Natalia Beketova and Olga Zakharova had arrived at mosaic through painting – specifically, a Monumental Painting course at the Repin Academy of Saint Peterburg. It was intended to be an isolated exercise, a copy of a traditional Grecian pavement that would familiarize them with the foundations of mosaic technique. In the process, it introduced them to an entirely new visual language
This entry point to mosaic – arrived at as a byroad of painting – is a common beginning for mosaicists, and one I share myself. From the «eternal painting» described by Pliny in the century to the popularization of mosaic on panel championed by Signorini in the 1950s, mosaic has long been considered one means of mark-making within the larger field of painting. Yet the physicality of mosaic – the weight and familiarity of the materials, the interaction of light and space, the parallel sensations of fracture and assembly – present a unique set of formal questions for both artist and viewer, necessitating more individualized study. So when a fellowship became available through SoloMosaico for two students to travel from their native Russia to the Accademia di Belle Arti of Ravenna in March 2011, the young women were quick to seize the opportunity. A period of practical and theoretical training in Ravenna was followed by a two-week tour of Italy, encountering in situ works they had previously only seen in reproductions. «Of course we had seen Ravenna’s mosaics in books,» said Natasha, «But when we came to Italy, we were struck by the experience of seeing them in person. The mosaics were everywhere: the domes, the walls, the floors. We could never have imagined that the colors would be so bright, the size and impact of the mosaics so incredible.» Within the Accademia, they attended courses in restoration and materials chemistry with the students of the Masters program in mosaic, whose members come from Argentina, Iran, and the United States, as well as across Italy – each brought to Ravenna by the desire to express themselves in this specific language of glass and stone. Lessons were conducted in Italian, then translated into English and Russian so Natalia and Olga could follow the discussion. The studios at the Accademia are something of a cross between a classroom and a chaos; traditional Byzantine studies lean against abstract compositions, chemical equations and students’ sketches vie for space on the chalkboards. Shelves lined with Venetian glass are supplemented by the students’ own materials explorations, wood and metal, pencils and bullets, cardboard and found objects. Marble is stacked in the central courtyard, mountains of stone, boxes of fragments from all corners of the world – sandy ochres and reds from the Middle East, deep blacks and sparkling whites from across Europe and Africa. Under the guidance of Luciana Notturni, Professor of Restoration at the Accademia, they began to study the «grammar» of a mosaic – the placement of the tesserae and the space between them, the way in which the orientation of the tiles can change the speed with which the eye moves across the surface, like a comma in a sentence. «After spending some time with Luciana, we understood what we were doing, why, and for what effect. Our initial copies were very delicate, but they weren’t really alive yet. Mosaic is more than just the physical material and techniques; you have to feel it, connect with it. Then, once you understand the medium, you can start to work with it as a way of art.» Traveling to Ravenna, Bologna, Florence, Venice, Siena and Rome during their month in Italy, Natasha and Olga sketched and painted continuously, creating compositions of mosaics, architecture, people on the street. They visited the great cathedrals and art museums, the galleries and monuments. «In Italy, we’ve seen that there are many different streams of mosaic,» said Natalia. «Traditional technique, modern mosaic, restoration – coming here helped us discover how broad this field really is.» In the galleries of the city center and the studios of the Accademia, one can recognize the style of a particular artist, the aesthetic of a given student. And this, in the end, is the goal for each mosaicist who comes here: not only to learn the language of mosaic, but to find one’s own voice in the medium.