Sunday, 4 September 2016

A belated introduction to the
icons of Leonid Ouspensky

The iconstasis and doors in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights are the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I find it startling to stand in front of great works of art that I have seen many times, and to realise for the first time that works I long appreciated are the work of great artists that I know of.

I was in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist on the edges of the village of Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex, last week, not to appreciate the icons but as part of a one-day pilgrimage organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the summer conference in Sidney Sussex College.

The monastery is a mixed community for monks and nuns, and was founded in the 1950s by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (1896-1993). He was originally a painter, born in Tsarist Russia, who lived through World War I and the Russian Revolution, and developed a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine reality.

He emigrated first to Italy and then to Paris. There he painted before studying theology and finding a vocation to the monastic. He went to Mount Athos, where his spiritual director was Elder Silouan. Many years later, he moved to England and founded the monastery at Tolleshunt Knights.

Naturally, he wanted to see the monastery decorated in the Byzantine tradition. The living room in the old rectory was converted into a chapel, which I have visited many times.

But on Wednesday last [31 August 2016], I learned for the first time that the iconostasis or icon screen in this chapel is the work of two of the most important Russian émigré icon writers of the last century, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902-1987) and his friend and colleague, Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (1908-1969).

The doors of the iconstasis are the work of Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky, who painted the royal doors in the iconostasis, is known not only as an important artist and iconographer of the 20th century, but also for his seminal books on the theology of icons.

He was born in 1902 in northern Voronezh region, in the Russian village of Golaia Snova, now Golosnovka, where his father Alexander was a member of the local gentry. He went to school 70 km away in Zadonsk, returning home only for school holidays.

By 1917, while he was still in his mid-teens, the young Ouspensky had become a convinced atheist, travelling around schools and tearing down icons. In 1918 he enlisted in the Red Army, but following a severe attack of typhus he was discharged from the army, and found shelter with a cobbler and his family in Krasnodar.

When he recovered, he rejoined the Red Army Zhloba cavalry in the Caucasus in 1920, but he was trapped and captured in battle by a White Army unit. He was saved from a firing squad when a White Russian colonel sent him to an artillery unit.

He retreated with the White Army to Sevastopol and was evacuated to Gallipoli. From there he made his way to Bulgaria, where he worked in a salt plant, a vineyard, a quarry and a coalmine until 1926. Ofttimes he was often starving, and on one occasion he suffered temporary blindness caused by malnutrition.

He was then recruited to work in a factory Le Creusot in France. After he was severely burned in an industrial accident, he moved to Paris to work in a bicycle factory. Meanwhile, Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, Countess Tatiana Lvovna Sukhotina-Tolstaya (1864-1950), was instrumental in opening a Russian Academy of Arts in Paris in 1929, at which many well-known artists taught.

Already, Ouspensky had a love for painting and he enrolled in part-time classes in the academy. There he met the artist George Ivanovich Krug, who later became a monk as Father Gregory, and his future wife. The artists and students worked together and spent holidays at the summer villa of the artist Konstantin Andreyevich Somov in Normandy.

Ouspensky began earning a living by designing scarves for large fashionable shops in Paris, and he soon painted his first icon. However, once he had finished the icon he destroyed it, believing he had done something inappropriate. He gradually took a more serious interest in icons and developed a religious faith, leading to his return to the Church.

In time, with George Krug, Leonid decided to leave secular painting and to devote himself exclusively to icon writing. He began by taking lessons from the Russian iconographer Sergei Fyodorov, but did not have enough money to pay for lessons. Later, he would say that his real teachers were the antique Russian icons he found in Paris shops.

In the late 1930s, he followed George Krug and joined the Brotherhood of Saint Photius, a circle of Orthodox theologians, intellectuals, and artists in Paris. Each member of the Brotherhood worked in his own field. Vsevolod Palashkovski was a liturgist; Maxim Kovalevsky was a great and talented master of Church singing and a choir director; his brother, the future Archpriest Evgraf Kovalevsky, was a brilliant canonist; Vladimir Lossky was already a famous theologian; Georgii Ivanovich Krug and Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky were icon writers.

When the Germans marched into Paris in 1940, he was pressganged into working in Germany, but he went underground, and he continued to paint and restore icons in hiding.

In 1942, he married Lydia Alexandrevna Miagkov, and they returned to Paris in August 1944 after the German withdrawal. When a French theological institute, L’Institut Saint Denis, was founded in 1944, he taught the course in icon painting, and he continued to teach for the next 40 years.

In 1945, Leonid and Lydia applied to have their Soviet citizenship restored, and this was granted in 1946.

In 1948, he published L’Icone, Vision du Monde Spirituel, which was soon translated into Greek and published in Athens. In 1952, the book was published as The Meaning of Icons in collaboration with the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky.

