'GALLERIES by Leigh Hatts
BIRMINGHAM'S current Soviet Festival, the first in Britain for 20 years, is providing the only venue in the UK for an unusual exhibition of 90 icons and liturgical embroideries from Moscow.
Few of the works in Museum Treasures In The Soviet Union at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (daily until October 30; free) have previously been exhibited outside the USSR. The Grabar Conservation Centre's icon restoration department is based in the Church of the Holy Virgin on the south bank of Moscow's River Moskva. About 60 icons pass through there each year.
The exhibition helps to put the recent changes in Russia in perspective. The icon restoration unit has been in its present church building since 1944. The parent body was set up with full state backing by artist and scholar Igor Grabar in 1918 and in the 1920s reconstructed such famous icons as The Trinity.
The oldest exhibit is a fifteenth-century icon showing the Virgin Blacherniotissa and the ubiquitous St Nicholas with St Blake and St Clement of Alexandria. A sixteenth-century icon has the Virgin of Vladimir with church feasts featured on the border. Another of the same period, depicting the Prophet Elijah in a fiery chariot, reminds us that sometimes the subject can come from the Old Testament. Ilya, the Russian name for Elijah, is still popular.
Last weekend Blackburn Museum marked the Russian Christian Millennium by opening a new floor devoted exclusively to the display of icons. Blackburn has one of the largest public collections and it is based on a first acquisition made as recently as 1971 from Whalley Abbey. Now, following the support of the National Art Collection Fund, the full collection is displayed under cool fibre optic lighting (in contrast to some hot churches)
and close to medieval manuscripts illustrating the early story of Christianity.
In the Blackburn collection are Greek icons including a nineteenth-century Virgin of The Unfading Rose which shows a hint of western influence in the crowns worn by Mother and Child. Many icons are archetypes widely copied down the centuries. The most common view of the Virgin has her holding the Child and pointing to him. This archetype persists due to the belief that the first was painted by St Luke.
This year's Canterbury Festival (until 22 October; details 0227 455600) has assembled some worthwhile exhibitions such as Edward Bawden and At Length: The Victorian Panorama of Life giving a chance to see Frith's On Ramsgate Sands and Derby Day with other long compositions. Canterbury is the permanent home of the National Cartoon Library which provides a cartoon strip exhibition called Drawing The Tale. Suitably the city turns out to be the birthplace of Rupert Bear.
Rupert was created 40 years ago by Mary Tourtel, daughter of a stained glass artist who worked on the cathedral's restoration. We learn from the anniversary Rupert Bear exhibition that when the pen and ink drawings required colour the bear at first wore blue with a grey scarf. The work of the successor artist Alfred Bestall suggests that Nutwood is in Surrey.
An unexpected venue for a show, especially one of such strikingly modern sculpture, is the dungeon at Windsor Castle. The five day Reconciliation exhibition (until tomorrow; 50p) features Arthur Dooley of Liverpool who seeks to capture the optimistic spirit of people in an area of economic decline. Little known in the south, his work can be found in the north in public places and churches, such as St Mary's in Leyland.
Keen to promote his religious insight and maintaining a deep commitment to Liverpool, he hopes to help reconciliation between cultures, classes and church denominations.