A few things come to mind when looking at these folk icons. As the author points out, these icons have a certain “warm-heartedness” about them, and this is a unitive factor among the vastly disparate styles and permutations presented in the exhibit. The author notes the similarity between this warm-heartedness, in Russian dushevnost, to the unitive factor among “proper” or “canonical” icons – their spirituality, or dukhovnost.
Their warmth and innocence make the folk icons far more inviting and conversant than the cold and formulaic printed icons so abundant in the West. There is clearly much more to an icon than its adherence to the canons. Sure, a copy of a canonical icon follows the structural rules of form, line, color, and content. But it does not invite the viewer to meet the saint. The image is flattened, literally and figuratively, and the meeting of time and eternity is made difficult and distant, if not impossible. I am not suggesting that the guidelines of formal iconography are expendable, but rather that there is great value in the pious care an icon painter affords his work, folk or otherwise. Despite their deviation from the classical and canonical iconographic standards, “it goes without saying that folk iconographers … felt their responsibility before God for their work and strove towards piety,” according to the author.
It should be remembered when reading the article that in Russia, art galleries often go out of their way to separate themselves from any church involvement. So then, this exhibit presents these folk icons in an environment tragically foreign to their nature and use, against a stark white background and behind glass. But as the author points out “… icons are not simply paintings that reveal their authors’ inner world and the historical and social context of their lives. Icons are prayerful images intended to unite us with their prototype. The organizers of the exhibition removed them from their sacred context.”
As a commenter on the site describes it: “The artists/writers of these icons have … learned to see iconically and invite us to do so. That, it seems to me, is something the world desperately needs.”
Were this exhibit to be seen by an American Orthodox Christian, would the contents be seen as folk art or icons?
To begrudgingly use unfair terms and stereotypes, converts seem less patient with deviation from formal iconography, and embrace printed reproductions in lieu of expensive hand-painted masterworks. Cradle Orthodox seem to appreciate a wider spectrum of iconographic forms which present more cultural nuance and flavor, but often allowing uncanonical imagery and compositions, like the so-called “New Testament Trinity”.
Perhaps we ought to take the best from both sides; preferring hand-painted icons over printed, despite a lack of refinement when compared to the work of masters, so long as they stay within the bounds of canonical content. Given time and careful guidance, the naivete of the inexperienced iconographer will fade, and develop into an indigenous iconographic style.