Unity of the impression: ‘I cannot paint a Christ that is not in my heart,’ —Anna Karenina

‘ “One thing might be said, if you will allow me to make the remark…” observed Golenishtchev.

‘ “Oh, I shall be delighted, I beg you,” said Mihailov [the artist] with a forced smile.

‘ “That is, that you make Him the man-god, and not the God-man. But I know that was what you meant to do.”

‘ “I cannot paint a Christ that is not in my heart,” said Mihailov gloomily.

“Yes; but in that case, if you will allow me to say what I think.…Your picture is so fine that my observation cannot detract from it, and, besides, it is only my personal opinion. With you it is different. Your very motive is different.…I imagine that if Christ is brought down to the level of an historical character, it would have been better for Ivanov [this other painter] to select some other historical subject, fresh, untouched.”

‘ “But if this is the greatest subject presented to art?”

‘ “If one looked one would find others. But the point is that art cannot suffer doubt and discussion. And before the picture of Ivanov the question arises for the believer and the unbeliever alike. ‘Is it God, or is it not God?’ and the unity of the impression is destroyed.”

‘ “Why so? I think that for educated people,” said Mihailov, “the question cannot exist.” ‘

This section of Anna Karenina (Part Five, Chapter 11) is a sort of interlude, where Anna and Vronsky are sojourning in Italy, away from her husband and her son. They’ve come across one of Vronsky’s old school pals, Golenishtchev, who has resigned his cavalry commission, moved to Italy, and become a cultural critic and intellectual. A kind of hipster. The couple have been invited to see Mihailov at his studio, where he shows off his masterwork, a picture of Christ before Pilate (reference Matthew, chapter 27).

I like the question about the unity of the impression. It’s easier to see in a Pietà, with the youthful Jesus, than in a picture of the adult Jesus. But if the Bible is the word of God, then any kind of artistic representation, even if it depicts Biblical events, is always going to be a kind of derivative work.

Unity of the impression is difficult to render when one is trying to depict an ineffable deity, but I am intrigued by the idea of how the same concept applies in the domain of secular art. These years I see so much art that seems to be purposefully vague and open to multiple interpretations. The idea of unity of impression privileges one particular view of the artwork over others, an old-fashioned idea.

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