When the Moscow Patriarchate began theological pastoral courses in Paris in 1954, Ouspensky taught the course on the theology of icons. This course led to his monumental Theology of the Icon written in collaboration with Vladimir Lossky and published in French in 1960, and in English in 1978. New versions were in French in 1980, in Russian posthumously in 1989, and in English in 1992.

Orthodox iconography had been in full decline since the 17th century, and Ouspensky set out to rediscover the genuine sources of Eastern Christian art and to recover the tradition surrounded Russian icons.

His books introduced Western readers to the spiritual and theological understanding of icons. He writes: ‘It is not the purpose of the icon to touch its contemplator. Neither is it its purpose to recall one or the other human experience of natural life; it is meant to lead every human sentiment as well as reason and all other qualities of human nature on the way to illumination.’

‘The entire visible world as depicted in the icon is to foreshadow the coming Unity of the whole creation, of the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost,’ he wrote.

Soon after he founded his monastery, Father Sophrony, who had also worked as an artist in Paris, invited Leonid Ouspensky and his friend Father Gregory to decorate the icon screen and the doors in the chapel in the old rectory in Tolleshunt Knights.

In 1958, Leonid and Lydia visited Russia for the first time since their exile in the 1920s. They became frequent visitors to Russia, and each visit to Russia was rich and unforgettable in its own way, providing opportunities for continuing first-hand research and the study of old icons.

In 1969, he was invited to lecture in the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1969 he gave five lectures at the Theological Academy in Saint Petersburg – then Leningrad. The Russian Orthodox Church honoured him with the Order of Saint Vladimir before he died on 11 December 1987. He is buried in the Russian cemetery in Sainte Genevieve des Bois in the southern suburbs of Paris.

His monumental Theology of the Icon (Theologie de l’icóne), which has been translated into English, Italian, Greek, Romanian, and Polish, and posthumously into Russian, remains a major reference work and continues to be influential.

His icons, which are found in numerous churches, monasteries, chapels and cathedrals and in private collections, are characterised by their perfection of technique, purity of style, and depth of theological and spiritual expression. For Ouspensky and icon was not an aesthetic creation, but, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, they were ‘a vision in lines and colours of the Divine World, and it pervaded, conquered, and transfigured the fallen world.’

The iconstasis in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights is the work of Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug and Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky’s friend and co-worker, Father Gregory (Krug) was an émigré Russian Orthodox priest and iconographer working in France in the 20th century and he too was involved in the Brotherhood of Saint Photius and in the renaissance of the Byzantine iconographic tradition.

Father Gregory was born George Ivanovich Krug in St Petersburg in 1908. His mother was Russian Orthodox Christian and his father was a Lutheran of Swedish origin, and he was raised in the Lutheran tradition.

After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family moved to Estonia and at the age of 19 George became an Orthodox Christian. He began studying art, first, in Tallin and then in Tartu, which was the intellectual and cultural hub of Estonia.

In 1931, he moved to Paris to continue his studies at the Academy of Art. He began his career as an iconographer when he studied with Sergei Fyodorov, Dimitri Stelletsky and Julia Reitlinger (Sister Jean).

In the late 1930s, Krug and Ouspensky joined the Brotherhood of Saint Photios along with Vladimir Lossky.

During World War II, Krug began to suffer from depression and was hospitalised. Helped by his spiritual father, he recovered enough to leave the hospital and became a monk at the Skete of the Holy Spirit, near Mesnil-Saint-Denis.

There he took the monastic name Gregory, and dedicated himself to writing icons and frescoes at the skete. He also painted frescoes in the Russian Patriarchal Cathedral in Paris, where he worked in collaborated with Leonid Ouspensky. They also worked together in the chapel in monastery in Tolleshunt Knights. Father Gregory died in 1969.

Father Gregory developed his own unique way of expressing the principles of Byzantine iconography, producing icons that are stylistically unique. His work is clearly rooted within the Byzantine iconographic tradition, and yet there is also something of a contemporary sort of quality to it as well.

Aidan Hart points out that his techniques include his use of darts of white highlights that float over a sea of uneven colour. He also used over-sized irises and pupils for his eyes to give an impression of tenderness, sadness devoid of sentimentality, and of a deep interior life.

Father Gregory’s icons stand above all for a marriage of freedom within and a deep respect for the Church’s iconographic tradition. His work an unhealthy type of fear that so easily leads to lifeless copying, yet respects the traditions of the Church.

The influence of Ouspensky and Father Gregory is also seen on the walls of the refectory in the monastery. These are decorated with frescoes and murals using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine frescoes, under the direction of Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Leonid Ouspensky and Father George Drobot.

Looking out onto the world … a window in the chapel in the Old Rectory in Tollesuhunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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