Expressionism & Verisimilitude 

by Walker Trimble

“By the age of 50 you have the face you deserve,” said George Orwell. The character shaped by genes and ontogeny, the hand of the Creator in nature, has been shaped irrevocably by the person you have made yourself become: a scar under the orbit of the eye from barroom brawl, a line on the forehead from an ill-judged step in the dark. The scientists of beauty argue that they war against nature but they are as much at war with the facts that erupt out on the face. The beauty of youth is that the greater part of the work of a young face is God’s and not ours. Surgeons tighten jowls that sag from the comforts of food and drink, smooth lines from the squinching of eyes that come from smoking and mistrust. Plastic surgeons have a common anatomy of wrinkles and expressions – ‘laugh lines’ and ‘worry lines’. Is your face at 50 an expression of an excess of joy or an excess of worry? The soul speaks through the face and the face attests to it, despite the surgery. For that too is evidence. The carnival masks of those put too much under the knife attest to not only what is inside but to the priorities of science and society. More is spent on research into cosmetics than on the diseases of children. This is also a testament, a very strange one, given in the face. 

The icons on the walls of the Church of St. John the Baptist in the village of Rozhdestvo have a diversity of faces perhaps unparalleled in contemporary Christian art. Some fault this fascinating and vital work for showing too much of us for what we are and not enough as what we should be; yet part of what makes this chapel in a summer camp and moribund village so important to the modern world, and to the Orthodox world in particular, is that the artist, Dmitry Margolin, raises these questions at all. 

Contemporary Orthodoxy is in a state of severe moral and spiritual crisis. Yet we are too provincial to believe this crisis unique to us, the hodge-podge of a face is a deformity affecting society in general. Indeed, these figures from the tabloid magazines with cheeks from over here and chins from over there and lips from some place entirely different are the hallmark of the disfigurement that goes by the name of progress when what is inside still attests to the truth. Icons of the Pentecost have the image of a king and the word “cosmos” written beneath him to show he stands in for the community present at the foundation of the Church; but old versions did the same by showing in the same place a crowd full of faces. We would have ourselves believe that instead of our persons, our faces, our community is some collective ‘principle’ – a pillar of society holding up some other structure; yet try as we might to abstract the truths of this Body of God to principles, sooner or later facts break out. Try as we might to find a surface for our ideals, reality re- veals the essence. This is the Church as it is – as much crucifixion and as much resurrection as we choose to make it. We may seek to smooth over and tighten the lines of our personal histories, but turning back the clock only tells us we are running out of time.

A ‘canonical face’ on the walls of a contemporary Christian temple can be one conveyed by a projector from a flash drive with a collection of works from the days of John Paleologos, or St. Andrei Rublev, or Mikhail Nesterov, or 19th century realism with expressions of treacly sanctity as un-Orthdodox as the hysterical mysticism of a St. Theresa of Ávila. Most of these softened pastels, chalky renditions, are familiar and anodyne and there seems to be no sense of necessity that they be anything else. In the majority of contemporary Orthodox church adornment I have seen in the last 20 years – American, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Georgian, Russian – there have been very few attempts to speak beyond the semiotic exchange of iconography. One can pray before most of these icons, nothing more is needed. Their canonicity comes not only in their correspondence to their semiotic context – giving a face to a name – but in this anodyne quality. The criticism of “non-canonical” images too often stems from the lack of distinction between the familiar and the representational. The image is only canonical if it is verisimilar (true). Only that which is familiar is verisimilar (false). Only the familiar is canonical (evidently false). The sign-world of icons, now contaminated by technologies of verisimilitude, means that content is conveyed only upon recognition, like the recognition of a name. But that is not the only content. The ability of art to move us, to invoke meditation and pathos is also part of our tradition. Consider this passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa on seeing a depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac: 

I have often seen images of this tender scene in pictures and I have not been able to pass from seeing it without tears, so skillfully does the artist bring this story to my sight. Isaac is before is, crouching on his knee before the altar, with his hands tied behind his back; [his father] has seized him from behind with his knee bended, and with his left hand grasping the child’s hair he pulls him towards himself and bends over the face that looks up to him piteously, and with a sword in his right hand he proceeds directly to the sacrifice. The edge of the sword has already touched his body, and then there comes to him a voice from God, forbidding the deed.

