During a couple of minutes he reenacts the days of creation. First all is chaos, anarchy, darkness. Of course, there is a manuscript, a plan, a number of actors, a landscape. But in reality nothing exists before there is an image. When the scene is shot Tarkovsky sighs and looks like the incarnation of the seventh day. Lord God, at last a moment of rest.At a press conference before the shooting of Nostalgia he is asked the usual question about the abundance of water in his films. What does all this water really signify? ”It means nothing”, he says with barely repressed irritation. ”I like water. Next question”.How will he ever be able to explain to those Western materialists that the meaning of mysteries is mystery? That the smoke and the mist and the damp do not hide anything but signify the presence of God.
Josephson goes on to describe Tarkovsky’s attempts to film the mist rolling in off the sea:
It’s an early morning on the island of Gotland. For a week we have been waiting for the early morning mist to roll in from the sea in order to capture the image of mist rolling in from the sea.
Now we see the cloud of mist blowing over the water. We call on Tarkovsky. He rushes to the camera, he puts his eye to it’s eye, we all get ready. Then he suddenly turns the camera in quite the opposite direction, facing the empty plains. ”It’s too beautiful”, he sighs in resignation. If you compete with creation you sometimes have to give up and surrender. Tarkovsky makes the sign of the cross and leaves God alone.
A few months later, when Andrei Tarkovsky is working in Stockholm with the editing of his film, he starts feeling ill. He is subsequently diagnosed with cancer and in April 1986 he is hospitalised in a cancer clinic in Sarcelles, north of Paris. He has still some eight months to live. The chemotherapy makes him feel increasingly ill and he starts vomiting but he has yet the spiritual force to reflect on future projects. One of them is a film about Saint Anthony, the 4th century father of monasticism. He lists a number of themes to be dealt with in such a film: “art, love and the problem of sin”.
On the third day in hospital his mind is preoccupied with a lot of practical matters, among them things he want to be brought to Paris from Moscow: “the icons, Gogol, the statue by Neizvestny, crosses, oriental stones, Armenian brandy”.
On the 11 of April he is on his fifth day of treatment and he makes the following note in his diary:
I have slept from taking sleeping pills twice. I read Florensky with delight.
“And he that overcometh and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations… And I will give him the morning star. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches.” (Revelations 2: 26, 28-29).
An immense hope has entered my heart today. I don’t know how to define it – quite simply like happiness. A hope that happiness is possible. The sun is shining through the window of my hospital room but this feeling of happiness does not come from that. The presence of the Lord: that’s what I feel.
It’s no coincidence that Tarkovsky is reading something by Florensky during the last months of his life. In fact, from the final edition of his diary, first published in a French translation in 2004 under the title Journal 1970-1986 – édition définitive (Cahiers du cinéma, 599 p.), it is obvious that he is very familiar with the Russian religious philosophy of the late 19th and early 20th century. In general his ideas are formed in dialogue with thinkers and artists of the Russian ”silver age”, the three decades preceding the Bolshevik revolution and its subsequent cultural disaster.The term ”The Silver Age”, spanning the years 1890-1917, is a rather well known concept today. The philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev, who himself belonged to this epoch, is one of those who launched the term and he has described the actual content behind the label:
In Russia this was the period of the emergence of independent philosophical thought, the flowering of poetry, the intensification of aesthetic sensibilities, religious anxiety and searching, and interest in mysticism and the occult. New souls appeared, new sources were found. We saw the new dawns and we joined the feeling of decline and ruin with hope of life transformation.
It has, however, been noted that Berdiaev never was inclined to idealize this epoch. He wrote rather critically about the seclusion of the artistic elite and its sharp isolation from the broad social currents of the time.
Parallel to this artistic era, in which mysticism, aestheticism, Neo-Kantianism, eroticism, Marxism, apocalypticism, Nietzscheanism, and other streams of ideas made Russia an intellectual melting-pot, a renewal of theology and religious philosophy took place. This movement had stronger Russian roots, based on the slavophile philosophy in the middle of the 19th century and further developed by authors like Dostoyevsky and philosophers like Solovyov.
Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky (1882-1937) was part of this legendary era. He was a real polymath with few parallels, a scientist, mathematician, philosopher and theologian. He was also deeply interested in the history of art, in particular the difference between art in the Western European tradition as compared to the notions of artistic expression developed in Byzantium and Russia. In particular, the primacy of the aesthetic in his thinking puts him aside a Western philosopher like C.S.Peirce. His main ideas in philosophy were presented in 1912 in his magnum opus The Pillar and Ground of Truth, a book constructed as an exchange of twelve letters between friends. Here ontology and epistemology are dependent on aesthetics.
In one passage Florensky writes: ”Knowing… is a real act of going out of himself by the knower, or, which is the same, a real going out of that which is being known into the one who knows — a real unity of the knower and the known.”
This quotation is taken from a book by a leading Russian specialist on Byzantium and religious philosophy, Victor Bychkov. The title of his investigation – The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky – indicates the general outlook of Florensky.
In another context Bychkov is explaining the meaning of symbols in Florensky’s work:
Florensky understands the symbol not only as a semiotic unit but also as an ontological entity. Not only it signifies something else, but also manifests it in reality, possesses its energy, and appears as a ”living mutual interpenetration of two entities.” Florensky extends the ancient Jewish understanding of the symbol (or name) as a bearer of the essence, together with the Byzantine notion of liturgical symbol, to the general concept of the symbol. Among such symbols he includes, first of all, the icon, which he considers to be the highest achievement of the art of painting of all times and nations. When he considers in detail the peculiarities of artistic language of the icon — including its canonicity, ”reversed perspective,” particular ways of organization of space, symbolism of colour and conventional character of forms — and compares all this with the language of modern European painting (”renaissance-type,” according to his terminology), he comes to the conclusion that it is starting from the ”great” masters of Renaissance who had rejected the medieval Weltanschauung and artistic language that the decline of representational arts begins. Florensky is convinced that the essence of art is not the conveyance of visible forms of the material world, or of psychological states of man, but symbolical expression and the ascent, with the help of conventional images of art, to the everlasting spiritual world, and ultimately to God. Florensky pays much attention to the question of synthesis of arts in liturgy, as well as to the philosophy and aesthetics of the ritual, the problems of the canon and the organization of space-time continuum in art.
The reader of the lines above, who is also familiar with the thoughts of Andrei Tarkovsky in his book Sculpting in Time, will se obvious parallels. Although Florensky was himself an outstanding mathematician and natural scientist he drew a clear line between the scientific and the artistic/spiritual understanding of the world. His strong criticism of the lack of spiritual values in Western art after the Renaissance is echoed in Tarkovsky’s equally strong rejection of Western modernism and the idea of ”progress” in art.
In his little book Bychkov notes that Florensky’s main methodological principle in aesthetics, as in all his scientific work, is to examine the world as a whole and consider every phenomenon investigated from various points of view. In this context Florensky looks at various forms of art and compares them – for example painting and theatre. Theatre aims at creating a maximal imitation of reality but painting has quite different aims. Whereas the theatre set, according to Florensky, is a beautiful deception, the pure painting aims at being ”first of all the truth of life, which does not supplant life but only designates it symbolically in its deepest reality. The set is a screen that hides the light of being, but the pure painting is a window thrown open on reality”.
To a certain extent Tarkovsky is echoing this statement in a passage in Sculpting in Time when he writes:
I think that the whole transfer of stage genres to the cinema is anyhow a questionable practice. The conventions of theatre are of a different scale. Any talk of ‘genre’ in cinema refers as a rule to commercial films – situation comedy, Western, psychological drama, melodrama, musical, detective, horror or suspense movie. And what have any of these to do with art? They belong to mass media and are for the mass consumer. Alas, they are also the form in which cinema exists now pretty well universally, a form imposed upon it from outside and for commercial reasons. There is only one way of thinking in cinema: poetically. Only with this approach can the irreconcilable and the paradoxical be resolved, and the cinema be an adequate means of expression of the author’s thoughts and feelings.
