Known to connoisseurs the world over is the wonderful and intricate art form known as Russian lacquer miniature. Dealers and collectors both domestic and abroad have become experts in this artistic field, able to recognize particular artists' work at a glance and can quickly determine the value of a piece. Many are so passionate about lacquer art that they fill their homes with these stunning productions from provincial Russia that feature paintings of Russian fairy and folk tales, Russian provincial life, historical figures, decorative compositions, and even iconic images. Although it has admirers throughout the world and is it gaining popularity, this art form is not generally well known.
The label "Russian lacquer miniature," although clear to some, is not entirely descriptive to the newcomer. It contains several terms, yet omits a very important one. This omitted term refers to what they are constructed out of, namely papier-mâché. These articles are crafted using a special process and are molded into boxes of every shape and size. The last term included in the catch-phrase title describes the size of the paintings that adorn them. The artists paint intricate compositions onto the lid and sometimes sides of these boxes, which can be as large as two feet square, to as small as one inch square. "Lacquer" refers not only to the special coating liquids that are used to seal the papier-mâché, and then the painting, but also to the articles themselves as a finished product. Finally, the first term, "Russian," is indicative of the unique style, history and tradition of this art form as it developed in four provincial towns of Russia. These towns are Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuy. This paper will describe in further detail the history of lacquer art in Russia, particularly its evolution within each of the aforementioned cities, the process of constructing and painting lacquer miniatures, and will discuss the current interest in and market for these unique objects.
Russian lacquer miniature sprouted from two sources. The first is the long history of icon painting in Russia, which has lent much to modern-day miniaturists, as they are called. The icon (meaning "image" in Greek") was originally developed in Egypt in the First Century AD where, in the Jaiyum Oasis, tomb portraits on wooden panels created with beeswax, or "encaustic" paints have been discovered. Christian icons originated from the Byzantine Empire, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. The early Christian artists painted on wood, and replaced the encaustic paints with tempera, which they made from water, egg yolk, and powdered pigments. This medium allowed for greater flexibility, both in design and execution (Armstrong, 7). This art form came to be extremely stylized, done according to precise rules. The icon painter had to be a good artist, but aside from artistic guidelines, he also had to be a good Christian. Because the Orthodox believe that it is possible to convey the presence of the Holy Spirit in a man by artistic means. In this respect, the role of the icon painter became similar to a priest. In bringing religion through art to the masses, the icon painter would prepare by fasting, praying and reading religious texts (Massie, 27).
Between the years 725 and 842, there arose a great controversy within the Church about whether or not icons broke the Commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image." It was decided that icons were not graven images because they did not seek to directly portray their subjects-which included saints, Christ, and the mother of God-rather, they were representations of the spiritual idea of them. It is for this reason that icons do not appear realistic. As a spiritual entity in its own right, the composition cannot be viewed from the point of view of the mortal world. It can only be viewed from the inside, and this gave rise to the use of a technique known as "inverted perspective," in which objects are viewed from the point of view of the sacred figure represented (Armstrong, 7). Thus, the shape of the face was altered-the mouth made smaller, the nose thinner-and the overall figure was elongated. This emphasized the spiritual nature of the subject, "whose eyes testified to the perfect peace of the next world" (Massie, 27).
Christianity came to Russia from the Byzantine Empire through Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who decreed that all of his subjects would abandon paganism and be baptized in 988 AD. The Russian people's adoption of Christianity was immediately followed by their adoption of Byzantine icon painting. However, Russian artists were quick to stray from the strict Byzantine style, and to develop one of their own (Riasanovsky, 129). In time, the original Greek faces became less severe, the figures became flatter and had more definite outlines, and unnecessary details were omitted. The figures became even more elongated, and a wider spectrum of colors were used (Armstrong, 9).
Following the demise of Kiev during the conquest of the Mongols, and the subsequent transfer of political and religious power to Moscow, icon painting centers and school arose in the north, namely in Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal, and in Moscow itself. It was between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries that icon painting in Russia flourished, when some of the most magnificent icons were created. Leading the movement was perhaps the most celebrated icon painter of all time, Andrey Rublev, who lived approximately from 1370-1430. One of his few remaining works, "The Trinity," displays his exquisite drawing, rhythm, harmony, and lyricism, that are executed with nominal detail. Rublev pioneered the simplification of iconography in Russia by focusing on the central figure(s), and removing additional elements that would distract from its spiritual serenity and religious importance (Riasanovsky, 130).
