Poetics of Icon Vol. 1 (Autumn) 2017

Reflections on the Poetic in the Art of Painting: a Personal Testimony

Recently a friend told me that the titles of my works are poetic. His remark has troubled me. What does “poetic” mean and how is it defined? And even further, assuming that it exists, can the poetic be rationalized and subjected to analysis and study?

On the basis of these considerations, I attempt to offer some thoughts on this subject, believing it to be an issue that relates generally to “Byzantine” art, or to the art of painting inspired by the Byzantines.

For those who are at least somewhat familiar with the Byzantine artistic tradition, it is common knowledge that painting itself is a process that comes from within. This does not mean that there is no reference to nature and the phenomenal reality, on the contrary.

Byzantine visual art over the centuries reveals that the painters of this method studied the phenomenal reality and recorded it, but not with slavish imitation. They did not precisely copy the forms or colors of the world as they appear. But they did not aim to render things as they are, to yield what today we would call their “nature” or “essence.” But to analyze this issue properly would take more time than we have here.

So what did the Byzantines take from nature? Obviously the forms they used were minimalistic, this was because they did not care about the details. They worked with a sort of functional abstraction, but they kept the gist of nature and created a new similar nature despite nature, but it was by nature because it shared a common ground. Here’s an example…

The way that Byzantine painters used color was naturalistic, more naturalistic than color as used by the Renaissance painters who attempted to make the colors of the objects just as they appear under certain conditions of light. The Byzantines did not do that. You see, for example, that they made trees with unusual colors, or used strange shades on faces that do not correspond to the phenomenal reality.

However, careful study of the works of Byzantine art will reveal that these artists did not act arbitrarily using their taste as their sole criterion. They shaped the forms of the icons following the logic of the color in nature, where everything is built from the interplay between warm/cold colors, as well as bright/dark colors. Through the interplay of these opposites, the color in nature becomes liturgical and contributes to the continuation of life.

The Byzantines followed the same logic in painting. They contrast warm to cold, also noting the contrast of light to dark. So they produced works that are natural, but that also reveal a “new nature.”

But how is this new nature created and how does it exist? Obviously there are principles and rules of painting, but this is not enough because in the end it is the human person who has to form the work that flows from him and thus it is characterized by the qualities of the person.

In the Byzantine tradition the work of art is, as a personal event, a poetic event linked organically and inseparably with the soul and the conditions of the painter. That is why, during the centuries that preceded the 20th century, the Church’s icons were personal in character, and were thus poetic revelations of the souls that transformed their life experiences into shapes and colors, that is, into poetry.

Personally, moving within the broader world of Byzantine painting, I have always been careful to not get caught up in a sort of “phenomenocratic realism” that reproduces icons using the phenomenal reality as its basic criterion (a “reality” that no one, in any case, can be certain that they are seeing correctly). I was always moved to create icons that sprung from within me. I would draw either from the imagination (that space of the mind where images and feelings are stored), or from pre-existing icons as in the case of the icons where I paint faces and events of the divine Economy. Even here I preferred not to copy, but to study the styles and compositions, and then let them be rebuilt from within me as if they were a peaceful exhalation, sigh, or expression of relief. So I tried to keep the personal inner character of my icons (both religious and “secular”).

This practice has inevitably led me to myself, to poetry, and to a unique (not necessarily important) synthesis of experiences, nostalgia, cravings, and many other things found in the souls of people around the world, whether they know it or not.

This poetry was written either through the particular schematic and color choices or with the verses that often accompany my works. These titles do not always describe what the work shows. Often the titles are a resignation of having failed at art because the titles describe what I was unable to portray through painting—I failed to show and to share them with the viewer of my works. These titles, taken from other poets, complement the work by giving it an atmosphere in which it breathes better and works properly. That’s why I often use the lyrics of great poets whose works are well known and that constitute, I would say, a hidden collective subconscious that binds together the recipients of my works.

The character of each painter’s poetry is unique. It must be unique in that every icon, every kind of icon, is a testimony of life, a testimony of a path to a cross and a resurrection or the Resurrection. And that’s what we see in the old icons.

But these days, this tradition has been lost and painters simply copy—especially those who make religious/liturgical icons. Many of these painters consider it sinful to allow images from their personal life and experience into the icons: “What place is there in an icon for the personal traits of a sinful painter and of the fallen world?” Thus the icons produced tend to be frozen in a sterilized form that does not reveal anything human (nor anything divine, of course, since the divine cannot be recorded).

The absence of the painter’s person from the icon, the pious fear of the not-completely-purified, and the problematic approach to one’s personal life has led and unfortunately continues to lead to a strangely unusual art. An art that is not liturgical and creates symbolic points rather than icons, abstract masks that lead to false ideas rather than to the living presence of Saints in the churches and homes of people who are led to a loving union and a life in communion.

However, the absence of poetry in a work of art can be affected through another path, the opposite way: when the painter distances himself too much from the community and gets lost in a private record of individual feelings that do not concern anyone, perhaps not even himself. Or, when the painter thinks he is ahead of the community and has to guide and redeem it. These are all movements that destroy the secret bond of life, the secret bond that unites those who are separated and preserves the holy goal of life, namely repentance and prayer.

George Kordis

October 21, 2017

1 Comment

  • Beautiful article. As a priest of a parish decorated by Dr. Kordis, I am a first hand witness to the importance of the artist applying part of themselves to the Icon, while remaining true to the faith in expressing the theology of faith through sacred images.

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