Charlie Calder-Potts – Singing Some Endless Song Exhibition 2020
Tuesday February 18, 2020
A few weeks spent in the tiny village of Palekh (400 km from Moscow) is sure to leave anyone intrigued, if not a little obsessed, with icon painting. Palekh has been a centre for the craft since the 1600s and is home to Palekh Art School, a place dedicated to teaching this historic art form to a new generation. In October 2018, I was lucky enough to work with Vladimir Bushkov who, after 40 years, is considered a master of Russian icon painting and the Palekh style.
Icon painting is as relevant in today’s Russia as it was nearly 1000 years ago. The format has changed very little and the same can be said for the technique. For 18 hours a day, seven days a week, I sat in Vladimir’s studio pulverising pumice stones, binding egg yolks with vodka (when in Russia make alcohol tempera paint from scratch) and grinding gold leaf.
Books on the subject are nothing to the direct teaching passed from artist to artist through the generations. When Vladimir handed me a wolf’s tooth, saying it was the best thing to use to burnish the gold on my icon, I should not have been surprised when he told me that he had hunted the wolf himself in the forest surrounding the village. The icon feels very ‘Russian’ and yet at the same time sings the song of the universal.
This is further reinforced by its open armed acceptance of those who stand before it. Vladimir stressed that it was essential that I grasp the true gravitas of the icon within the Russian mind-set. These are not mere paintings they are a ‘window into heaven’. Icons have been credited with performing both universal and individual miracles, from preventing wars to curing eye diseases; many believe in the powers they manifest.
The icon is to be respected and revered, possessing its own divine spirit – a true embodiment of the figure it represents. The painted image is as real as the person standing beside you in the street, yet manages to evade time and space, offering instead an everlasting presence.
There is a Russian saying … ‘Everything new is a well forgotten old’. By placing individuals from the here and now (photographed on the streets of Moscow) within the enduring composition of the icon, the cyclical nature of history is presented and the ‘everyman’ given centre stage.
This new series of works, based on my time in Russia, recognises a people unified by our very existence, regardless of culture and faith. It is not the divine that embodies these works but the weight of history and the many generations that have gone before us.
In these secular ‘icons’ you will not find Christ, the Virgin Mary or the various Saints. Yet you will still find a son, a mother, and brothers in arms. The work, like the traditional version, puts humanity at its heart. The spiritual becomes the magical which is, in itself, life from the offset – unknown, unpredictable and FULL to the brim with wonderful stories.