Following Rublev and the Moscow-based traditions was Dionysus, who lived from 1435?-1505. Both of these artists set the standard for icon paintings not only in Russia, but also in all of the Orthodox East. The icons of Dionysus are distinguished by a marvelous grace and a certain perfection. His subjects most often included the Virgin Mary, the protectress of Moscow, and the Holy Family (Riasanovsky, 130). However, Dionysus was a layman and an intellectual, and although he exclusively painted religious themes, he was vastly interested in the technical aspects of icon painting. He developed a distinctive and adventurous style all of his own (Armstrong, 9).
After Dionysus, icon painting in Russia stagnated until approximately 1580, when the Stroganov school of iconography emerged. Supported by the great merchant family, the artists of the Stroganov school pioneered a new avenue in icon painting by reducing the size of their works. It is here that we see the first emergence of miniature painting and techniques that are used today. These included adding decorative and highlighting elements in gold, the use of rich colors and bright backgrounds, and elaborate designs. Although some critics of the time believed that the Stroganov icons were "lovely and highly precious objects, if no longer works of art," these artists unknowingly pioneered a new form of art (Riasanovsky, 205).
Overpowered by foreign influences, the Stroganov school gave way to the tsar's icon painters who prevailed during the second half of the seventeenth century. They worked in the Oruzheinaia Palata, or Ministry of Arms, which originally created weapons (Riasanovsky, 205). But they developed a style of icon painting that reflected the influence of the West, and its trends toward realism in both anatomy and perspective. Simon Ushakov (1625-1668), the school's celebrated master, produced the skillful and precise icon of Christ the Ruler of the World in the cathedral of the Novodevichiy Convent in Moscow (Armstrong, 9).
This influx of Western ideas and styles led to the deterioration of icon painting as an art form in Russia. No longer infused with inspiration from above, the remaining icon painters instead had turned to the still-high demand for icons, most notably among the lower classes. The greatest demand came from those who were unable to purchase expensive and elegant icons, and thus the market determined the course of iconography in Russia. Small, inexpensive icons began to be produced in great quantity, and the once exalted trade of icon painting was reduced to a craft industry. By the mid-eighteenth century, only three major centers of Russian iconography remained, in three villages of the old Vladimir-Suzdal region-Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuy. All three villages painted commercially. Both Kholuy and Mstera were on the main trade fair routes, and produced many thousands of cheap icons per year. Palekh was more isolated, but drew many customers from the gentry and aristocracy by their extensive application of gold highlighting to the bright colors of their works. Each of these villages history will be examined in greater detail (Armstrong, 9).
While icon painting was flourishing in Russia, another art form was developing in Europe. The technique of creating articles from papier-mâché originated in Japan, China, and Persia, and first became known in Europe in the sixteenth century (Nekrasova, 5). Papier-mâché is French, literally meaning "chewed paper." It is created from cardboard that is treated, boiled and then baked to form an original material. It is as hard as wood, light, and waterproof, and can be sawed, polished, primed, and lacquered (Krestovskaya, 5). By the eighteenth century lacquer snuffboxes decorated with miniature paintings and made in England, France and Germany had become fashionable throughout Europe.
One of the greatest centers of the time was Johann Stobwasser's factory in Braunschweig. In 1795, the Russian merchant Piotr Korobov visited the Braunschweig works and was introduced to a durable material that could be mass-produced and used to create cheap and simple articles (Nekrasova, 5). Among the trends of the West that entered Russia was that of taking snuff. Although it was originally confined to the aristocracy due to its price, tobacco quickly became affordable. However the boxes which held them continued to be made from costly materials, such as ivory, tortoiseshell, porcelain, and precious metals and gems. Amidst this demand for inexpensive, mass-produced snuffboxes, Korobov returned to Russia with materials and two craftsmen from the Braunschweig factory, and within a year opened the first papier-mâché factory in Russia in the village of Danilkovo, on the outskirts of Fedoskino, in the Moscow region (Krestovskaya, 6).
