The following text is an extract from a 2019 interview with Italian artist Stefania Orrù, conducted by Zoë Atkinson Fiennes, Founder of Three Graces Galleries Limited, — the first online Italian art journal, and online art gallery — originally published on www.threegracesgalleries.com/blog
STEFANIA ORRÙ PART TWO: ICONS, Overturning the aesthetic canon of our time.
Zoë: I wanted to ask you about the Icon, which we have already touched upon, but which I know to be a central thread in to your work.
Stefania: Well in a certain period people developed a specific way of producing an object that wasn’t an ‘artwork’ in the way we understand it now, nor did it directly represent something. Instead, it was a kind of door to experience. During the period in which the practice of making icons began, the creation of these objects signalled a kind of awakening of truth to some extent: the icon was not a representation of something but it actually was that thing. The object in itself had the power to ‘break the veil’ and put you in touch with the beyond. And obviously at that time icon production was a religious practice because during that period religion was what enabled you to connect with the highest things. The practice of making icons entails both considerations surrounding the object’s spiritual capacity and strict rules about the specificities of its physical form: that’s why I feel so connected to icons. I basically understood that for me, a work of art or a painting that I create has that specific purpose; it is an object that does something to you, it does something to me and many other people who look at it. This effect is not the purpose I wanted it to have from the outset as I’ve talked about previously, but it is in and of itself an entity that impresses on people’s perceptions, on their emotions. The proof of this was found in my talking to people and having them tell me what they were feeling in response to my work. So an artwork is not only a mirror, because ‘the mirror’ is something that merely reflects something; while instead the artwork, the icon, is like a force of nature: like a storm which gathers you up with it. You become a part of it and you also perceive yourself as being part of it at the same time. It is indeed a solid object, and it actually stays solid for many years — I hope! But it is not merely a ‘reflective’ surface that shows you a dimension beyond your seemingly physical limitations. Beyond that, it is an object that assimilates you into an alternative perception of reality for a series of brief moments, and that kind of feeling can really linger! The artist who is called to make an icon has to have a certain level of understanding of the mechanism I’m talking about — obviously I am not saying that I have a level or not but the way I put myself in front of a work of art is extremely similar. In the past I did work with a different approach, sometimes I did just say “ok, I am going to do a still life” — I am an artisan and many other things as well as an artist. But recently it’s really become almost impossible to stand in front of a painting if it’s not to follow that process. A process that is ‘innescato’, which means when you switch something on and then it takes on a life of its own.
A shift happens, a kind of door opens in the mind?
‘Innescare’ means for example when you hear a single word and that word causes many trains of thought to open up in your mind. So, that is I think the nature of the foundation from which I begin.
Icons are made in such a way that you can recognise what is being represented on them: human figures can be saints, God or Jesus, a woman with a baby (the Madonna), or angels. These figures are a result of a collective imagination that has been handed down to us from past generations. We could forget this history and still grasp that these figures are stylised — this stylisation is not intended to simplify but instead to express that although the icons refer to human figures, these figures are not reducible to the physical body. These figures and especially their faces, never followed a descriptive objective; they were not necessarily beautiful in the way we define ‘beauty’ today, or even in line with the classical conception of beauty. The Romans and the Greeks had a concept of beauty that was magical and which revered certain proportions, while there is nothing of this in icons. The beauty of these faces is perceived using another kind of sense which does not form part of human beings’ five basic senses. It’s not a sixth sense — I wouldn’t know what number of sense it is! But I can say that this way of relating to the icon surely has an aesthetic impact that is meant to do something to you beyond your response to the visual aspect of the icon alone.
I trialled a workshop with some children and we used a few images of some faces of ancient icons and I said to them that they could begin by working from these images but that they needn’t make copies of them. I said “just paint what that image makes you feel” and I was worried that it would be too difficult for them to grasp, but it turned out that for them it was totally normal! And what came out proved to be very significant; one child in the process of copying an icon — not too badly — began the process of changing it a bit by moving from one side to another, adding a few things and then taking away a few things, and I could see that he was so triggered by the process! And then he suddenly covered the whole face with two colours, which formed a kind of mask. Only on one side of the face could you still see what he had done before. As was the case for many other children, you could see that they were painting their faces without even knowing it. So it is, that when you are presented with the image of an icon and you really look at it, it can signal the opening of a process by which your own face can appear through the connection you feel with the icon’s own luminary capacities — and this is the point.
