Artist Galina Oussatchevafaith enlightened through iconography

  • March 5, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - There’s an art to looking at eternity, but figuring that out wasn’t easy for 29-year-old Russian-Canadian iconographer Galina Oussatcheva.

Oussatcheva grew up in communist and post-communist Moscow at a time when Russian society was still phobic about religion and as secularized and post-Christian as any capital in Western Europe. She first saw Russian icon painting when she was 10 years old, on a class trip to the Cathedral of the Dormition of Mary in the Kremlin.

“I remember this came into my head, that I would really like to know how to do this,” Oussatcheva told The Catholic Register. “Since then, I was always thinking about it somewhere in the back of my mind. I always thought of that particular art form.”

It is an art form that inspired more than a little ambivalence among her communist-trained art instructors. While the heritage of icon painting was valued for nationalistic reasons — as examples of a uniquely Russian genius in the arts — nobody ever spoke about the meaning of the paintings or the Christian inspiration for thousands of masterworks taken from churches and now hanging in galleries or museums.

“This was just another art form we did (in Russia) for however many years, and we don’t like that any more in a communist state — that has no place here,” was how Oussatcheva’s art history instructors would explain icons.

“There was not a lot of detail in terms of technique, and nothing in terms of meaning whatever,” said Oussatcheva.

Oussatcheva’s own icons will hang in Regis College from March 17 through the Doors Open Toronto celebration of the city’s architecture May 29 and 30. For this show, it’s all about the meaning, said Oussatcheva.

Oussatcheva will show her icons with Farhad Nargol O’Neill’s carvings based on the stations of the cross. The two artists will present a Western and Eastern artistic vision of central truths of Christian faith. The opening is March 17, 5:30 p.m. at Regis College (at the corner of Wellesley Street and Queen’s Park Circle).

When in Russia, Oussatcheva had to enroll in the art restoration program at university to learn more about icons and how they were painted. But then at 18 her parents decided to move to Canada and she was along for the ride.

To her surprise and delight, Oussatcheva found icon painting alive and expanding in the West. She enrolled in Alexy Mezentsev’s iconography workshops at the St. Vladimir Institute.

As she grew as an artist, Oussatcheva discovered she also had to deepen her understanding of the faith behind the icon.

“At first it was just purely interest in the art form,” she said. “Then it became something a lot more when I grew up and started analysing all the connections with faith. It helped me to understand Orthodox faith a lot better by studying the theology of the icon.”

Icons are windows on eternity, not mere representations of things in our own world, she said.

“There are a lot of difficult concepts in Christianity, religious concepts, such as the ever-presence of God, the divine realm and how we see it and understand it,” said Oussatcheva.

Looking at an icon reverses the Western concept of perspective. It’s what Oussatcheva calls “inverse perspective.”

“In this tangible universe we see things in linear perspective and the further things are away the smaller they seem. In inverse perspective you are the smallest and everything else is ever expanding.”

It’s an eschatological view — how things look when they’re removed from time.

Working inside the language of icons, where the shapes and colours of images have been assigned by history and tradition, isn’t a limitation, said Oussatcheva.

“It actually empowers. It triggers in your mind ways of working with colour,” she said. “The philosophy of it forces you to invent all of these things that otherwise you would never think you need to.”

For the Regis College show, Oussatcheva is hoping to open people’s eyes to a kind of art they may have thought little about.

“I’m hoping people see more than just the religious object, but also the art form. So, maybe they can appreciate it from that perspective as well.”

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