The first in the Moscow region, Korobov's factory immediately began producing snuffboxes. They were simple, most often round, and decorated with specially prepared engravings, which were glued to the lids, then covered with a layer of clear varnish. Although the production of these snuffboxes would greatly increase in the following decades, the factory made most of its money initially by producing varnished papier-mâché peaks for military caps and helmets (Nekrasova, 5). This increase in capital allowed Korobov to higher more workers, purchase more materials, and expand his operations. Factory performance records kept by Korobov's daughter show that 6720 ornamented snuffboxes and 1740 plain snuffboxes were produced in 1811. That number would later grow to 12,000 snuffboxes annually (Krestovskaya, 6). Although Korobov never signed or marked his products, remaining round snuffboxes featuring engravings of portraits of the royal family, landscapes, and depictions of historical events are generally attributed to his factory (Nekrasova, 5).
Although the exact year varies from source to source, Korobov passed the factory on to his son in law Piotr Lukutin in either 1818 or 1819. Lukutin further expanded the workforce, and ensured a higher standard of artistry by issuing grants for apprentices to attend the Stroganov school, thereby increasing the range of products and appealing to the upper, middle, and lower classes. For the rich there were cigarette cases, caskets, and other objects painted with genre scenes and landscapes on the lid, which was sometimes inlaid with mother-of-pearl or gold and silver leaf. For merchants and townspeople there were articles featuring anything from reproductions of the old masters to copies of magazine illustrations. When the snuffbox fell out of favor, Lukutin concentrated on sewing boxes and tea caddies and other trays, and these were decorated with scenes of troikas (a Russian carriage or sled pulled by three horses), tea parties, village festivals, and scenes of pastoral life (Armstrong, 15).
Lukutin was sure to label his productions with the mark "F. P. L.," for Factory of Piotr Lukutin. In 1828, Lukutin was granted the privilege of stamping his works with the state emblem. Thus the double-headed eagle which was the symbol of Russia began to appear next the "F. P. L." initials (Krestovskaya, 9-10). "Lukutinsky" productions were known throughout Russia, and enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1830s and 1840s. Piotr's son Alexander took over the factory in 1843, and continued the success his father established. Although production continued throughout the 1800's, the second half of the nineteenth century saw a fall in the demand for Lukutin articles. In 1902, the last of the Lukutins died, and the factory was closed two years later (Armstrong, 15). The out-of-work craftsmen of the factory then united with a Fedoskino schoolteacher (the village of Danilkovo had merged into the village of Fedoskino) named L. Derzhavina, who studied the legal procedure for starting a producers' cooperative society, and suggested that the unemployed painters should appeal to the Moscow provincial council (Guliayev, 17). They did, and they afterwards formed the Fedoskino Labor Artel of Former Employees of the Lukutin Factory, rebuilt the workshop which had been burnt out by vandals, and resumed their trade. The subsequent history of Fedoskino lacquer art will be discussed later in this paper (Armstrong, 15).
Besides the Lukutin's, many other papier-mâché factories emerged in the surrounding areas of the Moscow region. The most notable among them was the Vishnyakov Workshop, founded by two gifted and enterprising serfs who had purchased their freedom from Count Sheremetev. Filipp and Taras Vishnyakov opened factories in Zhostovo in 1815 and in Ostashkovo in 1816 (Malakhov, 5). In no time, they too were receiving both critical and monetary rewards for their productions. The Vishnyakov miniaturists stood out for their copies of acclaimed original artwork, and for their original improvisations of provincial villages and landscapes. They put their whole soul into their compositions, and especially excelled at winter landscapes. Trees and bushes formed a backdrop and skillfully shaped stumps and branches were placed in the foreground. Metal dust was sprinkled over the paint to create luminescent snow. It was scenes such as this that formed that background to most of Vishnyakov's troika scenes (Krestovskaya, 8).
