Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Virgin of Vladimir


The Virgin of Vladimir is the most famous and most revered of Russian icons, described as the "Palladium of Russia" (a protective sacred image), it is also among the oldest of all surviving Russian icons.  It is older than Russia itself, made for Kievan Rus, a loose collection of principalities from which Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus would emerge.  The Virgin of Vladimir is one of only twenty surviving icons from before the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.  All twenty of those surviving icons were made in or for Kyiv in the 11th and 12th centuries.

A 12th century Kievan prince commissioned the Virgin of Vladimir for a church he was building from the imperial workshops in Constantinople.  When the icon arrived in Kyiv about 1131, it created a sensation.  It was celebrated and famous from the start.  It was as celebrated for its beauty as much as for its sanctity.  It remains a major masterpiece of Byzantine painting with an emotional appeal unusual for Byzantine art in any era.  The unknown Greek artist of the Virgin of Vladimir may have invented this type of composition showing a tender contact between mother and child later known as an Eleusa Icon type.  No other icon painter since invested that tender cheek to cheek contact with the warmth, depth, and complex range of emotion that this artist created in the Virgin of Vladimir.

This restorer's diagram shows how very little is left of the original icon.  Only the two faces remain from the original painting.  The rest is the remnant of several re-paintings over many centuries.  The great icon painter Andrei Rublev is said to to have had a hand in restoring this painting at one time.  Like so many ancient  revered sacred images, the Virgin of Vladimir was worshipped almost to death. 

A detail showing the remaining portions of the original painting from Constantinople.

The icon did not remain in Kyiv for long.  In 1167, the Virgin of Vladimir traveled to the city of Vladimir where she resided for about a century.  The icon was transferred to Moscow in the 14th century where it remains today.  

The Virgin of Vladimir was so revered that there were icons painted about it.  Here is a 16th century icon commemorating its 1167 arrival in the city of Vladimir from which it would take its name.  A monastery was later built on the site of the transfer.

One of the reasons for the icon's poor condition is the addition of pious ornamentation over the centuries.  All of this was added with the best and most reverential of intentions, but it badly damaged the original painting every time such ornament was added and removed.  

The riza, or oklad, or as it's known English, the revetment above was made in the 15th century specially for the Virgin of Vladimir, as was the 17th century riza below.

These pious ornaments are themselves works of art.

Here is a copy of the Virgin of Vladimir made in the 16th century for Irina Godunova, sister of Boris.  
It remains fully vested.  This is how people would have seen the Virgin of Vladimir for most of its history, vested and surrounded by flowers and candles.

The Virgin of Vladimir inspired innumerable copies and imitations down through the centuries.  
This one is among the most famous, the Donskaya Virgin by Theophanes the Greek (or Feofan Grek in Russian), one of the very few icon painters who was neither ordained nor in religious orders.

Rumor has it (and I don't think a very credible rumor) that Stalin had the icon flown around city in a plane during the Battle of Moscow in 1942 to defend the city from the Nazi armies at its gates.  Stalin was many things, but I doubt he was so credulous.  But that story points to a significant role played by this icon as a protective image of the city of Moscow and of Russia.  
The icon arrived in Moscow in 1395 to defend the city from the predations of Tamerlane.  Tamerlane spared the city and retreated.  And so did the Nazis in 1942.  They never entered the city.  So who knows.

Until 1930, the Virgin of Vladimir resided in the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin in Moscow.  After that the icon hung in the Tretyakov Gallery as a work of art and historically significant artifact.  
In 1993, the icon was moved to its present location, The Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi where the Tretyakov Gallery and the Metropolitan Patriarch of Moscow share custody.

The Church of St. Nicholas Tolmachi

Interior of the church where you can see the Virgin of Vladimir on display to the left.



Friday, February 25, 2022

Hagia Sophia in Kyiv

The elaborate Baroque exterior of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv conceals a well preserved Byzantine church from the 11th century, among the oldest churches in the Slavic world.  Byzantine artists and craftsmen from Constantinople built the cathedral as the crowning monument of a campaign by the Orthodox church to evangelize the Slavic peoples in what would eventually be Kievan Rus followed by Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

Some of the original 11th century brickwork made visible on the Cathedral's exterior.

A model of the original 11th century cathedral concealed by additions from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The interior of the Cathedral little changed since the 11th century.  Most of the mosaics are 11th century originals.

Christ Pantocrator in the dome with four archangels.

The Virgin Orans in the half-dome of the apse.

Details from the mosaic of The Communion of the Apostles

 Various fathers of the church.