The reader who is interested in Florensky and his aesthetic theories will also find additional interesting material in the book Pavel Florensky: Beyond vision. Essays on the Perception of Art (ed. Nicoletta Misler), 2003. It reveals Florensky’s fundamental attitudes to the vital questions of construction, composition, chronology, function and destination in the fields of painting, sculpture and design. Many of these themes, in particular the philosophy of time, are recurring in Tarkovsky’s commentaries, either in Sculpting in Time or in the recently published extended Journal.
The link to Florensky is obvious also in the iconic character of Tarkovsky’s art. One of the first analysis of this One of the first analysis of this was made in the doctoral dissertation from 1992 by Astrid Söderbergh Widding (now professor at Stockholm University). In her book “Gränsbilder- Det dolda rummet hos Tarkovskij” (Borderline Images – The Hidden Room in Tarkovsky’s work”) she states as her objective “to explore off screen space categories” in Tarkovsky and to apply them in a concrete context. For this purpose her study is concentrated on the director’s three last films: Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. One of her conclusions is that in these films he is oscillating between the aspirations towards a religious transcendence and its opposite, thus creating a kind of borderline image between the two.
Suffice it to note in this context that in her thorough analysis of the films she points to Tarkovsky’s attempts to create an inverted space similar to that of the icons. She underlines that it is absolutely essential to go beyond categories of Western art when analysing Tarkovsky and focus also on the Russian cultural and religious tradition as expressed in the art of icons.It is well known that the reverse perspective in Orthodox icons is at odds with the laws of art developed in Western European art during the Renaissance. It’s not that the icon painters were unaware of these laws. The point for them was rather to express the spiritual dimension of art, of images as manifestations of a time beyond time and not pictures just illustrating holy history or revered saints.
Tarkovsky himself underlined this in a passage in his book Sculpting in Time:
So the inverted perspective in ancient Russian painting, the denial of Renaissance perspective, expresses the need to throw light on certain spiritual problems which Russian painters, unlike their counterparts of the Quattrocento, had taken upon themselves.
In this context Tarkovsky makes a direct reference to Pavel Florensky. In his book Iconostasis from 1922 (now translated in English, French and German) Florensky explores in highly original terms the significance of the icon: its philosophic depth, its spiritual history, its empirical technique. In doing so, he also sketched a new history of both Western religious art and the Orthodox icon. He regards Western art as limited and limiting: in order to make the perspective function the viewer is supposed to be static. The icon, on the other hand, is supposed to be viewed by a person who changes his place in the church (or the room) in a dynamic movement.Astrid Söderbergh Widding notes that Tarkovsky held a life-long interest in icons. He not only devoted one of his major works to an icon painter: he also uses some of the artistic norms of the icons in his own art. The reversed perspective is to be found in some of the scenes in his films, most notably in Stalker.
Simultaneous succession is another feature typical for Eastern Orthodox art. A sequence of biblical scenes can be depicted in one and the same icon without any frames or lines marking the difference in time between the scenes. Tarkovsky makes use of this technique from time to time and he also points to this in a passage in Sculpting in Time:
…so too a real picture, faithfully recording on film the time which flows on beyond the edges of the frame, lives within time if time lives within it; this two-way process is a determining factor of cinema.
As Astrid Söderbergh Widding concludes: ”It’s time, in the icon or in the art of Tarkovsky, which is outside the frame”.
