Icons of another age

Clinton museum hosts marvels of Russia's Andrey Rublev Museum

CLINTON — In 1911, Henri Matisse, loathed and ridiculed in France, arrived in Moscow to a hero’s welcome. He was a guest of the collector Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin’s cousin Ilya Ostroukhov was an early and important collector of Russian icons, and when the three men dined together at Ostroukhov’s, Matisse became infatuated by what he saw.

His excitement kept him awake all night. The next day, they toured the Tretyakov Gallery, prompting Matisse to say: “I have spent 10 years searching for something your artists discovered in the 14th century.’’

Matisse had his reasons for visiting Moscow. But if he were alive today, he could have had a similarly profound experience on a visit to Clinton.

One hour from Boston, Clinton is home to the Museum of Russian Icons, which claims to be in possession of the largest private collection of icons outside Russia (400 and counting). The museum opened just four years ago, and it’s already in the middle of an expansion.

On the Thursday afternoon of my visit, people were pouring in. A Russian oligarch had arrived by limousine from New York that morning, according to curator Kent dur Russell. Afterward, at the bar of an Italian restaurant around the corner, a local couple told me that after their first visit to the museum, they immediately booked a three-week trip to Russia.

That’s the kind of place it is, and the kind of effect it’s having.

The museum’s founder, Gordon B. Lankton, is the president of Nypro Inc., a $1.1 billion plastics company based in Clinton. Lankton is a tall man in his late 70s. I can’t vouch for his record as a chief executive, but as a museum founder, he is hands-on. His voice is on the museum’s acoustiguides, where he can be heard holding forth on his love of icons, his fondness for the Russian people (“They have their problems with Mafia, but who doesn’t?’’), and his virulent disdain for communism. His introductory spiel ends with the hope, voiced casually, that he will run into you in the galleries.

There’s every chance you will.

Icons are not just images. They are objects with a unique presence somewhere between sculpture, painting, and shrine. They are conceived as proxies: Veneration passes through the icon to the saint or divinity depicted.

During the Byzantine era, which saw divisive outbreaks of iconoclasm, this notion proved contentious (the second commandment forbids the making of graven images). But for centuries, people — and not just Christians — have recognized something transparent and humble about the icon, a sense that it points to a beauty beyond itself.

Lankton is extending a tradition of appreciating Russian icons that only really emerged in the 20th century, when icons which had for centuries been blackened by dirt and soot, and systematically painted over, began to be cleaned, stripped back, collected, and studied.

Emerging out of Byzantine art, Russian icons enjoyed a kind of golden age in the 14th and 15th centuries, with the work of masters such as Theophanes the Greek, Andrey Rublev, and Dionysii. In this period especially, Russian icons took on characteristics notably different from their Byzantine forerunners: The colors tend to be lighter and more joyous; the faces of the figures gentler, more open; and tonal nuances fewer, producing greater intensity in the colors.

Lankton only started collecting icons in 1990. His first trips to the Soviet Union were in 1989. Government strictures against religion had been loosened, and privately owned icons were coming out of the woodwork.

Lankton bought his first icon at a flea market for $20. On subsequent trips, he spent $50, $100, and $500 on individual icons. The collection eventually blossomed, and the idea of setting up a museum got a grip on him.

In the historic brick building that now houses the collection, Lankton could have tried to create an atmosphere of church-like sobriety. He didn’t. The galleries are suggestively dark, but the lighting is high tech, and above the icons in some rooms runs a line of light tubes that change color every few seconds.

The idea, I’m told, is to conjure the effect of changing light coming through stained glass windows in a church. In fact, it evokes a seedy nightclub. But it’s typical of Lankton’s what-the-heck, stir-it-up approach.

Most rooms contain a video monitor showing films and documentaries that have varying degrees of relevance to Russian icons (starting with zero). There are lots of enjoyably informal wall labels, and in many parts of the museum, icons of different styles and periods have been grouped together by theme.

What’s perhaps most impressive about the museum is that, through it, Lankton has been able to team up with some of Russia’s most prestigious museums — starting with the State Tretyakov Gallery and now the Andrey Rublev Museum — to lure important loan exhibitions to the United States.

“Treasures From Moscow: Icons From the Andrey Rublev Museum,’’ which opened last week, is a show of ambitious and at times drenchingly beautiful icons that will astonish many.

The scale of them is the first surprise. There’s a tendency to think of icons as small — tailor-made for domestic display and veneration. Many are. But the majority of these works are big. Some contain a large central image bordered by small, cartoon-like scenes from the lives of Christ or the saints. Others are single images of remarkable force and lyricism.

None perhaps is as moving as the “Old Testament Trinity,’’ which shows God appearing to Abraham in the guise of three angels. The angels, who will intercede to provide Abraham and his wife, Sara, with a son, Isaac, dominate the composition. Robed in lustrously cool reds, blues, and greens against a gold-leaf backdrop, they combine monumentality with a sweet and mysterious shyness, reminiscent of the Virgin in an Annunciation or of the bathers in Matisse’s 1908 “Bathers With a Turtle.’’

It’s tempting to attribute Matisse’s response to Russian icons as hyperbole, brought on, perhaps, by the warmth of his reception in Moscow. But when you see the paintings in “Treasures From Moscow,’’ the penny drops. You see how powerfully they chime with Matisse’s radical approach, which like so many breakthroughs in modern culture, harked back to a lost and spiritually noble past even as it pointed forward.

But of course, Russia’s centuries-old icons don’t need Matisse’s validation to be of interest. The links are fascinating, but there’s much more to icons. They form, in the words of the great Russian art historian Viktor Nikitich Lazarev, “a totally original artistic world which is not easy to penetrate. But whoever discovers the key to it will effortlessly begin to discover a beauty that is always new.’’

Clinton is not a bad place to go looking for that key.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at  

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