So far as I know, no provision was made to spare or protect this church from the fighting currently going on in Kyiv.  It will eventually pass again into Russian ownership.  This building saw many sieges and invasions over the centuries from Mongols to Tatars to Tamerlane to Stalin, to Hitler, and now to Putin.  In the midst of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands sandwiched between the ambitions of the 20th century's two worst tyrants stands ancient Hagia Sophia, a durable testament to the hope of a glorious fulfillment at the end of a long and dark history.

Liberal Democracy

Liberal Democracy has been out of fashion for a long time, and now it's under attack.  It lost its academic respectability long before Jacques Derrida demolished its foundations.  It's not freedom that's enjoying a rebirth these days, but despotism.  Leading that movement is Russia's brutal and determined dictator Vladimir Putin followed by China's Xi Jinping.  Around the world there is a host of Putin wannabees; Brazil's Bolsonaro, India's Modi, Hungary's Orban, Turkey's Erdogan, Philippines' Duterte, and of course, the USA's Trump.  It's been nearly a century since tyranny looked so cutting edge.  Hip but over-cautious journalists coined a new euphemism for dictatorship calling it "illiberal democracy," as though genuine democracy could be anything but liberal.

Historians point out that far from new, despotism has been with us since before the beginning of history universally in all parts of the world.  It's liberal democracy that's the real novelty, a fragile thing with feathers jerry-built by quarreling committees and only around since the 18th century.

Fragile despised thing that liberal democracy is, people still vote for it with their feet in big numbers.  We can watch it happening now on the news.  Droves of people will risk their lives for a little vulgar prosperity and a chance to make their own lives as they see fit.  They'll take discount stores and do-it-yourself over any despot's dreams of glory, or any philosopher's vision of the celestial Jerusalem every time.  They want prosperity, but they want freedom and dignity as well, something no tyrant will give his people no matter how well he can deliver a consumer economy to them.

And now we watch Vladimir Putin destroy Ukraine and create grief and misery for millions of people in the name of geo-political strategy.  Those among us who want tribal supremacy over democracy cheer him on.  They want to build a white man's Valhalla on the ashes of E Pluribus Unum, and they're willing to kill for it.  Freedom for Me Alone!  Everyone else can stay in their chains.

We are at a moment of decision where those of us who live under liberal democracy must believe that it is worth fighting for abroad and at home.  

I answer for myself an emphatic YES!

Below is a symbol I post frequently on my Facebook page that means a lot to me.  It's the emblem of the Double Victory movement during the Second World War.  It was a movement of Black American soldiers who wanted to link the fight against fascism abroad with the struggle against segregation at home.  Freedom abroad only means anything if there's freedom at home for everybody.  No one is really free separately, but we can all be free together.  "Unless I'm free, you're not free," said Mary Lou Hamer.  That goes up and down all around our community.  
And now we face that moment of decision, whether or not we are willing to fight for democracy on other continents and right here in the neighborhood.  The best of all possible worlds is one where our freedom and happiness no longer depend on other people's misery, but on their freedom and happiness too.

A Black Lives Matter rally in Pittsburgh in 2020.



Yesterday in Times Square.  A photo posted on Facebook by the Veselka Restaurant, a Ukrainian restaurant that has long been an institution in the East Village.  I ate there many times when I lived in that neighborhood.  There was and still is a large Ukrainian population in the East Village, big enough to have their own churches, their own school, and their own social center.  There's a big Ukrainian population in the New York area and in New Jersey.

They are really hurting right now, and we are hurting right along with them.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Alma Thomas


Red Rose Sonata, 1972

I discovered Alma Thomas by accident a few years ago in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I saw this painting Red Rose Sonata in an exhibit surveying post WWII abstract painting and sculpture in the USA from the museum's collections.  I was immediately struck by it.  It was so different in tone from all the other works in the exhibit, all of them major works of art.  This painting begins in sensory pleasure and does not apologize for it in a room full of artists trying to make truly abstract art with no desire to replicate or recall our experiences of the world.  The painting is not confrontational, but joyous, and that joy has no ironic inflections.  Alma Thomas' painting first and last recalls the pleasure of red roses.  She chose (or mixed) that red color very carefully, a color that is very close to the red of red roses.  She created an underpainting in a cool viridian green, a complementary color, to set off those reds. The painting remains quite abstract.  Nowhere are roses depicted.  The painting uses an all over composition as much as Pollock did in his drip paintings.  
Perhaps I'm getting sentimental in my tastes as I get older, but I fell in love with this painting as much as I admired so many of the others in the exhibit.  I'd never heard of Alma Thomas when I first saw this.

