Saturday, October 18, 2014

Icons in Ballarat

The exhibition EIKON: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World has just opened at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.  This is another ground-breaking "Made in Ballarat" exhibition, and has come about because the Gallery's Director, Gordon Morrison, has long had a passionate interest in icons, transmitted from his Polish grandmother.  I understand it is the first exhibition of Orthodox icons in Australia.  Many of the icons have come from the collection of retired Australian diplomat John McCarthy in Sydney, though some have come from the National Gallery of Victoria and the Temple Gallery in London.  There is a splendid catalogue, also produced by the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

The icons do not function as artworks in the way that we normally understand; rather they are aids to prayer and devotion, "windows on heaven" according to the exhibition text.  The aesthetic qualities, although at times striking, are secondary.

Yesterday was a special day at the Gallery.  As well as the exhibition there were two ancillary events, the first of which was a talk by Sir Richard Temple, icon expert and founder and director of the Temple Gallery, a specialist dealer in icons.  He had come to Ballarat for the opening of the exhibition.  Sir Richard gave an introduction to icons, going back to their pre-history in the days when Christianity was a underground movement in the Roman Empire; a fascinating exposition.  The icons follow strict rules as to subject matter and composition, and the characteristics of the prophets and saints and their associated symbolism; changes have occurred over time, but the continuity of the tradition is remarkable.

The second event was the showing of a film, Living Prayer in Christianity, a documentary about the life of Orthodox Christian monasteries in locations including Egypt, Mount Athos and Russia.  Sir Richard Temple was a consultant on the film, and icons and the practice of painting icons featured in the the film, not surprisingly, as icons are so important in Orthodox worship.  General release of the film has been held up, but thanks to Sir Richard we were able to have what amounted to a private screening.

The exhibition continues until 26th January.