The pathos of St. Gregory’s recognition is what we would expect from art of the pre-conceptual period. To wit, it is consistent with accounts from the ancient and Byzantine world whose methods of art reception were of a piece. It is our aesthetic that has become reduced, and no doubt in part due to our adherence to an experientially different practice of prayer from that of the Western Church. With the West always in our nostrils there’s no harm in this. But our tradition of representation is broad, like our practise of prayer. 

In the village church of Rozhdestvo, Dmitry Margolin has ransacked the world for faces in a kind of chrestomathy for what Russian Orthodox art might become. The figure of pharaoh’s daughter in the “Finding of Moses“ is not far from tomb murals of Luxor, blue oxen from Chagall. There is Dürer and Giotto, 17th century printed bible illustrations, 18th century provincial Russian iconography, Aachen Gospels, José Clemente Orozco, Lovis Corinth, Theophanes the Greek. 

And there are animals – the beasts of paradise like lush stage scenery. Interesting has been the controversy around the tetramorph in the pendentives. They follow the traditional pattern of being vaguely human, like the Mesopotamian geniuses the prophet Ezekiel might have intended to describe his vision. St. John’s eagle looks as if he is resting his elbows on a table, yet these creatures also carry some of the closeness and sheen of nature photography. Imagine if Giotto’s had access to David Attenborough!

So someone walking in from the muddy road would be forgiven for thinking that the author of this singular work was some local autodidact with a good broadband connection, but not forgiven for long. The composition of the church painting is not something that could be resolved by tracing paper, or a projector with good resolution.

The late mediaeval Italian Ascension of the Lord in the dome is a figurative decision that the author makes in response to the obtuse angles of the church vault. The deesis (supplicating figures in the icon screen) is a response heightening the templon of the iconostasis. All these are creative answers to the facts of the space that arise not from a bric-à-brac assortment of tradition, but from the natural decisions of a genuine artist. If anything the dynamic of Margolin’s compositional energy overstuffs the space, especially with the large images of the north and south walls that are no different in this small, church camp chapel than in his huge canvases. The lack of a prayerful atmosphere justifiably reported by many visitors likely stems from this assault from all sides. This is a church for study, examination, dialogue and the pathos that comes from it. And this is part of the church’s monumental composition. The profound opportunity to give sacred space over to a significant contemporary artist has led to him to overstep himself. You walk into the church and circle around every picture to the right and left, up and down, back and around, like in a gallery. This size and intensity of the canvases on the north and south walls distract from the forward movement from the Apocalypse at the west wall to the Eucharist behind the altar. This is the sacred, functional motion of sacrifice, from the Court of Gentiles in the narthex to the Holy of Holies. Dmitry Margolin’s murals are remarkably didactic, but they are not sacramental.

The inclusion of one traditional element (amounting to the replacement of one traditional element with another) could have changed this – instead of the deesis in the apse, we could keep to the typical depiction of Our Lady of the Sign. Her cope over the altar table shows us that the movement from west to east – from wilderness to Holy Land – is a movement of the Incarnation of God, in flesh and blood present beneath her. Her presence as more than an attendant would have given all the typologies along the walls a directional force. Though the deesis is one of Margolin’s most interesting paintings (I find fascinating the contrast in tone, light and proportion) – the supplicating figures could be from 17th century church murals while Christ occupies a completely different plane, behind a scrim, almost like something from Gustave Klimt. Yet the three iterations of Christ, each atop the other, take something from the dynamism of the composition.

Introducing more of the tone of the ’bloodless sacrifice’, or, as it says in the Greek the ‘reasonable sacrifice’ may sober other objectionable parts of the artists’ palette… or may not. Equal parts reasonable and equal parts sacrifice could go either way. The artist searches with his brush over the contours of a new shape to the holy.