Alma Thomas began to paint professionally very late in life, at age 68.  All of these poetic abstract works come from the last years of her life.  She spent almost four decades of her life teaching art to junior high students in Washington DC.  She didn't exactly appear out of nowhere.  She was the first art major to graduate from Howard University in 1924.  She began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, a segregated school immediately after graduating from Howard.   In 1943, she co-founded the Barnett-Aden Gallery with her former teacher at Howard James W. Herring, among the first galleries devoted to African American artists.  She toured Europe in 1958 with students from Tyler University in Philadelphia.  She took advanced classes in painting and drawing at American University in 1950.
She did not begin her career as an artist until she retired from Shaw Junior High School in 1960.
By the time she began painting professionally, she was an elderly retiree, but she was hardly an inexperienced hobbyist.    

A Fantastic Sunset, 1970

By 1969 - 1970 her work began attracting a lot of serious critical notice.  She found herself exhibiting together with the work of Washington's two renowned color field painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland and she's sometimes lumped in with them by the textbooks.  But her work is so different in form and spirit from theirs.  Louis and Noland were in the main stream of official museum-worthy abstract painting at the time.  They wanted to further the modern project to collapse the distinction between form and content through reductivism.  They wanted to purge their art of all references to the world beyond painting itself.  Painting would be its own subject.  There's nothing reductivist in Alma Thomas' work, nor is she interested in making paintings about painting.  She returned to earlier forms of abstract painting in the 20th century that distilled and interpreted experience instead of purging it from art.

Fiery Sunset, 1973

Alma Thomas created her titles carefully unlike Louis and Noland who were mostly content to number them.  In this and in her constant references to nature and landscape she's closest to someone like Helen Frankenthaler who was never shy about landscape references in her work.  The painting above is a perfect example taking the colors of a sunset and creating an over-all pattern that recalls the experience of a sunset but does not depict it.  Like Mondrian in his painting Pier and Ocean, Alma Thomas distills the experience into a field of suggestive colors and shapes that could be anything from sunset clouds to burning coals without being any of those things.

Her favorite subjects are flowers and the drama of the sky.

Stars and Their Display, 1972

Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto, 1973

Fall Begins, 1976

Aquatic Gardens, 1973

The Eclipse, 1970

Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia into an upper-middle class family in 1891.  Her family moved to Washington DC in 1907 fleeing a wave of racist violence in Georgia.  Though Washington was a segregated city, it had more opportunities for African Americans than most of the rest of the South did.  Her family bought a house in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington.  Alma Thomas lived in that house for the rest of her life until she died in 1978.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

James Bidgood

Before there was Pierre et Gilles, before there was David LaChapelle, before there was Cindy Sherman, there was James Bidgood with his camera working in a tiny New York apartment.

James Bidgood died January 31 at the age of 88.

James Bidgood's most frequent and famous model Bobby Kendall posed as Pan in a photo from sometime in the 1960s.

James Bidgood made all these staged homoerotic fantasies in his own small 14th Street apartment.  He built all the sets and made most of the clothes himself.  Bidgood originally came from Wisconsin.  He arrived in New York as a young man and performed as a drag act and as a male dancer in the 1950s and 60s in various gay venues.  He worked as a window dresser, costume designer, and free-lance photographer publishing some of his highly fantasized homoerotic photos in "physique" magazines that mostly appealed to gay men.  
Bidgood used a number of models in his photos, and in his film Pink Narcissus that he worked on for seven years.  Some of those models were regulars, but a lot of them were boys from off the streets that his other models would recruit.  According to Bidgood, not all of those boys in his photos were gay, but seemed to be game for anything back in the 1960s and 70s..  Bidgood's most frequent model was Bobby Kendall (an alias).  Bobby Kendall was the star of Pink Narcissus and lived with Bidgood while the film was in production. 
Kendall was a runaway who was surprised by Bidgood's interest in him since he considered himself to be unattractive.  The two men were lovers for a while and remained good friends throughout their lives. 

Bidgood's 1971 movie Pink Narcisssus that took him seven years to make starring Bobby Kendall.  Bidgood built all the sets, made all the costumes, figured out all the lighting and special effects.  He filmed all of it in a tiny 14th Street railroad flat.

YouTube pulled Bidgood's Pink Narcissus for a bunch of reasons including copyright conflicts.
So, here are some stills from the movie.

Bidgood took his name off the movie because he objected to the way it was edited.  Who made Pink Narcissus became an enduring mystery in gay circles with many people guessing who was the author.  Andy Warhol's name came up frequently.  The mystery wasn't solved until the 1990s when Bidgood's photographs finally got some long overdue recognition in exhibitions and books about his work.

According to the obituary in the NYTimes today (2/4/2022), James Bidgood died of covid.