9 Comments

  1. It is interesting to hear Kordis describe his own approach to icon painting. His words seem to describe a solidly traditional understanding of liturgical art. But can the same be said of his painting? There are some paintings by Kordis with which I am uncomfortable, such as the image of Sts. Andronikos and Athanasia shown here. The figures seem insubstantial – like ghosts, which I think is a big dogmatic problem. But I don’t know what is the purpose of this image. Does Kordis intend it to be used as a liturgical icon?

    On the other hand, many of his icons, though unusual looking at first glance, do indeed have all the characteristics of the canonical style, and I must remind myself that in many ways they are less eccentric than the icons of Gregory Kroug, and even of some medieval masters. Whether or not one entirely likes Kordis’ icons, I think everyone should agree that it is healthy for gifted iconographers to occasionally push the envelope and experiment at the edge of canonical norms. Of course, most such experiments will not be wholly successful, but occasionally something new arises that has real merit and influences others, and this is how the tradition evolves.

    The one thing in Kordis’ liturgical work that bothers me is the backgrounds with a gradation of color, as in the Columbia, SC church. I cannot think of a historic example that has this (though perhaps there is one of which I am unaware). It seems to me to be contrary to the idea that the background of an icon represents the uncreated light (which is intense, constant, and opaque). I would be very interested to hear Kordis’ explanation of why he does these gradated pastel backgrounds.

  2. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    Hello Andrew,

    That’s a good question Andrew. I’m not sure whether the Sts. Andronikos and Athanasia icon is intended for liturgical use. It might be for Kordis private use.
    Also, if you notice, the icon bears no inscriptions, maybe it’s a work in progress. I chose the icon since, as you pointed out, it shows Kordis pushing the envelope.
    Taking risks in icon painting is something rarely seen, accepted or understood today. Most seem to relegate Tradition to the notion of chronology, the repeating of things of the good-old-past without much thought about the creative use of principles. Although the aforementioned icon might not be wholly successful, it at least asks us to reconsider our presuppositions of what is traditionally possible.

    In my opinion the figures do not appear ghostly. Rather they appear to have a transfigured corporeality. Luminosity permeates them in a way that is aesthetically convincing to me. Luminosity, light, is not depicted solely by means of tonal values, but mainly through color hue and saturation. Color illumines. Yet, they appear to be momentarily “darkened,” as when a flash of light suddenly shocks the eyes- darkness and light suddenly become one. In this way it dogmatically relates, although in an admittedly unusual way, to the theology of “divine darkness.” It can also be said that the saints here convey the dusk of old age, suddenly passing into the dawn of uncreated light. We’re dealing with the very moment of transfiguration. Notice the “negative highlights,” on the arms and the hood of St. Andronikos. It reminds us of how light passes through a lens and leaves behind the imprint of its presence on the film negative. The film negative in the camera can be seen as the body in the cave of creation, so to speak. These negative highlights suggest that we are not solely dealing with a natural light source; the saints are also imprinted by light coming from another, Heavenly dimension. This Light appears to be dark to the natural man, as St. Paul would say. So here we have an emphasis on transfigured corporeality- the resurrected body. Bear in mind that the disciples thought that Christ was a spirit, or ghost, when He walked on the sea and appeared to them after the Resurrection. Anyhow, that’s one way of interpreting the work in light of the theology of the icon. I don’t believe these observations are solely based on my likes or dislikes, or on what the icon is suppose to do without it actually communicating so aesthetically. I believe them to be objective, based on the evidence of the concrete aesthetic choices Kordis has made.

    As to the question of gradated backgrounds, I admit that it’s difficult to find historical examples. The only ones I can think of are the Mstera icons of the 19th and early 20th century. Some might consider these icons as “decadent” in that they incorporate some naturalistic elements that tend to come across a bit romantic at times. Nevertheless, it seems to me that they generally maintain a grounding on Tradition. Only the background, the landscape and sky, are gradated. The rest of the image is Byzantine in flavor, linear, worked from within traditional principles. So the Mstera masters can be seen as another example of “pushing the envelope.” Another thing to remember are the frescoes of Dechani Monastery in Kosovo. There you will find gradation on the ground and rocks/mountains. At the bottom it is green, suggesting grass, and it gradually turns an ocher color, as to suggest the hue of stone.It would appear that the hesitation about gradated backgrounds comes from its association with bad examples of naturalistic, religious Western painting.

    The issue seems to me mainly a matter of emphasis and attitude towards naturalistic orientation in icons. Naturalism as such is not the problem. The problem is: what kind of naturalism. What is it doing in the icon? Does it contribute, or not, to express a specific content. It would be dangerous to say that since we find no examples of gradated backgrounds then it is therefore banned. There is always a first time that is not contrary to Tradition. Naturalism interferes when it becomes excessively illusionistic and theatrical, sentimental, grossly corporeal, and when it compromises the picture plane. In short, when it fails to remind us that there is not only sense perception, but also an intelligible dimension to reality. Hence, if kept in check by abstraction, naturalism in fact can help to emphasize the incarnational theology of the icon. So a gradated background reminds me of how the skies in Nature, “declare the glory of God,” and how their unbelievable other-worldly hues are symbols of the heavenly reality perceived by the prophets in vision. Anyhow, Kordis’ use of gradated background is kept in check enough. Through their luminosity they do in fact convey the idea of uncreated light. They remind us of how the beauty of nature manifests uncreated Beauty. In the end, I think it’s a matter of seeing the uncreated light not solely as the impenetrable mystery that it is, hence an opaque background; but also encompassing a translucent, transfigurative side, in which even the coarsest of matter, Nature, becomes the garment of the Lord.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Silouan

  3. Great article. I’ll put the link to this in my Art/Icon blog so my students can have access to it. We use Kordis’ book in our icon class.
    Blessings,

    Christine Hales

  4. Peter Pearson

    This man is incredibly blessed and talented. His work reminds me of Theophanes the Greek who painted in Russia back in the 14th and 15th centuries. What is old is new.

