Painter of the Popes
National Catholic Register
by Joseph Pearce
World-renowned artist Igor Babailov discusses his vocation to depict the beauty and truth of God’s creation, especially the human form.

Igor Babailov is one of the most sought-after portrait painters of our time. He is a world-renowned master of painting and drawing and is an academician of the Russian Academy of Art (established in 1757). Moreover, he is acknowledged by the Vatican curator as a maestro for his portraits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

His officially commissioned portraits of world leaders include presidents, prime ministers and royalty, as well as three popes, one of whom is now a canonized saint. He has been interviewed by world news media and has been featured in major print and electronic news media, including: CNN, ABC, the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Vatican news media and EWTN.  

His works are in important museums and collections, including: the Vatican Museums, the Mount Vernon Museum and Estate, presidential libraries, British Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin and the West Point Museum.

JP:   You are known as a defender of classical Realism. Could you please explain exactly what classical Realism is and how it differs from other visions of art and aesthetics?

IB:   Although classical Realism is not really an official term or movement in the history of art, in my mind, it is the kind of contemporary Realism that stands far beyond photography. Nowadays, due to the lack of art education in schools — including, unfortunately, in fine-art programs — a Realistic painting may often be compared to a photograph, and students would even be encouraged to copy photos. But what is a photograph? The photographic image captures only a second of a lifetime: “Say, ‘Cheese,’ and you’ll freeze.” So it may capture a “Kodak moment,” but it may not capture the person or the essence of the subject. A camera is a tool that “sees” and takes everything (what is important and not important at all) with absolute indifference, often distorting the subject, depending on the angle and light that was used to take the picture. Besides, what is the point of copying a ready-made image, produced by a “heartless” tool with no ability to feel, think or select?

Realism, in its classical sense, has a foundation based on the teachings of the “Great Masters” and relies not on the camera, but on the artist’s high artistic skill and ability to draw freehand from life, visual memory or imagination. Such skill may only be acquired through a proper art education and enormous practice of working in direct communication with nature, which then enables the artist to depict creation in its truth and beauty, directly from life and without alterations. This is why Realism in the tradition of the great Renaissance masters is the only kind of art that requires a high artistic skill to produce.

JP:   I’m a great admirer of your painting Resurrection of Realism. Could you please explain the imagery and the vision of this work?

IB:   The idea for this work came to me as a response to the growing hunger for beauty in contemporary visual arts. This painting portrays an image of an innocent, angelic-looking child symbolizing Realism, surrounded by dark Modernism. Modernism is represented in the painting by primitively ugly creatures from Picasso’s Guernica, which took me not more than five minutes of my time to draw, as, obviously, no skill in drawing was required to do that. The painting depicts a moment when the film of darkness starts to heat up and bubble from a volcano-like heat beneath, and a beautiful Child of Realism — which was kept for many decades under the darkness of Modernism — finally breaks through the ugliness into our life and fresh air. I called this piece Resurrection of Realism.

This work also carries a message of the mission of Realism vs. Modernism. If Realism glorifies human form as the most perfect in God’s creation, Modernism intentionally breaks it — which raises the question of who Modernism really represents.

JP:   I was deeply moved by the large canvas depicting the moment when your grandfather was arrested and subsequently tortured and executed by the NKVD. Can you please explain what this work depicts, what it means to you, as well as about your research into the KGB files?

IB:   There was a tragic period in Russian history in the mid-20th century, known as Stalin’s political repressions, when an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens were killed without cause, under suspicion of espionage, treason, etc. They were labeled “the enemies of the people” and sentenced to death. Those were terrible times, when one could go to jail simply for telling a joke about Stalin or expressing a political view somewhat different from the government’s. Although Soviet propaganda portrayed life in the Soviet Union as always prosperous and happy, people lived in fear, and everyone kept in mind at all times the unspoken expression that “Even walls have ears.” 