In his book on the film Andrei Rublev (a book which despite its modest format is an outstanding introduction to this ground-breaking work of art) Robert Bird also underlines the iconic character of this particular film. Like the icon, Tarkovsky’s world has no privileged centre but is unified by an invisible, off-screen destination, which becomes the real focus of the viewer’s attention. Just as Rublev’s artistic gaze is shaped by the stares of the others, so the film elevates the viewer’s gaze into a form of bearing witness.
Bird strongly underlines and gives convincing evidence with regard to the background of Tarkovsky’s views on image and reality in the thoughts of Pavel Florensky. He notes that Tarkovsky’s cinematic image becomes quite similar to Florensky’s conception of the icon in several respects:
Viewing physical reality as rooted in a forcefield of spiritual energies, Florensky held the icon to be a direct expression of divinity, either in the person of Christ or via the meditation of a saint whose person was imbued with Christ’s grace. The surface of the icon is thus the locus of exchange between transcendent reality and the world, both a worldly window onto heaven and a heavenly mirror image of the world. This may sound alien to a modern ear, but what Florensky valued most in religion was precisely its adherence to the truths beyond the laws of reason, which fail to account for human reality. He played with the dualism of science and belief, claiming that the idea of the triune God was ‘a kind of square root of 2, that is an irrational number’. The icon was for him the pre-eminent means by which irrational truths can be expressed; he boldly declared, for instance, that ‘the most persuasive philosophical proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention… There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists’.
The plot structure in our film is dictated by its task: to reveal the dialectic of the personality, to study the life of the human spirit. I think that the literary and theatrical principle of organizing the material as a plot has nothing in common with the particular nature of the cinema. Any director knows how many sections of a film are emotionally empty. They exist only to explain the circumstances of the action to the viewer. We underestimate the power of the screen image’s emotional charge. In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion that is awoken is what provokes thought.
Of course, Tarkovsky received many philosophical influences in his life, not only from Florensky or other thinkers of the Silver Age. For example, he was apparently fascinated by a Western European thinker such as Rudolf Steiner. Still, he was basically a Russian philosopher in his own right, one in a great tradition from Dostoyevsky, Solovyov and Berdiayev.
In Sculpting in Time he emphasises the importance of belonging to a tradition:
In all my pictures the theme of roots was always of great importance: links with family house, childhood, country, Earth. I always felt it important to establish that I myself belong to a particular tradition, culture, circle of people or ideas.
Of great significance to me are those traditions in Russian culture which have their beginnings in the work of Dostoievsky. Their development in modern Russia is patently incomplete; in fact they tend to be looked down upon or even ignored altogether. There are several reasons for this: first their total incompatibility with materialism, and then the fact that the spiritual crisis experienced by all of Dostoievsky’s characters (which was the inspiration of his works and that of his followers) is also viewed with misgiving. Why is this state of ‘spiritual crisis’ so feared in contemporary Russia?
Tarkovsky was bold enough to challenge this spiritual crisis and to go in the footsteps of Russian philosophy along the tradition of Dostoyevsky.
In a passage in Sculpting in Time he uses a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed to highlight the apocalyptic dimension of time (and indeed “imprinted time” – time under a seal). It’s a dialogue where Stavrogin mentions that the angel of the Apocalypse swears that there will be no more time. Kirillov replies by saying that there won’t be any time when man has achieved happiness because it won’t be needed. And he adds: “Time isn’t a thing, it’s an idea. It’ll die out in the mind”.
The transfiguration of time, the disappearance of “natural” time in the new eon inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ on the “eighth day” of the week is a strong and recurring theme in Orthodox theology. Time outside time as the very “matter” of cinematic art is at the heart of Andrei Tarkovsky’s creative work.
He was a deeply religious man, a defender of the spiritual nature of man. In an interview less than a year before his death he was asked a question about the relation between divine creation and the creativity of an artist. Were his films to be seen as a kind of gift to the Creator? He answered: ”I would love that this would be true, After all, I try to work in this direction. It would be my ideal always to produce this gift. However, Bach was probably the only one who could really make this gift to God”.