Icons: Part I

Many years ago, my good friend Jonathan Devenish and I dragged ourselves off to see Andrei Rublev at the now-defunct Lumiere Cinema. The Lumiere was, at that time, the number-one bastion of art-house film in Melbourne. They screened Salo when the film’s ban was lifted for about a week every decade as part of their commitment to screening classics. However, the place was wildly expensive and the staff about as polite as you’d expect them to be at a concentration camp.

Andrei Rubelev is, to my understanding, the magnum opus of Andrei Tarkovsky, widely considered to be one of the masters of world cinema. Tarkovsky’s father was a Russian poet of some renown, and his ideas penetrated his son’s craft. Ivan’s Childhood, the story of a child soldier during the Second World War, runs for about ninety minutes and is a legitimately wonderful film. My experience of Tarkovsky since is of a filmmaker of a unique bent and consummate skill who drags his audiences into large, agonisingly boring tracts of dead time in the course of telling a story.

Andrei Rublev is the story of a medieval Russian icon painter. The film was as boring as shit, except for three sequences; there is a story about a child, seemingly touched by God, who brings the community together under his direction to craft a new bell for the church. At some stage (the reason escapes me now), someone slaughters a few horses. One of them has its throat cut and curtains of blood pour out of the wound. Watching the horses legs spread and shudder spastically as it sinks to the ground, its blood the most saturated tone of the entire black and white phase of the film, you know that what you’re seeing is real. The film, about four hours, all black and white, suddenly transforms into colour with suitably religious music and is a montage of the actual icon paintings painted by the historical Mr. Rublev. The paintings are very beautiful and very moving, but again, the montage is probably fifty per cent too damned long. Especially sitting in the front fucking row of that horrible Lumiere, neck craned at close to ninety degrees, staring at a screen the size of a post-card.

One of the hallmarks of ‘great’ art, I think, is how much of it you carry with you afterwards. I still carry parts of Andre Rublev. I think the things I carry closest would be in relation to bridging the gap between my modern present and Tarkovsky’s evocation of the medieval Russian one. If we are structured psychologically by our culture and our place in history, how did those people think and feel differently to me? How close are they to being a different animal altogether?

These questions stood at the forefront of my mind like lights when I read Dante’s Inferno, or was standing in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In the Uffizi, for instance, the medieval religious paintings hang quite close to Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus. Botticelli, one of the principal Italian Renaissance painters, uses perspective and colour to approximate a realistic evocation of the world as we experience it. In medieval paintings, the figures are long and alien, set into a field of perspective which is flat and two-dimensional. They have more in common with Egyptian hieroglyphics and feel, to me, like artefacts from an alien culture.

The thing Andrei Rublev achieves above all other things, for my experience of it, is to actually give you the ability to insert yourself into that medieval headspace. Imagine being a farmer, for whom the elements comprised the primary colours of his existence; the dirt under his nails, the cold against his skin, the rain and the colour of the sky. The cooking fire in his eyes. The two or three vegetables pressed between his palate and his tongue. The only art he would see was those paintings; likewise, the only music he would hear would have been in church. And both would function as springboards to catapult him, once a week, out of those basic colours into a world of ‘faith’; a world of literally divine colour, light and sound. As primal, vital and real as the smell of incense as it seeped from the censure.       


One Response to “Icons: Part I”

  1. A great piece, your word pictures are masterful.

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