  5. “You cannot step into the same river twice,” wrote Heraclitus.

    It is impossible for us, living now, to have the same “Tradition” as the apostles, the early church, the Byzantine church, etc. Our very concepts of Tradition are artifacts of the Enlightenment and modernity. There is no escaping the fact that the past to which we try to remain faithful cannot is largely an artifact of our contemporary imagination.

    This point was brought forcefully home to me when the Met Museum had a show of Byzantine art from the high point of the empire. The freedom displayed there would not be countenanced today. There are pillars of Orthodoxy today who were hardly significant in the Byzantine era, but have been made prominent by modern scholars who long for a past that never was.

    Nor is it reasonable to think that the good news of the gospel has been fully expressed in any age or embraced with greater fervor and perfection, on the whole, by our ancestors than they are today.

    We become a cult, in the particular modern sense, when we claim that the only way to portray the sacred in art is a certain tradition of Orthodox iconography. We have a great tradition of portraying the sacred in art. The Orthodox icon is getting global recognition, just as, say, the bagel, has escaped beyond Jewish culture. We do have a great and valuable tradition. But we do ourselves no favor when we put down all of Western art as divorced from the sacred. It is not true.

    The only way that we can be faithful to tradition would, I suppose, to be as much a part of our time as the creators of the tradition were a part of their time, and to exercise the same creativity as those who went before us.

    It is time for us to stop being both defensive and judgmental, and to give thanks for being born in the particular time and the particular places where God has chosen to place us in order to receive and share the flames of his love.

  6. The comparison with Fr. Gregory Kroug is an intuitive one; both iconographers are very bold and unusual. They are brilliant masters of their craft and they both employ many elements of modern art. But Kroug’s sense of the icon never for one moment allows the form to interrupt the image’s transparency to the spirit, while in the icons by Kordis I have a hard time even seeing past the form. Kordis’ images give me an empty feeling, all these colors and forms seem like they should be leading me to the person depicted, but instead they lead back to themselves.

  7. […] few days ago I read an interesting interview with a contemporary Greek iconographer, George Kordis, “The Art of Icon Painting in a Postmodern World.” Several things caught my eye, the least of which wasn’t the style of this modern iconographer and […]

  8. Andrew and Seraphim, I think bringing up Kroug is the right thing to do here. I really struggle with Kordis’ icons, but I don’t with Kroug. I took myself to task to figure out what it is about each that I either like or dislike and I come to the basic conclusion that Kroug is Russian, French and Modern, while Kordis is Greek, American and Post-Modern. Those different series of elements have natural affinities together, so in Kroug we have the natural “minimalism” of Novgorod icons merging with the early modern reduction we can find in the cubists but also in people like Maurice Denis. As for Kordis, we really have a form of mannerism that has affinities especially with the “transavangardia” painters of the 80s, think especially of the Italians like Sandro Chia or french artists like Gerard Garouste. And in that sense I wonder if there isn’t a bit of the post-modern irony in his work, that is the idea of the “commentary” which is mannerism. In this sense, his compositions, lines and colors would be a “memory” of iconographic conventions, memory truly in the sense of post-modern memory rather than patristic memory, memory that is already a commentary, memory that is something of caricature. For certain though, this interview is truly wonderful and it helps me to understand what he is trying to do and see his deep love of Tradition and reverence for the Saints. Also, anybody who has watched those videos of him sketching huge frescoes directly unto the surface without any preparatory drawings can only be amazed at how much he lives the language of the Icon.

    1. That’s very insightful. You’re right that Kroug’s work is modernist and medievalist simultaneously, and yet un-self-conscious, and without irony. It seems impossible, but there were occasional instances of this a century ago. Two architects come to mind – Hendrik Petrus Berlage (Dutch) and Carlos Scarps (Italian) were contemporaries of Kroug, and they likewise worked in a modern Middle Ages so naturally that one wonders why architecture would ever be anything different when looking at their work.

      Kordis’ work, on the other hand, seems to emphasize the tension between medieval and modern influences. If the tension resolves, it seems to do so because of the force of Kordis’ artistic will imposing a resolution. I suppose this is another way of saying that his mannerisms seem deliberate, self-conscious. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps it explains why it is easy to look at a Kroug without thinking about Kroug, but hard to look at a Kordis without being conscious of Kordis himself.

      Nevertheless, I am glad for both of these eccentric iconographers. They are both so personal and virtuosic in their style that no one could really imitate them. But their work serves as valuable examples to ‘frame’ the edges of iconography, and to inspire students to understand the cannon more broadly.

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