December 4, 2005

Does the British Museum really understand its collections?

Posted at 6:29 pm in Similar cases

This article from the Daily Telegraph gives an interesting insight to the attitude of the British Museum to its own collections in its final paragraphs. The museum contains a collection of icons, many dating to the Byzantine period, which are all kept in the basement of the museum. Various people, including the Prince of Wales have contacted the museum, suggesting that these artefacts could be far better displayed. One wealthy Russian has offered to provide the museum with a purpose-designed space in which to better display these paintings, but the museums has ignored all these requests & offers.

Daily Telegraph

Saturday 3 December 2005
Exquisite survivors from a more spiritual age

Fifty years ago, you could pick up a Russian icon for a few pounds; now these pictures, painted mostly by anonymous monks, fetch fortunes. Louise Baring reports on the West’s reappraisal of an ancient Eastern Orthodox tradition

Icons stretch back 2,000 years, yet they are an art form that remains neglected by Western art historians. Hard to classify, they are, as British icon-lover Sister Wendy Beckett puts it, “too prayerful to fit into any art categories, yet too artistic to loom large in books of spirituality”. Very often, the development of such tiny, specialist fields is dependent on one or two figures. Richard Temple, a scholarly Englishman in his late sixties, is one example.

Temple first set eyes on an icon as a 16-year-old schoolboy in 1954 when he wandered into a dark old shop off St Martin’s Lane in London. The 17th-century Russian image was of St Gregory with a piercing gaze, his hand raised in blessing. Drawn by its “calm grandeur”, Temple bought the painted piece of wood for £11. He finally and rather unwillingly parted with it 40 years later for £24,000 when Boris Yeltsin gave the Patriarch of Moscow $12 million to buy back Russian treasures sold off during the Stalinist era.

“All you get when you buy icons is their beauty and spirituality,” says Temple. “We don’t know who painted them.” One exception is Andrei Rublev, the 15th-century icon painter immortalised in Andrei Tarkovsky’s eponymous 1969 film charting a savage period in Russian history from which – almost inexplicably – the serenity of Rublev’s art arose. But most were painted by anonymous monks and, after the 18th century, by whole villages of icon painters.

Temple has handled thousands of icons over the decades since he opened his London gallery in 1959, his passion even bringing him close to financial disaster. Now a cultural institution as well as a business, the Temple Gallery is in constant contact with academics, Orthodox dignitaries, collectors – including a handful of Russian oligarchs – as well as British fans such as Sister Wendy, who speaks of their “powerful mystery”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the author of a slim volume entitled The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ). The Prince of Wales, also an icon enthusiast, keeps a 19th-century icon of the Virgin Mary hanging in his chapel at Highgrove.

A visit to the Temple Gallery’s intimate show of mostly 18th- and 19th-century icons, often bordered with gold or green, reveals all their exotic flavour combined with exuberant colours. Hung one above the other like an iconastasis – the traditional wall of icons in Russian Orthodox churches separating the congregation from the altar – a celestial array of evangelists, apostles, prophets, saints and the Virgin and Child rub shoulders with a youthful St George on his white horse as he spears a red dragon.

With their flat, almost abstract quality, icons influenced 20th-century Russian-born masters such as Kasimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky, the father of abstract art. Henri Matisse was also impressed: “Until you’ve seen icons, you haven’t understood colour,” he wrote to Picasso in a letter during a trip to Russia in 1911.

New discoveries are, however, often covered with centuries of grime. In his gloomy gallery in Berlin, Temple’s friend Thomas Mönius, who describes his business as a “sorting house”, talks to a couple of expert restorers. Many of the Russian icons stacked against his walls have blackened with age.

Instead of varnish, icon painters used boiled linseed oil that darkened after 100 years or so, obscuring the glowing colours underneath. Often the wooden boards were re-used over the centuries, so a masterpiece sometimes lies concealed beneath four or five other icons painted on top. Modern restorers remove these layers, even preserving some separately, if they prove important.

“I used to see a top-quality Russian icon once a week, now maybe it’s just once a year – usually when a private collector shows me one or two he wants to sell,” says Mönius. During the Cold War, dozens of icons arrived in Berlin from Moscow each year in diplomatic pouches, many of them African.

The late Davide Orler, a top collector, bought his first icons from visiting Bolshoi artists at the Fenice opera house in Venice. Novo Export, a state-owned company, meanwhile offered an official source: dealers such as Temple and Mönius paid $10,000 (£5,800) to take their pick from stacks of icons of varying quality in a former Moscow church.

These days, Russia wants to protect its heritage. Since the collapse of atheist communism in 1991, icon experts and restorers have flourished (Moscow’s Historical Museum boasts its own icon restoration department), while Russian police want to find icons that have been stolen and sold abroad in the past 15 years. Temple recently returned a mid-16th-century icon to Russia when he discovered that it had been stolen – along with six other icons worth $2 million – from a museum 300 miles north of Moscow in 1994.

This flurry of enthusiasm mirrors a similar period a century ago when icons were collected and restored as part of a Russian cultural revival. A glittering exhibition of icons in Moscow in 1913, many from the rich collections of Old Believer families who resisted reforms introduced into the church in the 17th century, drew enthusiastic crowds. But the Revolution soon followed. Under Stalin, thousands of Orthodox priests were killed, many while trying to hide and save icons. Black-and-white film footage from the period shows giant bonfires of icons, like the “iconoclasm” of eighth-century Byzantium when thousands of icons were destroyed as a result of a religious split.

Now, an icon dating from 1904 that Ural Cossacks presented to the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich (the heir to Tsar Nicholas II who was murdered with his family in 1918) came up for auction at Christie’s Russian sale this week. “Rich Russians have started giving icons to powerful politicians or officials. It’s a very good present to give,” says Pavel Lisitsin, a 39-year-old former oil trader and devout Orthodox Russian who collects rare icons. The disgraced oligarch Boris Berezovsky presented one to his former friend President Vladimir Putin, whom he helped bring to power.

In the West, these works remain a rarefied taste among curators and collectors, such as the late Blanchette Rockefeller, an American enthusiast famous for her private collection of “golden age” icons from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Although the British Museum has a small collection of top-quality icons, including a handful from the Byzantine period, they languish in the basement. This neglect is in part because the art-historical establishment sees them as a religious art form, says Temple, who would like to see a permanent icon collection in Britain.

Last May, following a regular visit to Mount Athos in Greece, home to 22 Byzantine Greek Orthodox monasteries, the Prince of Wales wrote to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. The five-page letter lends support to Temple’s pet project to persuade the museum to give its icon collection a small space of its own, almost like a chapel for contemplation. Pavel Lisitsin has offered to donate a room to the museum.

Gone are the days when people didn’t even know what icons were, often assuming they were little statues. But MacGregor has yet to be persuaded of their importance, and has turned the project down.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away