Getting back to the icon process, I think that in our contemporary times, the fact that the aesthetic canon of an icon is far richer than the beauty of the image that it represents is of great significance. The icon is already something in and of itself that goes beyond and that is a result not only of the fact that the image is stylised but also the fact that the reason why that image is stylised is because the character represented is already beyond himself or herself. In this mode of creating artworks it’s not the man for example that is being depicted — the specific man that is alive in that moment sitting on the sofa, holding a piece of paper like you are now — no, it’s what he’s meant to be, what he potentially is, what he has been, what he will be… and thus an iconic figure contains all human beings which are somehow bound together in the icon. Now we’re not in a position to understand many things surrounding the practice of making ancient icons, it’s complex and bound to historical realities. However, we can observe the techniques they used and the power they embody, and we can still perceive what that content does to us, even now.
Tell us more about your painting workshop entitled ‘From the Icon to the Face: meeting with the mystery of beauty and the identity of the sign’. You are of course in your own right an artist who has explored the practice of ancient pictorial techniques over the last twenty years, but you also hold a masters degree in experimental Psychology, Social Sciences and Education and have compiled significant research in the field of visual arts. Tell us about your school and museum-based icon workshops throughout Umbria and further afield in France.
The workshop aims to provide the foundational technical bases for the painting of icons with materials which are as close as possible to those used in the historical tradition of icon production; in addition to drawing techniques — most specifically drawing from life — and a lesson on how to translate visual perception into individual expression. The Face is a central theme in ancient icons which has maintained its significant relevance in art today. Indeed, the sensitive perceptive experience of each individual is hinged on the Face. By definition, the icon is not a portrait, but a real, timeless image that figuratively expresses the relationship with the ineffable and is therefore a vehicle for passing from the visible to the invisible. What I believe to be of great value in the contemporary approach to the ancient icon is the possibility of an encounter with a beauty which differs from that of the aesthetic canon of our time — a canon based almost entirely on exteriority. By focusing on a stylised image, designed with the intention of overcoming the visible and meeting with a deeper understanding of human being, it is possible to open the observer to a more authentic contact with himself, herself or their self. Thereby, inspiring a creative process in a group of individuals that does not aim for consensus but instead for individual authenticity. The icon can play an important role in triggering and developing an authentic creative process in individuals who are so immersed in the contemporary fabric of society that it is to their personal detriment. This renewed authenticity of expression is especially inspired during the observation and analysis of signs, and even letters of an alphabet that express a different kind of beauty. The materials used during the workshop are natural and the process of their production is simple. As such they can even be used by small children, opening the possibility for an understanding about and immediate contact with the elements of nature through their direct use. The pigments, the cotton cloth, the chalk, glue, wood and gold, in addition to the egg all boast a direct reference to natural elements. Every ingredient used in the construction of the icon is a potential journey in to the fields of chemistry, biology, and artisanal crafts — such as carpentry and textile production — and their history; in this sense the icon is also a vehicle that exposes adults and children alike to a world which lies beyond paint cans filled with unidentifiable materials. A world where they can discover plants, metals, minerals and organic elements that ought to be known first of all as elements that reside naturally in nature. Then, through crucially comprehensible procedures these raw materials can be combined to create the necessary ingredients to create an artefact: an object through which one can deeply express oneself.
How did the practice of icon making begin?
A very useful article written by Paolo Fundarò, also an artist with a great passion for this technique, reads: ‘According to the art historian Thomas F. Matheus, the construction, composition and images of well-known Christian icons represent the natural evolution of religious panels being produced in the late ancient Pagan world. Indeed, a precious treasure comprising of twenty-two Pagan icons dating between the second and fourth centuries emerged almost entirely unscathed from the Fayyum sands. A couple of panels found in other contexts show that Pagan sacred images were common in the Mediterranean world and were diffused beyond Egypt. The lack of pictorial documents between the fourth and sixth centuries should not lead us to think that Pagan and Christian icons were not present. Indeed, Pagan icons continued to be produced until Christianity finally established itself. At the beginning of the eighth century, the theologian Giovanni Damasceno was embarrassed by comparisons between Christian and Pagan icons. However, there are multiple correspondences and conformities between the painted panels depicting Pagan gods and those that emerged following the birth of Christianity. For example, both were characterised by thin panels with fluted frames protected by sliding covers, depicting half or full frontal figures. Other similarities are found between the panels in terms of composition and iconography: a fixed gaze, halo, throne, and military or equestrian clothing. It’s clear that the Pagan devotee and the Christian believer were gathered together by the tremendous mystery and the fear that emanated from the powerful gaze of the divine presence that scrutinised them: emanating through the eyes of the icon’.*
What about the place of the icon in the modern era, how was it translated and interwoven into modern culture?
