Conservation Copies: Exhibition Lauds Art Duplicates

Art duplication is more than simply copying: it is a process which has proven integral to artistic and cultural preservation in Russia.

For centuries copies of religious art have saved the original pieces from age, neglect and anti-religious campaigns – and now the practice has received an exhibition in honour of its legacy.

Moscow’s Grabar Art Conservation Center has opened a special exhibition space for icons named in honour of the restorer and master copier of icons and frescoes, Adolf Ovchinnikov.

The copies on display, made by Ovchinnikov between 1958 and 2016, trace the history of copying in the country.

Ovchinnikov, who still practices his craft at the age of 86, donated about 1700 icon copies to the Ovchinnikov Ikonoteka exhibition which opened last month. His approach to restoring these works, which form the basis of Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, is called “copy-reconstruction”. This method invites the restorer to become one with the work in order to understand the intentions of its creator.

Exhibition director Alexander Gormatyuk told The Art Newspaper that Ovchinnikov felt restorers must not take credit for their works.  “Iconographers are called upon by society,” he said. “The creator of a copy-reconstruction is called upon by the icon.”

Creating an icon copy differs from forgery as the bulk of reproductions have been made for the artwork’s own longevity. These are pieces that were under threat, either from their own decomposition or outside forces, and reproductions act as a matter of record.

Ovchinnikov himself said he had been in a race against time to save many of the works over his lengthy career.

“I have copied eight churches in their entirety over my lifetime, and half of these no longer exist,” he told a newspaper in Pskov, a centre of Russian iconography, in 2000. “That’s why we urgently need to create an inventory of copies.”

While the Soviet government was behind the destruction of many churches and icons, it was also responsible for funding a group of restorers who saved many of the masterpieces. However, restorers working in Soviet times were not allowed to refer to the pieces as “icons”, but as “ancient Russian art” so as to strip them of any religious connotation. KGB officers were even stationed at the Grabar to watch over staff, Ovchinnikov said.

Examples of Ovchinnikov’s work, from the tracings he used to study a work to the final copy-restoration, are displayed at the Ikonoteka, which is located in the former home and studio of the Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina.

His works include copy-reconstructions of 12th-century frescoes from the Church of St George in Staraya Ladoga, as well as an ancient fortress in north-western Russia.

The exhibition also holds classes in restoration methods and has programming that encourages contemporary artists to engage with icons.

For more information on the exhibition, visit the Grabar Art Conservation Center website.

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