Walking through Vladimir Blagonadezhdin’s Venice home is like strolling through a museum of Byzantine art. A gold-leaf painting of the infant Jesus, resting in the bosom of Mother Mary, hangs in the hall. In the living room, a red-cloaked Michael the Archangel fights evil. Followers of Orthodox Christianity pray before these icons, believing they speak directly to the divine.
“It’s theology in pictures,” says Blagonadezhdin. Once a prominent Russian architect, he didn’t buy the icons. He painted them, beginning in the Soviet Union in 1970, when his art could have destroyed his life and landed him in prison. “It was criminal art,” he says.
Now considered a master iconographer, with paintings in museums, churches and private collections, Blagonadezhdin lives a quiet life in Venice with his wife and 12-year-old son. Few people outside the region’s Eastern European community know about him.
From a well-educated family, Blagonadezhdin says he became an architect because his grandmother thought it would be a good profession. He went on to build hospitals, apartment buildings and an international test center for agricultural machines. His work gave him freedom to travel, which is how he learned about iconography. He started collecting icons and books about the art form, which disappeared from the Soviet Union under communism.
“It hypnotized me,” Blagonadezhdin says. “Beautiful art needs no explanation.”
The government seized and destroyed icons or sold them abroad; priests and other believers hid them. Blagonadezhdin started spending vacations searching for icons in rural villages. He returned home with damaged icons and restored them, practicing on fragments of wood and experimenting with his craft.
As restrictions loosened under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a Canadian foundation invited Blagonadezhdin to come to the country to display his collection. He spent a few months there giving lectures and painting openly for the first time. When he returned to the Soviet Union, he vowed that if he had the chance to go to Canada again, he wouldn’t return home. “There was nothing there for me,” he says.
As the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Blagonadezhdin again received an invitation to go to Canada. He told no one of his plans, but at the train station where his family came to say goodbye, Blagonadezhdin locked eyes with his grandmother and in that instant both knew they would never see each other again. In Canada, Blagonadezhdin helped museums with their collections of iconography and became an instructor at the Vancouver Academy of Art.
Blagonadezhdin has conducted art workshops all over the world, including in the U.S., where he met Patty Martinovich, his wife. They lived in Canada until a few years ago. His in-laws live in Venice and the couple moved here to be closer to them.
They live in a Mediterranean-style house a block from Venice Beach, where the artist’s home studio looks like a 19th-century apothecary, with rows of small jars filled with powdery-looking natural pigments that he buys from all over the world.
On Fridays he teaches iconographic painting to about a dozen students at the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Venice. “We are so lucky to have someone of his caliber here in Venice,” says Father Stephen Lourie, who paints with the group. “He’s world-class.”
Iconographers believed they were mere instruments of the Holy Spirit and so traditionally did not sign their work. Blagonadezhdin does put his signature on his work, but it’s like a Where’s Waldo search to find it.
Blagonadezhdin believes the spirit moves through him as he paints. “You’re the conductor of a huge orchestra.”