We see this best in the multitude of faces and their variety. The wondrous angel at the tomb, equal parts late Byzantine and William Blake, and the boy whose head crops up in the foreground of Moses striking the rock. The boy is almost a direct copy of a Faiyum portrait. His presence as a portrait changes the course of the flowing spring for its salvation to pour over all of us, all the nations. Behind him stands Moses. His face is that of the saviour of his people, bearing all their suffering and transgression. It is also the face of one with whom God spoke “face to face as to a friend”. On the western wall, even the beast plummeting down to damnation has a character – stolid, dull, mute, like the face of a spider.

The greatest opprobrium has been visited on the “contemporary” figures, though even Margolin’s Faiyum portraits are contemporary. The t-shirt, jowls, and goggling eyes of the shepherds adoring the Christ child are part of a tradition that shows all the layers of society coming before the birth of the Son of Man, an audience with the King. Icons depict this as a multitude of figures over varied and complex surfaces. Here this is taken up by two figures that could be any of us. The policeman laying his glove on Christ’s breast is perhaps about to reach that moment of recognition when victim becomes Saviour. Who is to say a member of a SWAT team is less deserving or capable of such transformation than anyone else? The excesses and disharmonies in these paintings do not come from their over-topicality but from their effort to be of all and for all, and that is only to be praised.

Not long ago, reveling in the results of a google images search (itself enough of a testament to the spiritual tossed-salad of our times) I came across an arresting photograph. It was of a small church choir, four women, standing against the western wall of the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Tutaev. The photographer had meant to capture the allegories of sinners suffering in the maw of hell painted at near natural height on the walls of the enormous church. The presence of the choir was incidental, the photographer had left only their heads and shoulders. They were just as you would imagine from the Volga region – ladies in brightly colored house dresses, small scarves knotted at the back, full figured. The kind of woman you could imagine walking home on a dusty Sunday afternoon cradling a watermelon on her hip. They looked fixedly ahead with typical, no-nonsense expressions, presumably matching their responses with what the priest was chanting at the altar. A viewer looking back at the west wall, distracted from the service, or wondering who was singing, would see among the choristers figures the same size and color who were naked, suffering denizens of hell. Imagine three hundred years ago, with the paint bright and fresh, how this juxtaposition would have appeared. Those neighbors of yours, threatening geese with a stick on the path home, singing “We who mystically represent the cherubim” in the choir, could end up there. And if they could end up there, I could as well. This feeling is palpable in the work of D. Margolin and not in the overtly ‘canonical’ hackwork whose truck is only in its familiarity. 

So it is no surprise that our New Martyrs are more often shown as victims of the Tatar-Mongolian horde rather than the leather-jacketed denizens of the NKVD. In St. Andrei Rublev’s time, Roman executioners were dressed as contemporary ones. In our time, contemporary executioners are dressed as Roman ones. Is this evidence to, or part of the cause of, our inability to reconcile with the past?

The weakness of these icons of D. Margolin is not that they are undogmatic, but rather that the dogmatical and catechetical overwhelms the “mystical representation”. There is not enough of the “bloodless sacrifice”, not enough of the spirit of the Mother of God without which that sacrifice is not. But this shows us much of what we are, and this is a step toward becoming what we should be. Dmitry Margolin will grow into a greater understanding of the liturgical spirit of monumental church adornment, it is up to those with the grip on the canon to give him a chance to search and grow.

Dmitry Margolin’s work is a step toward the aesthetic renewal of Christianity in the face of this post-twentieth century person, this riven image of God ravaged by the scalpel of our soulless progress. It is also a sermon, a lesson, a summons to the power of the divine. 


Dmitry Margolin

Murals of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in the Village of Rozhdestvo / Dmitry Margolin, Ivan Chechot, Dimitri Ozerkov, Walker Trimble

172 p., 81 illustrations

St. Petersburg, Russia: Svoe Izdatel’stvo, 2021.