Some art needs to be viewed in-the-flesh, as it were. The Orthodox icon exhibition showing now and until the end of January at the Art Gallery of Ballarat falls into this category for a number of reasons. First, there is the patina and decoration of the works. The icons are painted on wood, and centuries of wear, rather than diminishing them, has added a homely, loved look about them. Paint is rubbed, corners are worn. It all helps to reinforce the age – some of them 500 years old. A reproduction does not do justice to this, and neither does it do justice to the metallic gold and silver finishes on some.
Secondly, when seen in a group, in a room (or in a series of rooms as at Ballarat), the sense of conformity is better conveyed. Unlike much (modern) Western art, where we are used to the artist putting an individual stamp on a work, and artists being praised for innovation and realism, icons have strict conventions. Saints, Christ and Mary are not rendered realistically, in our sense of the word, but are recognisable precisely because facial features, poses and clothing are rendered in set ways, unsurprisingly if one thinks about the wider, modern connotation of the word ‘icon’, which is close to ‘logo’. The images are also rich with symbolism and allegory. Seeing the icons in a group gives a good sense of how artists continue these conventions.
Thirdly, many of the works are quite small. Used as we are to grand gestures in Western art, the consistently small nature may come as something of a surprise. There are larger icons, from altar screens and the like (in Orthodox churches the screen that separates congregation from altar in some churches slowly developed into a completely opaque structure covered in art – the iconostasis – with strict conventions of how icons were displayed), but many of the icons are for personal and family devotion, and there is a special pleasure in noting the often intricate execution of images.
Catalogue and labels helpfully explain some of the practices and purposes of icons, the first important point being that icons are not objects of worship, but are conduits and prompts, and their stylistic nature could perhaps be compared to translation conventions for reading scripture.
The art gallery sits in Ballarat’s gold boom heritage strip, Lydiard St North, with its flamboyant examples of Victorian architecture largely unsullied by modern development – another reason for a visit.