious culture. I don’t know which ‘invention’ is the worst, but I know that myriads of those soulless images are the reason nobody (serious enough and educated enough) considers that icons are art, in here. Every serious artist or art historian will agree that medieval icons/frescoes/mosaics are huge art, but nobody will consider even a possibility that contemporary icons/frescoes/mosaics could be art. And this was hurting me, not as an artist (I could always turn back to my abstractions), but as a Christian. It was hurting because I recognized elements of socialist and liberalistic ideologies behind such an attitude (as well), but it was hurting more because – with or without ideology – it was/is truth! Is it possible that Christians are not capable of making powerful art anymore? Is it possible that we became so self-sufficient that we don’t care if somebody from outside of our community tells us we are making a real kitsch? Try to imagine you’re the conductor of church quire; the professor of conducting from Moscow Conservatorium comes to church and tells you that you are totally out of the rhythm and the harmony; he leaves, but you say to your singers and to yourself: who cares – he don’t know what he is saying, because he is not in Church… This is the way we behave (!) but I’m not sure this is the way Byzantine or early Christian artists would behave if they were in our place. Holy fathers where holy because of the Holy Spirit, but if they were theologians they could be enormously educated. And we cannot even read their treatises without solid knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. The language of key theologians of Church was, very often, based on Plato and Aristotle. Why Bible was not enough for them, but they needed Plato and Aristotle? Because that was the only way to approach the Roman and Hellenic cultural space! Actually, that was the only way to approach Roman and Hellenic intellectuals. And those intellectuals are – as always and everywhere – people who are modeling the cultural horizon of the epoch. Christian theologians (and artists as well) were not ignorant to this cultural horizon, but carefully listening and trying to understand it. And this is the way ancient theologians succeeded in unbelievable and even miraculous enterprise: they molded Greco-Roman culture according to Biblical law by using Plato and Aristotle. Somebody might say this looks like a kind of trick, but I would say this is the only way it could be done and it was done with the wisdom that is a true God’s gift to the world.
    So finally, I wanted to rely on this kind of role model when started reasoning about artistic behavior in contemporary situation. Someone will say: ok, why not, but, what all of this has to do with the concept of innovation? According to described, my intention was to connect the two very distant cultural poles: Church and highest academic authorities in visual arts. With completely opposite reasons, both ‘camps’ – with more or less passion – paradoxically agreed about proposition that icons are not art. This paradoxical agreement is induced by (already described) ocean of ecclesiastical kitsch, which was/is covering the horizon between the two groups of beholders my art was addressed. And my goal was simple: if both camps admit that contemporary icons can and should be art, then we have platform for communication that was previously disabled. Based on described ancient experiences, my opinion was that this kind of dialog is very, very important for both – the Church and the world. But, finally, if you want to address the two distanced ‘camps’ – safely withdrawn in the shells of their (distanced) attitudes and prejudices – and you are swimming in the ocean of kitsch, then sometimes you have to speak very loud and very sharp. My need for innovation came from such a position. In order to be at least visible in such a context, my icons needed to speak loud about the artistic aspect of icon. And, to be honest, more than once I felt that I’m going too far with this, because my attitude about art is actually opposite. I don’t think innovation is important at all. Actually, it is important – as any other artistic means – but it is not the key aspect of artistic endeavor. I don’t have problem to recognize the art, and even novelty, in icons that are done in very traditional manner. What makes icon new and authentic is not experiment but the energy and love involved in its painting. This is my general attitude which was attested through 1.5 decade of pedagogic experience. (I teach students to copy medieval icons, if somebody was concerned about my pedagogic influence on Church art in Serbia; only medieval – not contemporary; nobody is forced to be innovative and I do not expect them to be informed about the way I paint icons, at all). Finally, I can never be sure that my loud researches are better than those quiet ones. But I do think that sometimes it is important to speak loud and sharp. My opinion is that contemporary Church (art) needs different kind of voices in its quire – loud and quite, sharp and gentle, rough and delicate… In between those voices, the melody of the ‘virtus traditionis’ will became alive and really authentic. Maybe we could call this the principle of ‘sobornost’ in the context of our discussion.

    * Finally – one short appendix to all that was said. What I’m especially interested in domain of artistic expression, from strictly aesthetic point of view, is the color. This is the only reason I was relying much on Matisse, as it was rightly observed in Jonathan’s comment. I don’t think of this artist as an innovator (at all) but as one among great teachers of color. The use of contemporary palette of pigments is simply defined by artists of this kind. It is simply naïve to think of using those colors if you have not experienced what Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Rothko… for example, have been doing with them in past. I’m not thinking about Matisse in essentially different way I think about Vermeer, Velazquez, Rembrandt or Rubens, for example. (I have no doubt those artists also can teach us a lot, even when art of icon is concerned, only if we can read their art carefully.) So, to make one small correction, when I said that contemporary art is defining our visual horizon, I was having in mind all art of 20th and 21st century. Together with the art(s) of design, of course, which often do offer much more artistic content than dreary intellectualizing from autistic gallery life. I agree that our visual horizon is defined by innumerable screens – from cell phones to billboards – that are surrounding us, but my point was going this way: try to imagine how all of those toys would look like if there was no Donald Judd or Frank Stella, for example. Try to imagine how the Google front page would look like without Matisse. I don’t think it would be the same. Even if we didn’t like this kind of development, it seems that it has happened, and I think we should use its good sides. Early Christians probably did agree with Saint John’s apocalyptic metaphors, describing Rome as “the great whore” (Rev 17-19), but did not avoid to rely on roman communication network in their preaching. Moreover, early Christians embraced roman art in spite the authority of Holy Scripture was not supporting art at all. At the end, Roman Empire became Christian Empire and produced art that is unparalleled in history for its spirituality and its beauty. Of course, we are not living in the times of early Church, and I don’t think we should be so naive to apply those lectures from history literally, but I also do not think we should avoid taking them into account only because their origin is not medieval. Every lecture from history is important, as well as it is important to discuss the way of its potential application in contemporary context.

    1. Todor, I really want to thank you personally for your time doing the interview with Olga and in pursuing the debate. Your interview has been viewed thousands of times and so the questions you raise in your answers are of real concern to many. Also, as one of the editors, I am of those who worked on getting the interview up in the first place. So despite having formulated the strongest objection to your ideas, I have also stated that I admire your capacity to pose the right questions with energy and honesty. Also, there are some of your icons that I find quite touching, especially those of St-Paul which have almost a Japanese print feel to them.

      As an editorial decision for OAJ, we do not to let discussion run interminably into the comment section, so I will not answer what you have written in detail. But in brief, although my first comments still stand, I think that your additional statements definitely help us to understand your position better and they continue to show us that you are taking these issues very seriously and posing the difficult questions which many iconographers would not dare ask.

      So thank you again, and I sincerely hope that our paths will cross one day. Your brother in Christ. Jonathan

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