Unlike the Lukutin wares, the Vishnyakov productions were much more easily recognized, and beginning in 1865, were stamped with replicas of the gold and silver medals wont at industrial handicraft fares as their trademark. These stamps changed with each passing decade, which now allow for more precise dating of surviving pieces. It is interesting to note, however, that these two factories were closely linked throughout the nineteenth century. They competed with and influenced one another, and both techniques and craftsmen would transfer from one to the other (Krestovskaya, 8).
The techniques of making the papier-mâché boxes today have remained relatively unchanged from the days of Lukutin and Vishnyakov. Paper fibers are mixed with water to form the raw papier-mâché, which is then pressed into the desired form. (Depending on the shape of the box, instead of pressing the mass in a form, it is made with strips of papier-mâché that are pasted together around the form.) This form is then heated and dried. To give it lasting strength and to prevent fragility, the box is then boiled in linseed oil. Once the semi-produced blank papier-mâché boxes are made, they are primed and coated with varnish, then heat-dried in a special oven. After being polished, the boxes are then coated with 3 layers of lacquer, usually black on the outside and red on the inside. The boxes are again placed in an oven for drying. Following this, they are again polished and coated with 1-2 layers of transparent lacquer. At this point, they are made available to the miniature artist for painting. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, which may take up to half a year to complete. Once the painting is finished, a single layer of transparent lacquer is applied, and the papier-mâché box is again dried in an oven. The final step is to coat the box with 7-8 layers of transparent lacquer (Sunbirds, FAQ page).
Today, there are four main centers of lacquer art production in Russia. As mentioned, they are Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuy. Each of these centers is named after the small town in which they are located. Each has its own art school and factory. And although inevitably intertwined, all the villages have their own history, traditions, and style, which requires a separate review of each of them.
Although many consider Fedoskino to be the "youngest" of the lacquer art villages in prior history and tradition, it was indeed the first to create miniatures on papier-mâché. Fedoskino is unique in many ways from the other three villages. It is located just outside of Moscow on the bank of the Ucha River, whereas the other three villages are in the Ivanovo region. As previously described, it developed separate from icon painting, and as such has several inherently unique qualities. Most notably, it is the only village to paint with oils, instead of egg-tempera. The Fedoskino artists also use mother-of-pearl (both inlaid and crushed, mixed into the paints) and gold inlay much more extensively, and with rare exception, exclusively.
The use of oils broadened the range of subjects the Fedoskino artists could cover, because it allows for greater realism than egg-tempera. When the former Vishnyakov painters formed their union in May of 1910, they continued their previous painting style (Guliyaev, 21). They were closely linked to Russia's graphic art of the period, and the miniaturists mastered and copied drawings, engravings, cheap folk prints and lithographs. Illustrated periodicals became a common source of inspiration for lacquer art, and reproductions of such originals as A. A. Popov's painting "Demyan's Fish Soup," and I. I. Sokolov's "Ukrainian Woman" (Krestovskaya, 9).
Financial support was rendered to the new artel by the regional authorities and the handicraft curator S. T. Morozov, which kept the Fedoskino craft alive during these transitional years. The artel's products were displayed at the All-Russia Exhibition of Agriculture in Kiev in 1913, and won a small gold medal. Their popularity was great, as they painted not only farm life and landscape scenes, but also genre works, thus appealing to a wide variety of people (Krestovskaya, 11).
Disaster nearly struck the burgeoning Fedoskino trade with the events following the October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War. Workshops often stood idle as a result of raw material and other shortages, and there was little demand for the finished products. The new communist authorities frowned on the production of such "bourgeois" goods, and the operators of the factories lived in fear of being branded as "kulaks" and being taken away as enemies of the people (Krestovskaya, 11).
In addition, the new regime was also inhibiting the artistic talents of the artel. The cooperative was supervised by the regional authorities and experts from the Handicraft Museum, who saw them as mere craftsmen and not independent artists. The Museum sent articles to be copied, most of which was sub-standard to Fedoskino quality, and expected the artists to humbly busy themselves with the tasks (Malakhov, 10).
Several things eventually saved the artists and the art form itself. In 1923, despite the negative opinions of the regional administration, Fedoskino wares were awarded the first degree diploma for "superb artistic skill" and another diploma for "preserving the craft and high cooperation" at the All-Union Exhibition of Agricultural, Industrial and Cultural Products in Moscow. Further awards were bestowed at the Paris Exhibition of 1925 and the Milan Exhibition of 1927 (Krestovskaya, 11).