The large painting My Grandmother Told Me …1937 was my graduation work from the Surikov Academy that I defended my master of fine arts degree with. It shows the typical aftermath scene of the arrest, when the person would be taken by the NKVD (later called the KGB) in the middle of the night. They would never return home, because they would be sent to die in a concentration camp or murdered in prison. That is what also happened to my grandfather.

He lived in Moscow and worked in the Ministry of the Soviet Railroads. Upon his arrest in 1937, no one saw him again or knew what exactly had happened to him or his whereabouts. In 2007, I was searching on the Internet with the Russian search engine Yandex, and his name came up in the KGB archives, which were recently made public. There was his personal information, the date of his arrest (Aug. 8, 1937), the date of his being charged with “counterrevolutionary activity” (Oct. 23, 1937) and the date of his execution by shooting (Oct. 25, 1937).

The secret police of the NKVD were known for their notorious methods of interrogation and torture. Looking at the time between his arrest and execution, it tells me that he was tortured for two and a half months before they killed him. As it said in the archive, his place of burial was Butovo. Having lived in Moscow for many years, I have never heard of such a cemetery and referred again to the Internet for help. I found that Butovo was a field south of Moscow, which was announced to the public by the NKVD as a restricted area for shooting exercises. At nighttime, the NKVD would bring people by hundreds (usually in the cube vans marked as “Meat” or “Bread”), let them run into the field and shoot them in the back with machine guns. Today, this mass grave is sometimes called “Russia’s Golgotha.”

JP:   Your portrait of Pope John Paul II is greatly admired. Am I correct in saying it now hangs in the Vatican? Can you explain why you chose to depict the Holy Father surrounded by children and young people? Why does this vision of his legacy and pontificate speak so potently to you?

IB:   Believe, the portrait of Pope John Paul II, was commissioned to me on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his pontificate and in commemoration of World Youth Day. Following the unveiling of the painting in New York, Montreal and Toronto, it was presented to the Holy Father in the Vatican — and until his last days remained with him in the papal apartment. Before he passed away, he decreed that Believe should be displayed in the Vatican’s Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence.

This portrait painting is more than a portrait, in the traditional sense. It represents the eternal values of humanity, such as faith, love, mercy and strength through suffering. In Believe, they are portrayed symbolically through the images of the youth surrounding Pope John Paul II, known as “The People’s Pope,” who also established the famous World Youth Day celebration.

The young people in the painting represent our future. According to Pope John Paul II, the youth are the salt of the earth. Regardless of our geographical and religious backgrounds, we are all children of God. As a family, we must be together in our souls and values.

When I painted this portrait in 2003, the pope was already very ill, aging and battling advanced Parkinson’s disease. I have been asked why I portrayed him younger than he appeared at the time. The answer is simple: Most of our life, we are young and energetic, and we are old only for a short period of time. Therefore, my ultimate goal and aim as an artist was to portray Pope John Paul II the way he would be remembered: energetic, down to earth, much loved and close to people.

JP:   In contrast, your portrait of Benedict XVI (also in the Vatican) has the Holy Father depicted in solitary prayer with a statue of Christ behind him. Can you explain why you selected this particular setting?

IB:   Every individual is different from one another and has his own distinct characteristic features; so do different pontiffs. The idea of every fine art portrait is to portray the person’s inner world and individuality. Each portrait requires a specific approach in its concept and composition, characterizing that particular person. Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI was also close to people and much loved by them. He was known as a theological scholar as well. The portrait composition highlights this latter feature.

As an artist with classical formation, I have to make sure that it is very comfortable for the viewer’s eye to travel throughout the painting and to understand it along the way, so I use my knowledge of composition and expertise to lead the viewer’s eye in that direction. On the painting, which I entitled with the words from Scripture — The Way, the Truth and the Life — the pope is depicted in profile wearing Easter-color garments, with his hands in prayer pointing to the sculpturesque figure of the risen Christ. Starting to observe the painting this way, the viewer then also notices the papal coat of arms, symbolizing Benedict’s papacy, above a glimpse of San Pietro’s dome in the background. Then the eye moves through the images of three candles that symbolize the Holy Trinity and shed light on the open Bible below. Having made a full circle through the entire canvas, the eye continues its journey around the painting and its details.

