Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2012
Oleg Tarasov Framing Russian Art: From Early Icons to Malevich Trans. Robin Milner-Gulland and Anthony Wood. London: Reaktion Books, 2011. 418 pp.; 77 color ills.; 183 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9781861897626)
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The frame, as object and concept, has attracted a fair amount of attention in recent years. Art historians, in particular, have explored the multiple (sometimes competing and conflicting) roles of the frame: its ability to draw attention to and away from the center; its capacity to open up or close in space; its efficacy as a visual or verbal sign; its status as a permanent or ornamental “supplement”; its formal and thematic relations to thresholds, such as windows and portals, to name but a few. Oleg Tarasov’s Framing Russian Art: From Early Icons to Malevich engages all these aspects of the frame through an exploration of its importance to icons, iconostases, ceremonial halls, coronation rooms, architectural ensembles, and more, from the medieval period up to the twentieth century in Russia. As the introduction states, the book is not concerned with delineating a history of the frame; instead, it attempts to trace “the history of the interaction of the person and image, in which the frame is problematized as a distinct means for perceiving the world” (12). Consequently, this study examines the changes in the perception of images, and of the world, occasioned by changes in the material and philosophical attributes acquired by the picture frame over time. The value of such an endeavor lies in the ways in which it applies the established literature on frames to a broad swathe of Russian art and culture, bringing it to an English-speaking audience. Some of the material—the dizzyingly extravagant Baroque iconostases, for instance—will be sure to lure historians of art, religion, and mass culture into ruminations over illusionism, ornamentation, spatial division, and, yes, framing.

Part 1 draws distinctions between medieval and post-medieval frames. The medieval (specifically Byzantine) frame is designated as a “safe stronghold” (27), an impenetrable barrier demarcating sacred space. The “ark” of the icon—the raised frame with the representation embedded in its hollow—enforces a spatial and spiritual distance between the viewer and the representation. The latter seems to reveal itself from the depths of the “ark,” which protects it. “The ark as frame points in two directions: it is directed both to the centre . . . and outwards, to the world itself. . . . The frame of an icon . . . links the two [spaces] together” (35). Mentioning briefly the theories of representation written (and rewritten) by the Iconophiles during and after Byzantine Iconoclasm, Tarasov posits the above quality of the frame—its ability to link the sacred and the temporal—as related to the terms in which the icon itself came to be defined, that is, as a link between the divine and the human. It is no surprise then that the frame of an icon, or the “threshold of the perception of the divine countenance,” often contains prayers or donor inscriptions, thus becoming a meeting ground “between a distant God and the sinful human being” (36).

The Renaissance frame differs from its Byzantine counterpart in operating as a window, or a mirror. Where an icon presents the image as though it is set against a blank wall, thus implicitly designating the icon as the world itself, the Renaissance picture functions only as part of the world (36). It allows the beholder the illusion of entering that world. Discussing the treatises of Alberti, Leonardo, and Dürer, and their modern commentators such as Erwin Panofsky and Pavel Florensky, Tarasov posits the Renaissance frame in its various avatars (cassetta and tondo) as a device that reinforces the illusion of the transparency of the painterly surface. “The frame eased the process of apprehending the picture that was put forward for contemplation” instead of attempting to protect and, to a certain extent, seal off the image as did the medieval “ark” (38). Tarasov thereby submits that the Quattrocento produced not only a “separate material frame, but also a separate speculative and conceptual frame—the autonomous aesthetic theory of mimesis linked to it” (45).

The Baroque frame is next introduced as a complement (and sometimes as an alias) to the Renaissance frame. According to the Renaissance and Baroque views of the world, the hidden meanings of the sign lurked just beyond its surface, and required drawing out. “The essence, the very purpose of the framing of a Renaissance/Baroque image, which so often appears in the role of commentary on it or point of comparison with it, consists in just this. And as such it invariably led to a deepened comprehension of reality, striving to reveal the invisible essence of that object of contemplation that lay within” (48). Baroque principles projected a doctrinaire role on the frame, one that must “heighten the didactic impulse of the religious image” (68).

Although the above categorizations open up interesting questions about the changing perceptions of the role of visual representation, their problem lies in an unquestioning acceptance of the Byzantine, Renaissance, and the Baroque as eras adhering to a fixed set of representational precepts, which are then reinforced by their respective frames. The doctrines set down in treatises need not—and were not—always followed through in practice. To give an example: even though the Byzantine icon seems, on the surface, to contain the world in it instead of opening it up, the viewing practices of some Byzantines imply that in fact the latter was precisely what the icon facilitated. Along with Florensky and Panofsky, Otto Demus’s Byzantine Mosaic Decoration: Aspects of Monumental Art in Byzantium (New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Bros., 1976) might have been discussed as a provocative reflection on the ways in which the Byzantine icon had the potential to enter the space of the viewer, to detach itself from its wall surface (its architectural “frame,” if you will) and move into the space in front of it. Similarly, the Byzantine frame, no less than its later counterparts, could contain vigorous commentaries; think of the ninth-century marginal psalters. Even the contention that “the medieval icon excluded shadow” (86) must be qualified, since the flickering candles placed in front of these icons certainly cast shadows, and the movement from darkness to light was one that found subtle but unmistakable expression in religious architecture. The “principle of mirrored reflection” (86) is, therefore, not the exclusive preserve of the Baroque, even if it is not overtly stated as such in earlier tracts.

