The word "iconic" has become so familiar in contemporary celebrity worship, especially of actors and musical performers, that it's easy to forget its origins in the religious rituals and sacred artistic symbolism of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Calvary Episcopal Church tries to remedy the situation with "Icons in Transformation," an exhibition that juxtaposes traditional icons with the abstract artwork of Russian artist Ludmila Pawlowska. The traditional icons were created by monks at the Vassilevsky Monastery in Suzdal, northeast of Moscow. The exhibition of 110 works will be displayed in the church's Great Reception Hall and sanctuary and other areas through June 22.
"Icons in Transformation" is touring churches and cathedrals in the United States and has previously been seen in cities such as Seattle, St. Louis, Topeka, Kan., and Lexington, Ky.
The exhibition was brought to Calvary by the church's interim rector, Rev. Philip Wiehe.
"One of the things that seemed important during this interim time," said Wiehe, "was to do something different, a new possibility, but related to our other programs. I received an e-mail from Jan Lech (the artist's husband), who was looking for venues for the exhibition. The work looked attractive online, but when I went to St. Louis and saw it in the cathedral, it looked wonderful. I thought that it would be perfect for us."
Pawlowska came from a family of dissidents. Her grandfather was arrested by the Stalinist government and deported to a gulag in Siberia. Her father's movements and choices in life were limited because he refused to join the Communist Party. Born in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, Pawlowska went to Moscow at 15 to study art, though she felt stifled by the emphasis on social realism.
Twenty years ago, she and Lech moved to Sweden, where she was able to explore the potential of working in abstraction, but it took the death of her mother to send Pawlowska on the search for visual equivalents for spiritual experience. Traveling in Russia, her visits to monasteries and her discovery of ancient icons seemed to open a window to what she wanted to accomplish.
"I think the juxtaposition of the contemporary art and the traditional icons works," Wiehe said. "Certainly, art is a personal matter, and I don't expect everyone to like every piece. I don't. But the reaction of people is always stunning to behold. There's a sharp intake of breath. And there's a great discussion every Sunday. That's been wonderful. Primarily, the exhibition is for our parishioners, but it's also for the city. It's free and open, and anyone can come see it."
Ludmila Pawlowska, 'Icons in Transformation'
At Calvary Episcopal Church, 102 N. Second, through June 22. The exhibition may be viewed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Call (901) 525-6602. At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, there will be a discussion, "Art, Spirituality and the Russian Soul," presented by Rev. Philip Wiehe and David Armbruster, an expert in Russian history and culture at the University of Memphis.