September 23, 2010

Impressions of Stolen Icons

The painting on wood above, “Power, giver of courage,” is based on a sketch I made years ago while visiting relatives in Ukraine. The drawings I made of the Russian Icons from that trip brought back a feeling of something stolen. Although the Italians were flattered by artists taking an active interest in their artifacts and applauded people sketching in museums and galleries, the Ukrainians were decidedly suspicious. When I sketched in the museums of Kiev it was soon apparent that making drawings of icons was a forbidden act for the guards would come waving their arms at me and shouting “Nyet! Nyet!” Not knowing any Ukrainian other than a phrase that I learned from my grandmother that essentially meant, “Just a minute,” my response to the guards only further riled them. Ostensibly they were afraid that I was in the business of forging icons, and here I was blithely sketching away and telling them to wait until I was finished.

The original icon upon which this painting is based depicted a regal looking heavenly being holding up two birds, or perhaps minor angels. The drawing that I made this from is black and white and I have long since forgotten how the original icon was painted so I invented colors. The angel looked masculine to me so I named it a “Power” after the second tier of angels in the Celestial Hierarchy. The Powers were described as having “unshakable courage” and being “masculine.”

While painting this small work, I had another rather unusual source of inspiration. A number of years ago, I stayed with an elderly Jewish woman who was a long-time friend of my late Mother-in-Law. She amused me by singing all manner of old ditties from what I assumed to be about the 1920's or 1930's. One of these, “Little Black Me” opened with a line sung in a minor key, “Mother are there any angels black like me?” I remembered the line because the melody had the same opening measures as a Boismortier flute and harpsichord duet. Out of curiosity I did a search on the “Little Black Me” melody and found that it actually dated to 1899 and was written by a Thurland Chattaway. Chattaway had written other songs around that time which advocated desegregation - something unusual for its time.
So with this odd little tune in mind, at least one of my angels became black - I suppose to finally answer the question the song posited.

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