Next, a group of especially gifted painters from among the Vishnyakov miniaturists joined the artel. Their skill, especially in making landscapes, tangibly enriched the Fedoskino craft. This influx of talent was passed on to future generations, who continued their techniques and their preferred subjects (Krestovskaya, 11).
However, the most important event took place in 1931. After a thirty-year absence, a vocational school was established at the request of the old masters, with three and four year courses to train painters and modelers. By the early 1940's, graduates of the school were already among the most gifted and talented artists in the artel. Some later became the leaders that would determine the Fedoskino progress to the next two to three decades. But the school ensured that the art of papier-mâché production, and the skill of Fedoskino lacquer miniature would not be lost (Malakhov, 11).
Important Soviet political and cultural events brought major state orders to Fedoskino, including the 1937 exhibition of art centered around the 100-year anniversary of the death of Alexander Pushkin (Krestovskaya, 11-12). Through the 1930s and into the '40s and '50s, Fedoskino artists also busied themselves with copying and reinterpreting for miniature original Russian classics by Fedotov, the Makovsky brothers, Surikov, Repin, and Shishkin (Malakhov, 11). During the forties, the artists also began painting fairytale themes, which has continued even today. The use of mother-of-pearl as an inlay and in the paints was successfully used to create ethereal and magical scenes, as described in the stories. Portraiture also developed extensively, and Fedoskino artists showed a command in copying both canvas originals, and photographs for special orders (Krestovskaya, 12).
Surprisingly, World War II did little to deter the progress of Fedoskino, despite the fact that at certain points in the war, the front was a matter of miles from the village. Preserved works from Lukutin and subsequent artists were safely protected, and the Russian government issued a decision in 1943 encouraging the production of folk arts, and allocate funds for this purpose (Malakhov, 11).
Restrictions on creativity and experimentation that were imposed during the 1960s and 1970s were lifted in the late 1980s, and the Fedoskino trade emerged unscathed. Artists are now experimenting more with the form of the papier-mâché blanks, as well as with painting techniques. While looking towards the future from the Fedoskino factory, one must also gaze upon the old building of the Lukutin workshops, which are still standing (Krestovskaya, 16). It is this combination of old and new, together with its unique characteristics, that make Fedoskino many collectors' favorite lacquer miniature producer.
The other three villages, Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuy, are all located in the Ivanovo region, very close to one another. Linked by proximity and tradition, they share similar histories. Although they developed their own styles, each village has its roots in icon painting. Their characters and elements are characteristically disproportionate, and although charming, lack the stark realism of Fedoskino. They all use egg-tempera paint, and to one extent or the other, gold and silver highlighting. But Palekh deserves first mention, as it is the pioneer of lacquer art in the area.
Palekh peasants, serfs in the Buturlin estate, began painting icons in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, it had developed into a moderate-sized industry. Icon production involved a series of operations with different people responsible for preparing the panel, priming, blocking, the art work itself, gilding, making inscriptions, and finally, applying drying oil to the finished product. Certain artists specialized in landscapes and drapery, with facial features reserved for the master "face-painter" (Kotov, 9).
By the mid-eighteenth century, Palekh had become an important trading and industrial village, with icon painting at the forefront. In the nineteenth century, there were plenty of icon-painting workshops, some of which were extremely stable, while others periodically rose and fell (Pirogova, 19). During the second half of the nineteenth century, icon production had become a full-fledged craft, instead of an art form. The mass-scale spread of cheap printed icons, supported by the church itself, dealt a heavy blow to icon painting. This was combined with Western influences, which were propitiated by the Petersburg Academy of Arts, that failed to understand or value iconography as an art, and instead promoted secular themes. These two forces lead to a crisis in icon painting in Russia (Pirogova, 20).
In 1900, the Committee for Protection of Russian Icon-Painting was set up, and in 1902, set up a number of training icon workshops in an attempt save the art. Specialization was frowned on, and each student was taught to perform every task. They were also taught to draw from life and perspective, not only copying. The State's efforts, however, made matters worse. Attempts to marry the principles of academic art and the tradition of icon painting were bound to produce negative effects (Pirogova, 20).
