In Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, there is a museum housing a number of icons from the surrounding area, mostly from the nineteenth century, which witnessed a National Revival. Although this icon is not a museum piece (I bought it at a souvenir shop in the town), the icon demonstrates a feature I haven’t noticed before in iconography — namely, the opened cloud in which we catch a glimpse of heaven.
Many of the icons in this museum feature a depiction of a saint, or a scene from the Bible, and above the ‘veil’ will be torn and we catch a glimpse of the heavenly dimension.
More than this, however, such icons aim to depict humans and human behaviour in a transfigured state. Transfiguration is at the core of Eastern Orthodoxy, and emphasises the transformative reality of the Gospel, whereby the coming of the Kingdom of God infuses new life into the cosmos, and it becomes transformed.
When people criticise Orthodox artwork for being ethereal or otherworldly, this is precisely the point. I used to think that Protestants and some Catholics were right when they attempted to be realistic in how they portrayed Jesus and scenes from the Bible.
But while realism has its place, I now understand the deeper significance of transfigurative art — representations of life which tear down the veil that currently hides the heavenly dimension. After all, the Revelation of St. John the Divine promises that one day, this veil will be properly removed, and the New Jerusalem will descend to earth, wherein the whole cosmos will be transfigured.
In this sense, the Orthodox create art which is deeply rooted in the Gospel — the promise of transformation through Christ.
In the West, however, we are used to a long tradition of realism in art that sometimes borders on the naturalistic. In philosophy, naturalism is sometimes used to describe the attempt to use scientific methods to document ‘how things really are’. This is a descriptive account. But naturalism is also a normative position, which emphasises the various determinisms, often social, at work in human life.
Thus, nineteenth-century novelists such as Emile Zola, Charles Baudelaire, and Thomas Hardy, move beyond realism into naturalism by their presentation of lives chained by social forces seemingly beyond their control. There is even an argument to be made that naturalism seeped into the emergence of social science disciplines in the nineteenth century as well: Sociology in particular tends to reduce the human being to its status as a social being, caught up in webs from which it is impossible to extricate oneself.
Of course, art doesn’t have to explicitly sign up to a naturalistic philosophy in order for it to display naturalistic characteristics. Many artists of diverse media and genre tend to determine artistic excellence on a work’s ability to expose — to provide new insight into the realities behind social appearances, often with a negative cast.
In Bucharest’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I was fascinated by the art of Maria Manolescu and Romelo Pervolovici, which presents a scathing and upsetting portrait of life in contemporary Romania.
In this painting, for example, communication between the generations is fraught. The young man (only really a shadow) sits on a stool by the bed with his shoulders hunched over. The old man is looking in the opposite direction, smoking, yet guarding the door. But what’s outside? Only rubbish. Viewed from the situation of the young man, his situation is negative, with little scope for salvation.
The painting is touching and penetrating at the same time. But its function is limited.
As the famous American educator Louise Rosenblatt once wrote concerning Walt Whitman, we need ‘image-makers’ of all kinds ‘who will do more than express our disillusionments, intensify our alienation, or dwell on our separateness’.
In other words, we need a movement from naturalism to transfiguration — a verbal and visual space in which the veil is removed between heaven and earth, and our imagination is energised to contemplate moments of transformation.
Importantly, a focus on transfiguration recognises the existence of personality in a human being. Personality is the opposite of the natural. Personality is a creative project, working with the ‘raw materials’ of the given, but triumphing over necessity and stepping out into freedom.
Naturalism, as a descriptive branch of realism, has its place in art. But we must never be content with it as the final word on human persons. We need to look beyond, to moments where the clouds unfold.