Posts Tagged ‘Byzantine’


This garage is directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Not knowing that Icon is the name of a NY garage chain, I thought it was a clever name for a MoMA garage. MoMA houses major “Icons of Modernism” and isn’t that an oxymoron.   I pictured the parking guys in blue Icon uniforms with their first names embroidered over the breast pockets discussing how Picasso, Braque and Matisse et al had been exerting themselves to produce images that negated all that iconic stuff they’d been brought up with and now, here in this MoMA building were their once outrageous paintings, all gaped at with touristy awe because, well, because now they’re Icons. One of the guys in this garage conversation about semiotics and art history likes to say, that deserves to be deconstructed.  Or so I imagined.

The word icon comes from the Greek, meaning image.  The term was first used for depictions of the central characters of Christian mythology that confronted the faithful with severe, staring authority.


In the early Christian church there were opposing views on whether these images should even be allowed, since they posed the czestochowskatemptation for the faithful to fall into idolatry.  That idolatry won out is suggested by the fact that some of these old icons draw pilgrims to their site, as for example, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, one of the national symbols of Poland. Such an image is commonly called “sacred icon.”

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.


That’s nice to know, you say, a little history never hurts, but we’re in the 21st and icons are about the internet. So you type in “icon” and you get a site, https://icons8.com/web-app/,  that gives you mouse-5033,600 icons including this, which you recognize instantly.

The communication is one-dimensional and unambiguous. Recognizing the icon puts you in the In-group. If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Now back to the MoMA. This is Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.  It’s called an “icon of modernism.”  The people standing around it have seen it in reproductions, but they’ve come here to be with it in person.


Are they pilgrims. Is this a sacred site?

To be instantly recognizable is the same as to be famous. Did the tourists travel here to see something famous? By being with this famous object are they participating in its fame?  Is fame something intrinsic in that canvas and does fame radiate out so that those close by can absorb some of it?

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Maybe the designation “icon” does apply equally to the Byzantine deity, the mouse and the 1907 Picasso, the common denominator being fame, which separates the in-group from the out.

Funny how that boundary can shift.



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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When I saw Klimt’s golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer at the Neue Galerie in NY in December I thought “mummy”—as in dead, as in Egyptian.
What if instead of creating a celebration of Adele’s beauty, both physical and spiritual, Klimt was really showing his disgust with her wealth and status in society?
Most of the surface is gold leaf. He only painted her face, shoulders, forearms and hands. She is quite simply trapped and lifeless in gobs of gold. She is dead and buried. The association to Egyptian mummification is strengthened by what looks like the Egyptian hieroglyphics for “eye” all through the central panel under her face. This may be a reference to her reputation as an art lover, i.e. having an “eye for art and beauty.”
The painting is dated 1907. We can be sure that Adele was flattered by being shown wrapped in all this gold, which has a long history of being associated with royalty, but also, going back to Byzantine icons, with heaven and divinity.
What if artists are not as dumb and subservient as their wealthy patrons consider them to be? What if Gustav Klimt, who thought of himself as a prophet and above societal conventions, played a joke on Mr. Bloch-Bauer? He took his money and handed him a dead thing. Or, as Peter Schjeldahl calls it, a “flattish bauble, a thing, a whatsit.” Schjeldahl covers the money angle, which is what this is all about:
John Malkovich is worth seeing in “Klimt,” directed by Raoul Ruiz, 2006.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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