The 1917 Revolution dealt a deathblow to icon painting in Palekh and throughout Russia. Since icons and mural paintings were no longer in demand, most masters did not know what to do. Many simply took up farming or other domestic trades (Kotov, 9). Some continued in the art world, but with little success since they lacked an experience or expertise in other mediums. Once great iconographers were now painting wooden tableware, chests, vessels, and dolls. But the cooperatives that were established immediately following the revolution all went bankrupt and were dissolved (Pirogova, 20).
In the late 1922, during the expansion of the Soviets' New Economic Policy, former icon painter from Palekh, Ivan Golikov, visited his brother-in-law in Moscow. There he saw and was fascinated by the Lukutin lacquer wares he saw in the Handicraft Museum. The artist wanted to experiment and to make something similar. He approached the directors of the museum to acquire blank papier-mâché boxes. None of these officials believed in the ability of the former icon-painter, and he was immediately refused. But Golikov was not to be denied. He found papier-mâché photographic pans in A. A. Glazunov's workshop, and decorated them with two compositions: "A Plowman" and "Adam in Paradise." The results exceeded all expectations. These first Palekh lacquer miniatures were purchased by the museum, and Palekh miniature art on papier-mâché was born (Pirogova, 20-21).
What Ivan Golikov did for the art of Palekh was invaluable. As the first miniature painter, he organized a cooperative for restoring the tradition of Old Russian painting. His energy, talent and inexhaustible imagination inspired all around him, making them believe that the new art had a future. He fused the old traditions and techniques of iconography with the new materials and themes of the rising era. The characteristics of today's Palekh miniature painting were established during Golikov's time. Black lacquer, a staple of Palekh art now, was not initially used. Instead, the artists painted on dark green, dark blue or red backgrounds. When black was adopted, the painters began to leave conventional space in almost all of their productions. This blank black backdrop emphasized the richness and brightness of the colored parts of the picture, and kept the focus on the central components of the scene while keeping details to a basic minimum (Pirogova, 21).
The other distinctive trait of Palekh miniature is the extensive use of gold in the compositions. Gold leaf is combined with gum arabic and some water to create metallic gold paint that is used applied with a single-hair brush throughout a painting for highlighting and to create detail. Gold is not only the key element of Palekh miniature technique, but also part of their continued philosophy of art. As a symbol of light, gold has an age-old tradition dating from the medieval notion of the two primary elements of life, light and dark. This is a direct influence from the days of icon painting, when Palekh masters liberally applied gold as a symbol of divine light (Pirogova, 22).
By retaining the techniques of icon painting, Palekh artists are now able to give rebirth to iconography in the now "Westernized" Russia. This resurgence is so great that it is difficult to find an artist that has not tried his or her hand at the trade. But lacquer miniature has been guaranteed a long life in Palekh, and collectors praise its bright color, stark compositions, and beautiful gold ornamentation.
The village of Mstera is also nestled in among the lands surrounding ancient Vladimir and Suzdal. For hundreds of years, its population engaged in market agriculture and traded in salt and fish. Beginning in the seventeenth century and most decisively by the mid-eighteenth century, icon painting became their chief profession (Guliayev, 158). The Mstera icon painting school established by the icon masters of the local monastery helped to spread the skill among the Mstera residents. These artisans catered to the cultural demands of the Old Believers in Russia, who preferred the early techniques of Moscow and Northern Pomor to be more ideal. Mstera icons reflect these traditions in their darkened color range, moderate use of gold, powerful liner design, and multicolor ornamentation. Icon painting in Mstera reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the icon masters were carrying out restoration work and original church mural painting in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novgorod (Dugina, 11).
The revolution had the same effect in Mstera as it did in Palekh. The "Old Russian Painting Artel" formed by the Mstera masters tried to retain local traditions by painting on wooden objects, such as salt-cellars, dishes, and dolls, but with limited financial success (Dugina, 11). Only the development of papier-mâché and insurgence of this new art form into the area saved Mstera from its eventual demise. The artists began to experiment with themes from literature, history, and folklore.