The painting was unveiled to the Holy Father in the Easter season and upon his official visit to the United States. Providentially, the theme of his speech to the thousands of spectators at Yankee Stadium was also “The Way, the Truth and the Life.” My portrait of Pope Benedict XVI is in the collection of the Vatican; and in 2010, the pope personally selected my painting of him to represent his papacy in the international “Vatican Splendors” museum tour, where it hung alongside the works of Michelangelo, Bernini, Giotto and other masters of the Renaissance. 

JP:   You are currently working on a portrait of Pope Francis. Can you tell us something about your work on this portrait and the vision of the man and his papacy you are trying to visualize?

IB:   The portrait of Pope Francis is my third papal portrait for the Vatican, after those of Pope John Paul II, now a saint, and Pope Benedict XVI. As part of my portrait procedure, I requested to meet with the pontiff. The Vatican provided me with a special sitting in very close proximity to the Pope, so I could draw my sketches — studies of likeness, character and personality — in preparation for the portrait. In a portrait process, the first important step is the portrait concept, which predetermines a certain composition most appropriate for the portrait subject. Being next to Pope Francis, like in my meetings with the two previous popes, I noticed a common feature they all shared: Just like the other popes, he radiated a similar, incredibly powerful “holy” energy; and similar to them, he had his own very humble demeanor.

As an individual, Pope Francis is, of course, also different from his predecessors. His portrait will show his uniqueness, as well as incorporating a number of symbols characterizing his personality and his pontificate. Since a great portrait painting is more than just an outer likeness, it explores the inner world of the person, his ideals, values and beliefs. It is a visual record that tells a story for future generations to remember, refer to and treasure.

JP:   Do you see Impressionism as a break with classical Realism? If so, why and how? If not, why not and how not?

IB:   Impressionism was certainly a drastic turning point in the history of art. Although, it leaned on the side of the representation of beauty, it broke away from the steady development of classical principles in art, the principles that were carefully gathered and built into a solid foundation by the masters of the Renaissance for centuries. In the chase for capturing just an “impression,” the artists of the Impressionist movement began to look lightly at many technicalities and ignore such a fundamental part of nature as its tonal values, which have always existed. For example, if we take a black-and-white photograph of any Renaissance painting, it looks as strong and powerful as it does in color. The result is quite disappointing when we take a black-and-white picture of an attractively colorful Impressionistic painting — let’s say by Claude Monet, when the “beautiful red sun” suddenly becomes a dull, gray dot — as the tonal value of this source of light was painted darker in the painting than it was in actual reality.

“Color first, then tonal value” became a distinct feature of Impressionism, and, although the soft and pleasing colors of Impressionistic paintings attract the general public, it does not, unfortunately, represent creation in its whole truth, full harmony and deep complexity.

Moreover, Impressionism’s bringing of “simplicity” into the representation of nature opened the doors to such movements in art as Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Primitivism and many other kinds of “isms” that break and mutilate the form and do not require any skills or education to produce. Sadly, these kinds of art also mutilate the human form, the most perfect of God’s creation. A majority of contemporary artists do this because they simply cannot draw; others do it intentionally. However, they all know they can get away with such actions and be excused, justified and protected by today’s shield of relativism in art. They also know that, whatever they do, they would still be called “artists” even though some can’t even draw a stick man.

I believe that being an artist is a profession given by God. Therefore, it is every artist’s moral obligation to glorify the beauty of creation and represent it without alterations — not the other way around. To achieve this, the highest artistic skill is an absolute must, and it can only be achieved through proper and uncompromised art education, based on the classical foundation. 

The article was published in the National Catholic Register on Oct. 28, 2014.

Igor Babailov's Portrait Studio is in Nashville, Tennessee. For inquiries, use the CONTACT page.


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Resurrection of Realism
My Grandmother Told Me...1937.
Pope Benedict XVI