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An Experiment in Iconography


Albert Gleizes argued for a method of pictorial construction based on the proportions of the essential verticality and horizontality of the space to be filled (called translation):

and then on their inclination, to the left and to the right, which opens up a possibility of the movement of the eye in rotation:

I have used this as the basis for a series of icon designs following the major Feasts of the Orthodox Church. As an application of Gleizes' principle these are very crude owing to my anxiety to maintain a conventional iconographic figuration - much better applications can be found in the section of this Form and History website devoted to Gleizes and his pupils. Essentially the difference is between the schema used as a sort of scaffolding as I have done here, and translation/rotation as a means of putting the eye and therefore the whole person of the viewer in motion. Even as a simple form of scaffolding however, the method yields a limited series of parallel lines:


which ensures that all the lines in the individual drawing and - since I used the same basic schema throughout - in the whole series relate to each other intelligibly.

These lines should have a force independent of the subject represented, the vertical asserting verticality, the horizontal horizontality, the diagonals an inflexion to the right and to the left. The vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curve express their own power not the elegance of the subject. The 'power' derives from our own nature. The 'abstract' qualities address our human nature directly rather than by the intermediary of an intellectual idea (the subject). The distinctive power of icon painting in what most people would regard as its 'great' period (say the Russian icon of the fourteenth through to the sixteenth centuries) derives from these 'abstract' qualities. Contrary to what is often said it is precisely the 'abstract' qualities that give the icon its 'human' character because it is a direct appeal to our own human nature, not the copy of an imagined external human appearance. Under normal circumstances the 'subject' could be said to bring about a diminution of the human quality of a painting - the force of the lines is placed at the disposal of something, a fiction, that is less than ouir common humanity. But in the case of the icon, the 'subject' - the idea conveyed - is something greater than our common humanity, it conveys the great idea of a deified humanity. The presence of any element of sensuality, emotion or sentimentality, will destroy it completely.

The represented subject in all great religious painting is 'hieratic', meaning 'priestly' meaning that it proclaims the union of God and Man which is symbolised in the offices of the Church by the priest. The hieratic image is an image in which the power of the 'abstract' qualities is manifest - in my practice it would be an image which manifests the power of the six lines, the curve and circle. The curve introduces a different factor into the painting, the factor of time. It goes beyond my own limited abilities. But the halo acts as an important counter to the rectilinearity of the six lines (or, it would be better to say, 'directions'). Since it is siezed by the eye all at once it doesn't amount to an act of circularity but it still asserts the idea of circularity. Gleizes somewhere calls it the fulfilment of the head. It is an assertion of our full humanity, only realised by the Saints through the union with God - or entry into the uncreated light of the Transfiguration - they have achieved within this present life.

All this amounts to a description of what I am trying to do. I am by no means claiming to have done it.