Mstera miniature art is recognizable by its characteristic use of pale tones on a light-colored background. Unlike Palekh, the Mstera artists leave no blank spaces in their composition, and the black lacquer exterior of the box is only visible on the sides or bottom of the piece. They have a certain ability to execute a charming and expressive picture within a limited space. Color palettes are more balanced, and human figures are more true-to-life than those of Palekh, yet not without a lingering sense of fantasy (Dugina, 12).
Mstera artists also went a separate direction and experimented with decorative designs. This movement was pioneered by Yevgeney Yurin, who used elements of still nature to create brilliant compositions. Bouquets of flowers, fruits or berries set against a brown, black, green, or blue background and encircled about on all sides by interlaced scrolls, starlets, spots and foliage designs became his trademark. This style was eventually called the "Yurin Ornament," and was further accentuated by a style called "blikovka zolotom" or "adding highlights of gold." Also developed by Yurin, this refers to the technique of painting thin matrix-like patterns of gold paint layered over the colors in a composition of fruit or flowers.
Mstera artists have been able to combine elements of their icon painting tradition with new styles and themes to create wondrously magnificent art. As in the earlier days, Mstera productions and artists receive awards both domestically and abroad, and Mstera miniatures are prized by collectors everywhere.
Kholuy the other village closely associated with Palekh and Mstera, and had its own icon painting tradition. But whereas Palekh produced elegant icons for the nobility, and Mstera produced strict Orthodox icons for the Old Believers, Kholuy icon painters excelled at producing plain and inexpensive icons for the masses of the lower class. Their icons were painted with noticeably simpler, more naturalistic and unconventional than the traditional style (Nekrasova, 16). For this, the Kholuy artisans came under fire from the church authorities, and were accused of departing from the canon. Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich is known to have published an edict forbidding holy icons to be painted as they were in Kholuy. Included in this document was the notation that "the people in the village of Kholuy who are not versed in Scriptures make holy icons without any reason or fear." The Church too demanded stricter compliance to icon painting rules, and would regularly summon Kholuy iconographers to the Synod for a test of their skills. This control lasted until the 1917 Revolution (Soloviova, 159).
The Revolution took a much harder toll on Kholuy than the other villages. Not possessing such a highly developed decorative technique, the majority of the Kholuy artisans followed habitual lines of using oils on linen cloth, and were in fact encouraged by the Arts and Crafts Research Institute Council to follow realistic painting traditions of the second half of the nineteenth century, and to copy them onto rugs. This trend was dominant until 1953. But gradually the Kholuy craftsmen took their cue from their neighbors in Palekh and Mstera and began trying their hand at lacquer miniature (Soloviova, 163).
However, the creative element of Kholuy painting was vastly dampened by the Soviet system. The greater part of its output was devoted to portraits of Party leaders and pompous official events and scenes glorifying the Socialist ideals (Nekrasova, 16). But early lacquer works experimented with fairy tale themes, and were begun as early as 1939. The Kholuy artists continued to work with fairytales, and following the Thaw of the 1970s, Kholuy has become the leading producer of fairytales compositions (Soloviova, 173-175).
Works from Kholuy are known for their tight color palettes, relying on one primary set of tones within the composition. Gold is used only slight for highlighting. Rather decorative borders and filigree have become their forte, and some artists' work is immediately recognizable by their intricate ornamentation. Because Kholuy has personified the magical elements of Russian folklore, its lacquer miniatures have come to be cherished for their imaginative compositions and whimsical characters.
One interesting note about the time of glasnost concerned the renewal of religious painting among the villages of Palekh, Mstera and Kholuy. The Russian people had again begun to celebrate such holidays as Christmas and Easter, and these articles became cherished and pleasant gifts. However, difficulties arose when sending new items to a customer. The production managers wrestled with the problem of how to label a product such as an Easter egg in the official papers. To call it an "Easter egg," as it really was, was still not possible. For this reason, Easter eggs became "objects of ellipsoid form" in the documentation accompanying many lacquer art productions.