The most stimulating sections of part 1 concern the dissemination of rhetorical and representational principles from Western Europe in Russia. The detailed analysis of an eighteenth-century iconostasis commissioned by the merchant Grigoriy Shumayev unfolds the historical context in which this astonishing artistic, sculptural, and architectural ensemble was conceived, and the ways in which the iconostasis functioned as a frame on varied levels. Similarly, the discussion of the iconostasis at the church of Abramtsevo draws attention to the mingling of medieval and modern motifs on it. In this portion, Tarasov describes the diffusion of Romanticism in Russia, and the rallying cries of John Ruskin, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites which influenced figures such as Savva Mamontov, “a major financier and Maecenas figure . . . rightly considered an outstanding personality in the history of Russian art” (112).

The discussion of Romanticism includes, inevitably, a passage on ornament. “A frame with vegetative ornament including the stylization of a living flower becomes as it were a zone consisting of some weightless medium, joining two worlds together” (116). Drawing from this assertion, Tarasov explains that the creators of the Abramtsevo ensemble “relied in the first place on an emotional and aesthetic-religious contact between the work of art and the viewer” (116) by offering an idealized version of nature on the frame of the iconostasis. The argument might have been strengthened by a more rigorous definition of “ornament” and its relation to a frame. Does the frame function as a support for ornamentation, or does it become the ornament itself? And how might these possibilities alter the viewer’s perception of the image and the iconostasis? Since an almost similar role can be posited for ornament in the Middle Ages, how does the Romantic frame differ from its precursor, even as Romanticism, in part, strove to resurrect that earlier age?

Part 1 closes with an account of the Old Ritualists, whose practice of displaying religious icons and other objects in private prayer rooms has strong resonances with the “cabinet of curiosities.” Although a more detailed account of the Old Ritualists would have been welcome (did it designate an informal group of collectors, or was it an official movement?), this is a segue into part 2, which moves from the space of the church to palaces, museums, and galleries.

Chapter 3 discusses the trappings of Russian imperial power through an examination of the frames of panel paintings, clocks, trophies, titles, and gates. Tarasov’s close reading of the composition and location of Ilya Repin’s painting of Emperor Alexander III Receiving the Leaders of the Volosts in the Courtyard of the Petrovsky Palace, Moscow (1886) in conjunction with its “successor,” a panel from the studio of Boris Ioganson of Lenin Speaking at the Third Komsomol Congress (1950), offers intriguing insights into the ways in which the visual rhetoric of imperial rule changed, but not necessarily its effects. The ritual purpose of framing is discussed in the context of coronation ceremonies, which “joined palace and church together . . . providing the cultural-historical context for a huge variety of palatial framings” (251). Examining two paintings by Georges Becker of the coronation of Alexander III and the Empress Mariya Fyodorovna, Tarasov argues that they depict the transformation of the living person of the emperor into an image. This, of course, is a trope from antiquity, the Russian roots of which Tarasov traces to Byzantine coronation rites. “In the coronation ritual the monarch’s external transfiguration, in matters of dress and regalia, was regarded as ‘external’ in relation to his ‘internal’ transfiguration, and, like all kinds of framing, it readily reflected historical change” (255).

Assertions such as this might have been better explicated with a more precise discussion of “external” and “internal” in their context, not to mention theories of ritual and transformation. Since Becker’s paintings also include a vast range of actors apart from the emperor, not least the empress, how might their presence have inflected the imperial transfiguration? The very definition of the “frame,” at this point, requires some elucidation, as it has moved away from its relatively stable designation as the boundary of an image in part 1 to encompass a variety of other objects and ideas.

Chapter 4 examines the ways in which “under the influence of the photographic frame, the picture frame moved into the composition itself, and . . . with the advent of Cubism, [it] was abolished” (264). An account of the oeuvre of the Russian painter, Vasiliy Vasil’yevich Vereshchagin, discloses the conception of the frame as physical boundary, as the real world, as text, and even as music. Vereshchagin’s ethnographic collections and long, narrative catalogue descriptions ushered in a novel mode of viewership, as reflected in contemporary reviews of his exhibitions. A particularly compelling account of the relationships between frame-makers and artists in nineteenth-century Russia, and their concomitant articulation of a Russian vernacular medium (wood), offers the sort of period specificity that is the occasional strength of this study. The discussion of the changing role of the frame in Russian Symbolist and Suprematist art is set against the claims of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, among others. A close reading of their letters and paintings, such as the one performed on an excerpt from Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Portrait,” would have better teased out the nuances of the frame, and the reasons behind its incorporation or dismissal from the picture space.

Framing Russian Art is handsomely illustrated and has much of interest to offer those desirous of acquainting themselves with an overview of the history of Russian art. It also makes claims pertaining to images and frames that are certain to elicit debate and, hopefully, more studies on these subjects.

Paroma Chatterjee
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.