The Resurrection of Realism – Beauty Will Save the World
It is not a coincidence that the very last thing we ever expect to see in church is modern art or an abstract painting, such as a blank page, a single brick, or splashes of paint, as some sort of “intellectual” revelation to massage one’s ego. Why? Many would immediately answer that it just does not belong there, and they are right, it doesn’t.
Since the Renaissance, realistic art has played a leading role in education and particularly Christian education. Whether it is in the Bible, churches, or Catholic publications, an illustrated history of Christianity has been presented by realistic and life-like images, those that the viewer can relate to and understand.
A strong realistic work of art can clearly convey a theological message, materialize the Word of God, and serve as a powerful vehicle of communication to the masses. Hence, artist theologians such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance masters painted religious works to educate, uplift, and strengthen the Faith. A definition of an “artist” was very clear in the past. Applied only to visual artists, it was also synonymous with “skill,” as the artist was someone who could do something that nobody else could do.
Today, in times of relativism, anyone can be labeled an “artist,” such as a cook, karate expert, dentist, or butcher. The term “artist” has lost its sacred meaning. We often hear from the defenders of modernism that “art can be anything and anything can be art.” However, this just does not go well with our Christian heritage and culture, and portraying the Blessed Mother as a chaotic splash of paint or a deformed piece of sculpture would stand against our visual perception of the Mother of Christ and, in general, our Christian teachings about the sacredness of life and the beauty of Creation.
A story comes to mind about a family of four children, driving on a road, along the fields with tree groves and rivers passing by. They were playing a game where each child names the “best,” in their opinion, artist in the world. One child said it was Picasso, another child mentioned Van Gogh, then the third child named Monet, and the fourth child sat quietly looking out of the car window and admiring the nature flying by. Then he said, “Look at the sun and the birds and clouds in the blue sky, and the shapes and colors of the leaves and all the different trees. I think that the best artist in the world is God, who created it all.”
Indeed, no one can ever create something better than the masterpiece that he created. As an artist myself, I often think of that story, realizing that we realist artists are trying to reproduce the Beauty of God’s Creation on our canvases and, as artist theologians, we explore the nature of the divine. We know that we will never be as good as God in his skill, but at least we try to get as close as possible to the master's perfection. In other words, we treasure and glorify the Creation of life and its beauty. We go to schools and embark on traditional training, in direct communication with nature, to study all the “sciences in art,” as described by Michelangelo, Raphael, and many other great masters after them. We strive to enhance our skills in drawing, because realistic art is the only kind of art that requires skill, especially when it comes to exploring and capturing life in all its beauty and complexity, in the way it is and without exaggeration.
I was fortunate to have received the core of such a traditional training and, unlike many debaters out there who are experts at expressing their opinion about art, I rely on my credentials which give me the artistic license, if you will, to support my remarks.
A child prodigy, I painted my first portrait at four. I began my formal sixteen-year (1974–1990) fine art education at the age of nine and continued it at a specialized art lyceum for gifted children, followed by the doctoral levels of study at the renowned Surikov Art Institute, all under the directorship of the Russian Academy of Arts (founded by Catherine the Great in 1757), which also recently elected me as an honorary foreign life-time academician.
The curriculum of all my studies, besides such mandatory subjects as human anatomy, perspective, and others, also included history of art from prehistoric to Renaissance to modern art. So, we students were well aware of all the “art movements,” styles, and techniques involved in every period of art. In our broad art education, we acquired the power of knowledge and the more we learned, the clearer the realization was that masterfully executed realistic works of art cannot be put on the same page with meaningless and helpless dribbles of paint, as we unfortunately often see today in schoolbooks. This is where the damage to the mind begins, resulting in total confusion of one’s thinking, such as: If this one is a “masterpiece” and this one is also a “masterpiece,” which example should I follow? But in reality, it is not that complicated, as long as we remember that we live in a world of contrasts: plus verses minus, light verses dark, beauty verses ugliness.