The themes of lacquer miniature compositions are relatively uniform among the four villages. The only exception is that Fedoskino creates more portraits and landscapes, which lend themselves well to the medium of oil paints. Otherwise, Russian fairytales are by far the most common and popular theme for the miniaturists. More often than not, these are the tales made famous by Alexander Pushkin-Ruslan and Ludmila, The Golden Cockerel, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Magic Golden Fish, and Mermaids. Other popular folk tales include the Snowmaiden, Alyonushka, Tales of the Malachite Casket, The Humpbacked Little Pony, The Scarlet Flower, Vasilisa the Beautiful, Sadko, and the Tale of Prince Ivan, the Fire Bird, and the Grey Wolf.
Besides fairytales, all of the villages commonly depict various scenes of the city of Suzdal. This town, just north of Vladimir, is part of the Vladimir-Suzdal museum reserve for early Russian art. Wonderfully preserved, this ancient village boasts a landscape of over 60 historic churches and buildings with some dating as early as 13th century (Sunbirds, Suzdal page). With such incredible landmarks, it is quite an inspiration to the miniature artists, who paint entire landscapes, as well as individual churches.
Suzdal is often, although not always, associated with another common theme in lacquer miniature, the troika. Painted in both summer and winter settings, the troika has come to be known as a symbol of Russia. The troika was immortalized in the unfinished novel "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol when he wrote, "And art not thou, my Russia, soaring along even like a spirited, never-to-be-outdistanced troika? The road actually smokes under thee, the bridges thunder, everything falls back and is left behind thee! The witness of thy passing comes to a deep stop, dumbfounded by this God's wonder! Is it not a streak of lightning cast down from heaven?"
Historical figures and events are also commonplace. Dmitry Donskoy and the battle of Kulikovo, Stepan Razin, Alexander Nevsky, Ilya Muromets, and Andrey Rublev are commonly depicted. Scenes of pastoral life are still among the favorites, as are landscapes and cityscapes. Although rarely painted now, compositions glorifying the Soviet state were popular in the 1950's and 1960's. Other paintings have included animals, depictions of literary works, and reproductions of famous canvas paintings. In essence, if the artist can imagine it, he or she can paint it.
Today, these artists' trade is again booming, and is continuing to rise with people continuing to discover the magic of lacquer miniature. Even during the days of Communism and the Iron Curtain, papier-mâché articles made their way out of Russia as souvenirs for visitors. With the strong past created by the Lukutin and Vishnyakov miniatures, the new form of the art was popular in the domestic market, It also enjoyed fame abroad in expositions and art shows outside of Russia, but it was nonetheless inaccessible to the majority of consumers. When glasnost and perestroika were introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, entrepreneurs from Moscow ventured out to the villages en masse to buy lacquer boxes and then sold them to visiting tourists. Arbat Street became a famous destination for purchasing souvenirs, and business expanded. Regular visitors began to distinguish high- and low-quality pieces, and collectors from abroad were able to come to Russia seeking new additions to their collections. The entrepreneurs were busy supplying this new demand for both inexpensive souvenirs and high-priced collectibles. They would regularly travel to the villages, and would purchases boxes from the artists with foreign currency, or would barter them for hard-to-get items such as Levi's jeans, VCRs, and certain food items. Today, Arbat Street is filled with lacquer boxes and souvenirs of every kind (Sunbirds, History page).
The export of lacquer boxes also began immediately following the end of Communism. Russian expatriates (some of them art professors, some of them former Arbat Street dealers) in the United States saw a tremendous market for lacquer miniatures. Well established dealers are currently located in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and even Hawaii. Their galleries and stores import the boxes and then offer them to connoisseurs in the States.
The invention of the Internet and subsequent development of E-commerce has not been overlooked by lacquer boxes dealers. Able to reach an infinitely larger market than a single store, they have set up permanent residence on the World Wide Web. Some of the web sites at first glance seem to be individuals who, although they appreciate the art, only provide a location to purchase items. Others have obviously devoted extensive time and resources in creating a complete online shopping experience, and feature not only images of the boxes in their inventory, but also text descriptions of their wares, biographies of featured artists, and pages with the stories depicted on the boxes.
With each lacquer box sold, the popularity of this delicate art form increases. There are collectors who follow the work of particular artists, and as with other genres, have become experts in their chosen field. From first glance, one can't help but become enchanted with this historically rich form of art.
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