Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko

I spend a lot of time “art surfing” the Internet, following click-trails that start maybe with a Google image search of a subject I’m researching and then end up somewhere totally different. One of those trails this weekend led me to the work of Ukrainian New Wave artist Igor Paneyko.

Paneyko was born on March 2, 1957, in the city of Stryi in the Lviv Oblast region of western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. From 1975 to 1981 he studied at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art (now the Lviv National Academy of Arts), then spent a year working in Khiva, Uzbekistan. He currently lives and works in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border, in the region known as Transcarpathia.

Other than this general biographical information, I can find little else about the artist. An exhibition promo from 2012 suggests that he is a private person who’s “wary of publicity,” though he does exhibit his work. Using the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Игоря Панейка, yields more results than a search in English, but information is still sparse.

Many of Paneyko’s paintings are of visionary landscapes with floating, haloed figures. Candles, moons, and ladders (see Genesis 28:12) are often featured. Much of his work seems to me to carry on the legacy of Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century art movement that developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists sought to give form to the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and they emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity over realism, often addressing the themes of religious mysticism and death. Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon are two of Symbolism’s greatest artists.

(Related post: “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”)

Below is a compilation of some of Paneyko’s paintings that I find particularly appealing. I don’t know the specs for any of them, besides the year of those that have it painted large enough on the canvas, but I’ve linked each of them to its online source.

These first five are, to me, visually stunning. Ground and sky are not discernible from each other but rather interpenetrate, creating sacred space and evoking wonder.

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^ From 2005, we have a woman with a candle standing in contrapposto and covered in multicolored roses. The thin gold band around her head suggests a halo, and the purple burst behind her an aureola. It appears that she has come to pay devotion to Christ, as a wayside crucifix, whose patibulum supports the candles of previous pilgrims, is planted in the background. In the center of the woman’s chest, a little red kernel is encircled with light, representing the love that’s set aglow by her encounter; her loins, too, bear this mark—a possible allusion to the erotic language used by medieval mystics to describe their union with Christ.

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^ Here a haloed woman—maybe an angel (are those wings behind her?)—carries a load of pears and apples. To the left is a rowboat with four other haloed figures, one of them a baby; to the right, a garden. Some associations that come to my mind are Eden, Flight to Egypt, ship of salvation, fruit of the Spirit.

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^ In this one, the focal point is the bottom left corner, where a yellow-green-blue crescent moon balances atop a patchwork mountain, and a row of nightcapped sheep saunters sleepily away. On the other side of the mountain a newspaper party hat floats over a cross-marked graveyard. Maybe it’s because we’ve just come out of Christmas, but I think of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth: the Judean hills alive and vibrant, having been touched by angel song; the shepherds’ charges seeking rest after the flurry of activity; and spreading a shadow over the celebration, the Massacre of the Innocents—Herod’s extermination of the town’s infant male population.   Continue reading “Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko”

Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon

 

French painter, printmaker, and draftsman Odilon Redon (1840–1916) belonged to the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. A reaction against Realism, Symbolism emphasizes the spiritual reality that underlies the physical world and therefore favors dreamlike imagery and mysterious figures. The Gothic stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe were a major influence.

Redon is perhaps best known for his noirs: visionary works of charcoal or lithography done in shades of black, which include subjects like smiling spiders, eyeball balloons, and disembodied heads. But in addition to these, he also worked with vivid pastels and oil paints.

Although he wasn’t a Christian, Redon was attracted to the figure of Christ, especially because of the dual essence ascribed to him: both human and divine. Several of his works dwell on this mystery, among them his noir drawing Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns—one of my favorite all-time images of Jesus.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns, 1895. Charcoal, black pastel, and black crayon heightened with white on buff paper, 52.2 × 37.9 cm. British Museum, London.

Here Jesus’s pathos-filled gaze confronts the viewer directly from underneath a thicket of thorns. Whereas traditionally the crown his mockers gave him is depicted as a thinly woven band of evenly spaced prickles, here the crown is vast, unwieldy, chaotic—anything but dainty. In her excellent article “Tears, Veils, Thickets: Odilon Redon’s Representations of Christ,” Sedona Heidinger describes the thorns in this drawing as “gratuitous, unnecessarily vicious. . . . [The crown is] threatening and animate, snaking down to cover [Christ’s] chest with its barbs.”

Redon’s multiple treatments of this classic subject—Christ Crowned with Thorns—are haunting and mystical in a way that was unprecedented. In his interpretations, the thorns maintain an active presence. They are not a passive ornament.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Christ, 1887. Lithograph, 33 × 27 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Take, for example, his Christ lithograph of 1887. The thorns—“glinting like so many blades,” in Heidinger’s words—attack Christ from various angles. The most dynamic element of the portrait, Heidinger notes, is the diagonal that seems to spear the left side of Christ’s forehead and exit underneath his right ear, giving the impression that he is being skewered. As in the previously discussed Head of Christ, the eyes are extraordinarily expressive, deep wells of emotion. Here, though, they gaze upward, not outward. This could indicate a silent plea to the Father to make it stop, or else an anticipation of being reunited with him.  Continue reading “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”