This month at Hibbleton Gallery, we are showing the complete filmography of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Last night, we watched his epic masterpiece Andrei Rublev, which is about a 15th century religious icon painter.
Rublev is a Russian orthodox monk/artist who happens to be living at a very turbulent time in Russian history. The Tatars are ravaging across the land, killing and pillaging towns and churches. There is also widespread famine, poverty, and disease. In the tradition of great Russian authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, this is a story about suffering. At a time when most people are struggling to survive, the film raises the question: of what importance is art in the face of human misery?
For Andrei Rublev, art and spirituality are deeply connected, both in a literal and mystical sense. At the literal level, he is a painter of religious art. But at a deeper, mystical level, Rublev’s paintings provide a contrast/commentary on the violent and dark world in which the artist lives. His paintings are colorful, subtle, beautiful. For him, the beauty of art opens a window into another, spiritual, more beautiful reality that exists right alongside the world of suffering and struggle.
Rublev’s paintings, in the context of their times, posit a kind of hope—a testament that violence, disease, and misery are not the only elements of human existence. There is also beauty and transcendence, which become all the more important and poignant in a context of suffering.
The film also has a very personal meaning for me. I watched it for the first time about 15 years ago, when I was a 20-year old suffering a major depression and a crisis of faith. In my second year of college, I began to doubt my Christian beliefs and spiraled into a deep and dark depression. I dropped out of the private Christian university I was attending, moved back home, and started taking art classes at Fullerton College.
For reasons I did not fully understand at the time, I became somewhat obsessed with medieval Christian icon paintings, Byzantine and Russian. While my classmates painted still lifes and portraits, I painted detailed medieval religious icons, complete with gold leaf. In the midst of my doubt and depression, I found a kind of solace and wonder in these very old religious paintings that sparkled with gold and color, even when they depicted the brutal death of Jesus or some martyr. Somehow, it made sense to me.
It was around this time that I discovered the film Andrei Rublev while browsing at the Fullerton Public Library. I’d never heard of Andrei Tarkovsky, but the film expressed some deep inner truths I was experiencing at the time. It wasn’t about belief so much as faith. And not even faith in the orthodox sense. What the film, and the paintings expressed was a sense of hope—of holding onto faith that beauty and peace and life existed, even amidst personal suffering.
15 years later, Andrei Rublev still speaks to me, not of religious belief or doctrine, but of the deeper need to hang onto hope and beauty amidst despair and pain. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Beauty can save the world.” This from a man who was imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp. Those Russian artists understood suffering. Ironically, because of this, they also understood beauty, and why art matters.