[That fine magazine Bolshoi Gorod has frequent profiles of people who live in the big city of Moscow. The latest issue has an article on Vladimir Sarabyanov, a restorer and art critic. I have loosely translated it. The original text is by Elena Mukhametshina. Cross-posted at Art of the Russias.]
People of the Big City: Vladimir Sarabyanov
Restorer and art critic – on revealing XII century frescoes, footstools, the phenomenon of the sacred space, spasmodic state funding, and the tints of Titian.
On the specifics of working with Russian antiquities
A third of my life is spent in the studio, and two thirds on projects. We go on the road to restore monumental paintings in Novgorod, Pskov, Ladoga, Polotsk, Zvenigorod, Kirillov, the Trinity church of St Sergius. All of the ancient monumental paintings that we have in this country are religious, so we work mainly in churches. But there is far more: for example, in the Shulgan-Tash caves (the Kapova caves in Bashkortostan), there are a palaeolithic paintings from about fifteen or seventeen thousand years BC – scientists haven’t yet decided.
I love antiquity. The twelfth century is the dawn of Russian culture, and I have worked hard on it: the Yuriev monastery, St. Anthony monastery, St Nicholas cathedral in Novgorod, the St. George and Assumption churches in Ladoga. Mirozhsky monastery and Snetogorsky convent in Pskov – the latter, of course, is from the fourteenth century, but still a favourite. About seven years ago we began the restoration of the frescoes at the St. Euphrosine monastery in Polotsk, also dating from the twelfth century, which hopefully we will soon complete. This was incredible – it is an amazing monument, invisible, and we revealed it over a few years from under layers of oil paint. Such monuments are for me the most precious jewels in my work.
All the ancient churches of Russia, from the Kievan churches of the eleventh century to the seventeenth century churches at Yaroslavl and Kostroma – all of them were repainted. Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, they were never restored but merely renewed, with paint applied directly atop the ancient paintings. Sometimes they tried to correspond with the originals, and sometimes they didn’t bother. And sometimes the paintings would be broken up with a hammer, ‘to improve them, to beautify them’. The only exception is the Ferapontov monastery cathedral which has survived without renovations. Therefore, our restoration of monumental painting has some specificities unlike other countries of the world – we reveal art from under the works of later periods. This is quite specific to the Russian school of restoration. In Italy, for example, where there are large numbers of monumental fine art, it was very rare for artists of one period to overwrite another. It’s the same in Greece. In Byzantium, such stratification is rare. For us, though, it was common practice. Often there would be several layers. In Polotsk we revealed a twelfth century mural from under several layers of oils, in some places up to seven. Sometimes we soften the layers, exfoliate them, and where there are figurative elements, we transfer them onto a new foundation, while where it is just paint, we remove it. It is like a surgical operation.
On the sacred location
Stratification is a Russian cultural mentality. Nothing can be done about it. For example, the Annunciation cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin is the third cathedral of the Annunciation on that site. Where are the previous two? They were demolished because people wanted to do them even better. Well, if you want to do better, build it on a neighbouring site, as is done in any other European country. In some little French or Italian towns there are huge Romanesque-Gothic cathedrals that were built over periods of 200 or 300 years. In Russia, everything was done differently. They built, demolished after a hundred years, built again, and demolished a hundred years later, and rebuilt. And then they say ‘This is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the city of Kolomna from where the advance to Kulikovo field began…’ No, this is not that cathedral. This cathedral is from the 17th century. Of the cathedral from where Dmitri Donskoi went to war, not a stone remains. Intolerance to what someone has done before you lies deep in the Russian subconscious. If you want to do something, you have to somehow destroy all that was done by your ancestors. Why do all the nouveaux riches have to build their ugly towers necessarily in the centre of St. Petersburg or Moscow or another wonderful town? If you want to build a skyscraper, build it on a vacant lot. But they have to build it right where there already is something. In no civilisation is there a concept of a sacred location. ‘No, we have to build a church here.’ – ‘But why? There already is a chapel here.’ – ‘No, we must build it right here.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘Well, now, it is a sacred spot.’ Sorry, this stinks of heathen practice, it’s not a sacred space. In Christianity, there is no concept of a ‘sacred location’, and yet we have it: we have a special Christianity, a special mentality, a special way about us. We are all special, with quirks.
Irrationality can reside within a person, but when it spills out into public life, and begins to determine the fate of the country, it becomes frightening. But I have an optimistic attitude to life. Firstly, no matter how bad it gets, we know that it could be worse. Secondly, we still believe for the most part in God, consciously or unconsciously, we live in hope. And this hope helps us, otherwise our country would long have ceased to exist. I am deeply convinced of this.
On training in restoration
I came into the profession in the mid-1970s, where you could hardly study the subject anywhere. There were no serious schools offering training in restoration, so I learned everything in the studio, and went to the evening courses at Moscow State University only later, once I had learned to work with my hands.
These days it’s better for restorers. There are strong departments at Stroganovka, Moscow Architectural Institute, Surikov academy; in St. Petersburg as well there are several schools. Firstly, the profession has come into demand. Secondly, towards the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, it became clear that the restorers who formed the basis of our schools may have been great masters, but were for the most part, quite uneducated. When they were asked, ‘What kind of icon is this?’ they would hesitantly mutter, ‘From some time between the 16th and 18th centuries.’ It was a strange time: an eerie, inward-looking state, the rise of the Brezhnev era, absolute stagnation in all things, but somehow there sprang occasional shoots of hope. And one of these was the fact that the government’s attention was drawn to the serious lack of training in restoration.