Relativism is based on questioning what is already known, but what if it questioned the moral values that helped humanity survive throughout its existence? Modern art goes hand in hand with relativism, where common moral sense is demonized and instead “choice enlightened” and socially acceptable, often tasteless, unethical, and even criminal behaviors such as abortion and euthanasia are championed as rights, choices, privileges, and freedoms of expression. So, here is the question: Is moral relativism the tool of the devil and therefore the fundamental element in the art of modernism, where God’s perfect form in human anatomy and nature is broken and defamed, and death and ugliness are celebrated over life and beauty? The answer is obvious.
I would like to expand further and use Genesis chapter 1 as the basis for the moral value of realistic painting and its vital role in following God’s commandments and in promoting and preserving life as he created it. In Genesis chapter 1, it says that God created heaven and earth when the earth was without form or shape and in darkness. He separated light from darkness, and at the end of each day, “God saw it was good,” hence, God saw goodness.
Modern critics of the school of the Renaissance and realism in general claim that there is no creativity in depicting man or nature in its true form, yet that is exactly what God did in his creation of heaven and earth, nature and all beings. God created the template, the blueprint of realism in art, where light and dark are separated in tonal values, and those who are familiar with the traditional school of art know that study of tonal values in nature is the fundamental principle of realism. After the viewer sees the realistic painter’s work, he becomes enlightened and sees goodness, like God did after each stage of his creation. He sees goodness also in the most tragic and sad paintings, such as Christ on the Cross, and when a painting depicts pain and suffering, it will move us to compassion and love. Realism is prayer, gratitude, honoring God’s creation. This is not the case in the inherent pessimism of modern art, the art of ugliness and death, where future does not exist.
Artistic talent is often referred to as a “gift from God” and should be treasured as one and not taken for granted. For an artist, it also comes with sacred responsibilities, as the mission of visual art is not to celebrate selfish expression of one’s depressive feelings by primitive means. It must propagate goodness and beauty and not evil’s ugliness. And yes, even the horrors of war and devastation can be portrayed with signs of hope, which helps us get through difficult times, so goodness will eventually prevail.
Art must educate in a positive way, and the artists have this very moral obligation before their viewers and God himself, who gave them talent. “The works of art speak of their authors,” said Pope John Paul II. In his Letter to Artists in 1999, his Holiness wrote to “all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” Then his Holiness quotes from Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” A very holy man, John Paul II was outspoken about the “culture of death,” warned about its consequences, and liked to quote the famous words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world!”
Resurrection of Realism
In the cataclysm of today’s debates and the current state of the arts, I decided to create this work and my original composition is depicted in this article. The angelic young child in the center represents the beauty, innocence, and purity of realistic art. Since the mid-1950s, it has been oppressed by shallow and weak art education and self-appointed art critics, kept for decades under the darkness of modernism. In my painting, modernism is represented by the ugly creatures from Picasso’s iconicpainting called “Guernica.” It portrays the moment when the film of darkness begins to heat up from beneath; like a volcano it bubbles and melts, and the divine light of realism breaks through this captivity of cold darkness to breathe the long-awaited air of new life. I entitled this work “Resurrection of Realism.”
Over the course of my professional career, I have created thousands of drawings and paintings and have painted more than 2,000 portraits, including the official portraits of presidents, prime ministers, British royalty, and three popes for the Vatican. I particularly enjoy the Portrait genre because it celebrates the beauty of the most perfect of God’s creation: humanity. Perhaps this is why the worst assault on beauty of Creation by modernism is actually directed to breaking and mutilating the human form.
I never give preference to which I prefer to paint more, adults or children. I just love people from all walks of life and love to find and accurately capture the unique characteristics of their outer and inner world. After all, it is our uniqueness that makes each of us beautiful, as we are all God’s children.
I wish to leave my readers with a warning for the future. The more we surrender our God-given talents, skills, and abilities to re-create the beauty of Creation, the more we break the human form and distance ourselves from nature and the further away we go from God. We become disobedient to his laws and expectations and reverse, if you will, his original Creation, reverting into the darkness and emptiness, to which he brought light, form, and life. Modernism takes us in the opposite direction, into nothingness, and reverses the process of Creation “from darkness to light” and instead takes us “from light to darkness.”
Educating our youth and teaching them to recognize beauty, promoting the classical art school of master skills, and drawing from life are the safeguards for common moral sense to prevail in order to keep the traditional values alive so that beauty will indeed save the world.