For some time now, we have been encouraged to see the relationship between modernism and religion as dialogic rather than oppositional. Recent work, notably by Pericles Lewis and Erik Tonning, demonstrates how modernist art and literature engages deeply and thoughtfully with forms of organized religion and orthodox theology as well as with the forms of occult belief seen most famously in the work of W. B. Yeats.1 C. A. Tsakiridou’s Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity is a welcome addition to this literature. Her book significantly extends and deepens the field of enquiry by asking not only what modernist artists make of religious sources, but what theologians make of modernism in their turn.
For Tsakiridou, misunderstanding and partial comprehension prove as illuminating as understanding. In Catholicism’s failure to accommodate modernist art, for example, she discovers a bias [End Page 385] for figuration which subtends the church’s tolerance for a plurality of styles. Equally, avant-garde artists such as Goncharova and Malevich, who make direct use of the folk-art of the icon, use the icon programmatically, answering to a pre-conceived theory rather than respecting the autonomy and self-disclosure of the icon itself. The irony proves identical to that which Tsakiridou finds in the Orthodox defense of the image against iconoclasm; the image is saved but only on the condition that it is turned into text, an “illustration” of a disincarnate truth akin to the parables in the Bible. Modernists, she observes, talk about transcendence all the time, but their work is often devoid of the “emotional and existential significance” that brings transcendence to life (92).
Tsakiridou directly approaches what theophany actually looks and feels like in art, and her approach is inspiring. She invites us to consider exactly what it is about Christian art that has the power to move irrespective of religious beliefs. The challenge is to see beyond contextual factors, which more usually provide the subject-matter for art-critical and art-historical discourses, and to recognize what power the image itself has to live: “the perennial being of art” (96). This represents a significant departure from the usual approach, seen for example in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, which takes Benjamin’s “aura”—conferred by contextual elements such as ritual and distance—to be the first and last word on the religious quality of modernist art.2 Tsakiridou’s key sources are Orthodox theologians, especially St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Gregory Palamas. In dialogue with their work, she develops the concept of “enargeia,” understood as the quality that allows the icon to live and speak for itself. Unlike beauty, which relies on similitude for its effects, enargeia is dynamic and self-realizing: “It is enargeia that brings the image into a state of ontological plenitude and presence” (20). In her quest to find this quality outside the framework of Orthodoxy, Tsakiridou tests the icon against exemplary modernist images as well as Zen-Buddhist images.
Icons in Time is divided into four sections. The first section describes the twin aims of the book—“to reconcile modernism with the Christian image and Orthodox tradition with creative form” (xi)—and identifies those features of the Orthodox icon that might most obviously be seen to resemble modernist art: namely, autonomy, anti-mimesis, and abstraction. The second section, titled “Theology and Art,” holds these similarities up to closer scrutiny. Tsakiridou proceeds dialectically, which allows her to account both for similarity and difference and to avoid mistaking influence for identity, resemblance for a crypto-theological project. Thus, the revival of interest in the icon among the Russian avant-garde proves the lie in the claim that modernism is “anti-clerical and fascinated by secular utopias” (76). But this is not to say that modernist abstraction, even when practiced in the name of a new religion of art, is identical to abstraction seen in the icon. The difference, for Tsakiridou, inheres in modernism’s tendency to...