Simply quoting Wikipedia, ‘In 1904, the restoration of Russian artist Andrei Rublev’s Trinity marked the rediscovery of the icon by modern aesthetics, an event which would shortly thereafter spark an obsession with icons among the Russian intelligentsia. In 1911 during his trip to Moscow, French artist Henri Matisse referred to the city’s icons as the finest examples of medieval heritage artworks, instructing European artists to look to icon painters for inspiration rather than the Italian masters. Both Vladimir Tatlin and Natalia Goncarova began their artistic careers by painting icons. American artist Andy Warhol also stated that he was inspired by the Russian icon, adopting the recognisable method of a repetition of multiple elements’*. Even in our contemporary culture ancient icons and artefacts still serve as possibilities to encounter an alternative beauty and the tremendous sense of mystery that surrounds our being in this world. They are a chance to come face to face with our ancestors, who themselves perceived this same sense of wonder through the contemplation of iconic images. The capacity icons contain to bridge the ‘here and now’ and the ‘beyond’, and to engender sensations of a connection with the divine in any who would care to observe them, has stood the test of time.
Do you experience art as having therapeutic aspects?
I don’t personally see art as a form of therapy, what I do believe in however is the power of the experience. The challenge is if one can create the right conditions to enable others to experience something significant. I started to have the idea for the workshop after having read the introduction to a book by Pavel Nikolaevic Evdokimov and a book by Pavel Florenskij, both of whom write about icons and the aspects we’ve been discussing here. Upon reading these books I just felt that I could personally leave the icon behind in my own work but at the same time I realised that it was possible to reproduce the experience I had undergone and share it with others — not exactly the way I had moved through it personally of course — for me it was the process of painting the face and destroying it and then painting it again and destroying it, a very psychological process. But I came to a realisation that this process which has stayed with me could be developed, and it has indeed become this workshop. I am not an icon expert and my use of ancient techniques is surely not orthodox, but I believe in the power of images and in the creative process that can be triggered. I have a vast amount of energy to channel into this work and I was very happy with how the project faired recently in France. My aim is to share these ancient practices with both children and adults, particularly in schools. I will say that I have worked with adults in this way previously but I’m aware that they often experience difficultly when attempting to get rid of their boundaries. The problem is that they are too often overly attached to the outcome…to the idea of “succeeding” or “failing”.
It sounds like a lot of adults could benefit from reconnecting with their capacity for free and innate individual expression. Children are often less bound by the various sticky webs we weave over ourselves as adults or which are weaved over us, constraints self-imposed or otherwise that limit our sense of self and freedom to live as we wish and be who we really are. Where adults fail and stay down, children fall and often just get up again and brush it off as if nothing of significance happened!
Yes, for children it’s not really falling, and if there is a feeling of failure it seems to last few seconds! Then it’s not a failure anymore it’s something else — it’s just a stage in the development of what they are creating. While for adults, they get so attached to an idea and if it doesn’t come out the way they think it “should”, a feeling of frustration overwhelms them and can completely block them. I always say that the workshop is for everyone, from eight years old to 120! And there is no need to have prior skills or be experienced. I say this because I don’t want the final work that is produced as the physical end-product of the workshop to become more important than the experience that a participant moves through.
So it’s about putting aside that either/or mentality, the either ‘it’s good or I failed’ attitude, and just leaning into the value of the experience rather than trying to leave with a perfected image.
Yes, you just have to pick up the brush and do it! In this case what counts is the fact that you look at something that has depth. The reason why I begin with the icon is that the icon is not beautiful in a common way, it’s strange, and straight away you are dealing with something that doesn’t make you feel “normal”. It unbalances you, it brings out a range of reactions, a long way away from “oh, I’m going to do a very nice drawing of that pot of flowers”.
Which, actually, is something that we were reflecting on in the very beginning of this conversation (Part 1 of interview), that you can do a really excellent drawing of a flower in a pot but it could also be completely devoid of feeling and can leave you completely devoid of feeling: which is not what the power of art is about. It’s clear in a work of art when the outcome was more important than the journey — there’s nowhere to go beyond the object.
For more details about Stefania’s Orrù’s past workshops click here
Text, 2020 © Zoë Atkinson Fiennes and Stefania Orrù
* Indicates a translation from Italian to English