On professional principles
Many people go into the profession out of a sense of idealism. In my studio there is a girl who has just graduated from the Stroganovka. She pursued a highly technical diploma for half a year at Polotsk, lived in a hostel for monastic novices and owned barely anything. And today she earns a very modest pay, because we ourselves, old men, are hardly paid. She could have gone into another ‘department’ of our organisation, where it is possible to earn 100-150 thousand every month – on demand, on expensive objects, where it is necessary to engage less in restoration than in renovation – to repaint or apply gilt. These days there are lots of such jobs in Moscow. But the girl didn’t go there. Out of six people in her course, four didn’t go into that line – they all work in my team.
The career of a restorer offers a wide choice. It is possible to get into the commercial, profitable way, where you needn’t work to the highest principles of restoration, but rather based on demand, working on everything that’s brought to you. But if you want to work with wonderful monuments and history, then step off the path of riches.
It is like with doctors: you can bleed your patients dry pretending to treat them, or you can actually cure them. The doctors call this the Hippocratic oath. Among restorers there are no oaths, but there are principles.
A specialist in monumental restoration needs hands, a head, eyes and a conscience. If any of these is lacking, the chain is broken. You can distinguish a good restorer from a poor one by the results. But the difference can be understood only by other specialists. The hoi polloi are far from this level of understanding.
Restoration – it is a way of life. It is better to ask my wife about this – she will eloquently keep silent on the subject. All my life I’ve spent either in the studio or on the road, on projects.
It is not necessary to equate restoration with the creative process. We do not create anything new; we concern ourselves only with the extension of life. The proper restorer thinks not of themselves, but of the object they hold in their hands.
Our team has a rigid principle – we restore antiquity, revealing it from under all the growths on top of it, and we present it to people in the way that it has been preserved. Not in the form that they want to see it – with little eyes and smiling mouths, little arms and legs; but rather in that authentic form that it has reached us from the past.
On stools and bureaucrats
It used to be that you would arrive in some Old Ladoga and you would be lodged literally in a hovel – no windows, no doors. And to begin work, you would have to make the doors yourself, glaze the windows, set up the electricity, build furniture from wooden boards. We used to go to Novgorod every year and we’d be settled in the empty chambers of the half-ruined Yuriev monastery. Floors were missing, the roof leaked, the windows had no panes – everything was smashed or burned. So we constructed beds and tables and stools and we lived there for about five months. We would return the following year, and again there was nothing around. Sometimes, it is true, we’d discover one of our stools in a neighbouring studio of some Novgorod artist who had taken it but wouldn’t admit to having done so. And we’d take it back from him in exchange for a bottle of port.
Recently, attitudes towards us and in general towards restoration have improved. That same Yuriev monastery where we long had a base for restoration and archaeology is now functional, in use.
The biggest obstacle today to the work of restoration is its financing. It is the most destructive force that puts a spoke in our wheels. Financing always appears at the last moment, because of which it is impossible to make plans for the year. It’s one thing if you restore an icon or a painting or a sculpture inside your studio. If you aren’t paid, you get up, go home and wait until they pay you. On the other hand, we have objects that are out on the street, exposed to the elements, interacting with the environment. You can work on them in summer, but not in winter. But this goes completely against the system of government funding. When it is warm – there is no funding. Maybe it is available where it is even warmer. But when it gets colder, the bureaucracy gathers in Moscow and begin to cluck: ‘Oh no, we really need to finish the project. Oh no, we did nothing for half the year.’ Or maybe they did something with the money – perhaps it provided for their presence in some warm clime. ‘Well, we got to do something. Let us hand out the money here and there.’ They do not consider that we would now have to work in subzero temperatures. But we need at least seven degrees Celsius for ordinary work in the interior of a church. Last year, for example, we worked on the southern facade of the Assumption cathedral in October, while the money for it had been granted at the beginning of the year. Sadly, this spasmodic regime of funding is the main problem today with the industry and, it appears, the whole country.
On Moscow art and Titian
In Moscow there are few ancient monuments. They are mainly concentrated in the Kremlin; there are some in the Novodevichy convent, the Trinity church at Nikitniki, and the Intercession church at Fili. All the restoration there was accomplished thirty or forty years ago, often done quickly, focused on some festivity or the other, such as the Olympics. Perhaps the only church that was restored according to scientific techniques is the Annunciation cathedral in the Kremlin. Three generations of restorers worked on it, the most recent contribution being our own.
Matters are not good at the Novodevichy convent – everything is covered with writing; it needs serious restoration. I would restore all the churches of the Kremlin too but this is not a pressing problem – the paintings there are in stable condition, not falling apart. They look somewhat unclear because the original is covered by the remains of overpainting and additions from previous restorations, but they can be handled in the future, there is no hurry. And anyway, these flaws are visible only to a professionally picky eye, like mine, for instance. I can scarcely enter a museum in peace because I see not art but its restoration. This is a professional defect in me. Everybody says, ‘Look, what a Titian!’ And I think, ‘Why does this Titian have such heinous tones? Who put them there? Tear off his hands.’