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Plavinsky, Dmitri - VM - Viktor Barashkov

Dmitri Plavinsky: Leaf in the Wall of a Church

The Creation of Spiritual Landscapes

by Viktor Barashkov

Old walls of churches have their own histories. This is definitively a key, but to what? This question arises, when we see the painting Leaf in the Wall of a Church (1974) by the Russian artist Dmitri Plavinsky (1937-2012). The artist knew his country well, he travelled through small historical towns and the beauty and the pain of closed churches were reflected in his works. In the painting we see reliefs on the church wall, painted with great care, reminding us of the famous relief carvings of St. Dmitry’ Cathedral in Vladimir (1194-1197) or St. George’s Cathedral in Yuryev-Polsky (1230-1234). These cathedrals were constructed with elements of the Romanesque style, but their most striking feature was the rich carved ornamentation. These reliefs depict not only saints, angels and archangels, but also mythological animals (lions, gryphons, chimeras), birds and plants.

In the center of the painting is a leaf. According to the painter, “The leaf is an impression of the Creator’s hand which opens up towards the light.” A second hand portrayed next to it is also open to the light. The leaf is moreover a symbol of the universe (in 1975 Plavinsky created an etching Cosmic Leaf). On it we see a shell, which refers to time and memory.

In the etching The Building of the Gospel (1976) the cover of an old manuscript is reminiscent of the large multilayered iconostases that we encounter in Russian churches. The ladders can be understood as scaffolds. They connect Heaven and Earth and point to the interconnections between the Old and the New Testaments. At the top, for instance, there is an image of the Holy Trinity. Under this we see an image of Our Lady of the Sign with the Child Jesus within a round aureole. A ladder goes from this image to one of Evangelists (there are three of them in the corners and the fourth one is damaged). In the center Christ in Majesty is depicted as the all-powerful judge of mankind, surrounded by Mary, John the Baptist, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and St. Peter and St. Paul, praying for our salvation. At the top we see a page from the Gospels sticking out, beginning with the words (in Church Slavonic language) “And it came to pass in those days…” These are the words commonly said before the reading of a passage from the New Testament.

At first sight there is something frightening about the work Cathedral with a Bat (1972) and this is not because of the flying bat. It is something much more seriously: there is no dome on the top of the wall and there is no cross on it. What does this tree in front of the cathedral mean? Plavinsky believed in a universal connection between everything there is in the world. So nature (tree) and culture (cathedral) are parts of one historical sequence. When we look more carefully, we can notice king David at the top, playing the harp and singing, and birds singing to God. There are also relief carvings with trees and mythological animals. We can conclude that the tree and the bat in front of the cathedral are part of the church’s relief carvings: symbols of life, not of destruction. Around the same time the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky had a comparable deep understanding of basic spiritual values. This was pointed out in the recent exhibition (21 June – 22 September, 2019) Free Flight in Moscow at the New Tretyakov Gallery, where episodes from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev were shown in one room with Plavinsky’s paintings.

“Structural Symbolism” is the name of Plavinsky’s strongly religious and philosophical system of thought and art. In structural symbolism the unified image of the world is broken down into sequences of symbols submerged in layers of time: past, present and future. The chronological sequence of time is discarded, as the time that shapes us and fills us with internal meaning is the time that is past or recurrent (as the past keeps on influencing us). It is indeed this time that is real to us.

Plavinsky searched for the unity of all religions of the world. This quest was rooted in his belief in cosmic unity. According to him the purpose of art is not knowledge of the world or its representation but the creation of unknown spiritual landscapes. Talking about the task of the artist he distinguished between ‘contemporary’ artists and artists ‘of their own time’. The latter attempt to be ‘contemporary’ in dealing with contemporary issues but forget that to appropriate time and to call it ‘their own’ is madness to God. The former, as they deal with eternal or philosophical themes, have the ability to pass through biological time to ‘space’ time, i.e. infinity.


Dmitri Plavinsky: Leaf in the Wall of a Church, 1974, oil, polyvinyl-acetate tempera, collage on canvas, 100 x 80 cm. Private collection, Italy.

Dmitri Plavinsky: The Building of the Gospel, 1976, etching on copper plate, 71.7 x 58 cm. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Dmitri Plavinsky: Cathedral with a Bat, 1972, etching, 88.7 x 58.7 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Dmitri Plavinsky (1937-2012) was a Russian artist, one of the founders of artistic nonconformist movement in Moscow in the 1960s. He called his own art system “structural symbolism”. His main themes were Time, Memory, Music, Word. Very meaningful for the artist were the symbols of the turtle and the fish. He worked in many techniques: oil, polyvinyl-acetate tempera, acrylic, plaster, collage, wood, etching. He is the author of the graphical Book of Grass. He traveled in Central Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Central Asia, Greece, Italy and Israel, and impressions from all these travels can be found in his works. From 1991 to 2004 he worked in the USA. Philosophical and religious themes were inherent in his works.

Viktor Barashkov is a Russian philosopher and art historian. He is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of Stoletovs’ Vladimir State University located in Vladimir, Russia. The main fields of his interest are contemporary religious art and architecture, philosophy of culture and anthropology of religion. He is a member of the Russian National Section of International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

ArtWay Visual Meditation 13 October 2019