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The history of Russian Lacquer Miniature by Marie Nekrasova.

Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui are today known to connoisseurs the world over for their inimitable lacquer miniatures. Deeply rooted in history, this art form, along with traditional folk art, icon-painting, and the secular paintings of the mid-18th to late 19th centuries, is among the most splendid and distinctive of Russia's artistic achievements.
The term lacquer is applied not only to the special coating liquids but also to the articles so treated, whether they are made of wood, metal or papier-mâché. The technique originated in Japan. China and Persia and oriental lacquer work first became known in Europe in the 16th century. By the 18th century lacquer snuff-boxes decorated with miniatures and made in England, France and Germany had become fashionable. One of the greatest European centres for such items was Johann Stobwasser's manufactory in Braunschweig.
In 1795 the Russian merchant Piotr Korobov visited the Braunschweig works and his enterprising mind quickly grasped that cheap and simple articles could be mass-produced using this very durable combination of materials. Within a year he had opened his own factory on the outskirts of Fedoskino. At first it employed just over twenty people. It made most of its money from manufacturing the varnished peaks of military caps and helmets. However, the factory also became famous for its simple, most often round, snuff-boxes. Specially prepared engravings were glued to the lids of these boxes, and were sometimes delicately colored and covered with a translucent layer of varnish. Most frequently the engravings depicted battles involving Russian troops, other important events of the recent past, portraits and landscapes.
The "golden age" of the Russian lacquers would begin after 1819 when the factory passed into other hands: Korobov was succeeded by his son-in-law Piotr Lukutin and the latter by his own son Alexander.
The originality of the scenes depicted and the high quality of these articles made the Fedoskino masters so famous that in 1828 Lukutin was given the right to insert the Russian coat of arms and his own surname on the boxes. (Usually his name was not given in full on the label but only his initials.) By this time there were already about 100 employees at the factory. It had its own vocational school where the peasants were taught this craft and a museum that included lacquer miniatures from Braunschweig, painted porcelain, and miniatures on ivory and metal.
The most import-ant article of production remained the snuffbox. But now it was made in a variety of shapes - ovals, rectangulars and more complex forms. The box fitted snugly in the hand and its edges were smoothly rounded. All the minor details such as the rim of the lid and the delicate frame around the miniature were finely delineated. Inside the box might be separated into several compartments and covered with a colored or black lacquer, or even with tin leaf. Certain snuff-boxes had an exterior ornamental decoration imitating tartan patterns, or tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, ivory and mahogany. The out-put of the factory was divided between single items which were commissioned or used as original models for copying, and the ready-for-sale articles that were based on already existing models. Most were decorated with depictions of domestic everyday scenes, but there were also historical and mythological subjects, landscapes and portraits. It was a particular feature of the Lukulin lacquers that these decorative scenes were not drawn from life but instead from the drawings, paintings or engravings of other artists. The creative variation on a single model and its new treatment in accordance with the decorative task became an essential part of the art of the classic Fedoskino miniature, linking it with the traditional folk arts. There was a constant danger, however, that the process would degenerate into mechanical copying. The creative element here lay in the individual reworking of the original composition, line and coloring, which were adapted to the form and proportions of the decorated object, and to the possibilities afforded by the material and the technique of lacquer painting.
The pictures were produced by the application of several layers of oil paints, thus following the techniques that became wide-spread in the classical painting and miniatures of late-18th and early-19th-century Russia. One after another, up to four layers were added and worked over: ground tinting, outlines, successive translucent layers and, finally, highlights. Each in turn dried and was sealed with lacquer. In certain places mother of pearl was cut into the surface of the object, layers of gold leaf were glued to it and powdered silver dusted on. The richness of texture was attained by an alternation between thickly painted colors covered with a translucent top layer, and "through-painted" areas where one colors shone through another. It was this technique that gave the Lukutin pictures their distinctive succession of brilliant and subdued, matt and shining, translucent and opaquely dense sections of the painted surface.
The themes and subjects depicted to a large extent depended on demand. And the demand came, naturally, from a variety of social strata, ranging from the gentry and the merchant class to the urban population as a whole. Hence there were mythological and allegorical subjects, copies of Western and Russian painters, scenes from rural life and commissioned portraits. Scenes from Russian life were in great demand, both abroad and within Russia itself. The subjects chosen were very varied, and together made up an entire encyclopedia of rural life: "Rest during mowing", "Girl with a yoke", "Spinner", "Tea-drinking", "Returning from the fair", "Grandfather and child", "Harvest", "Sharp-ending the scythe" and "Round Dance". The most favorite subjects were rides in a troika, folk dances, fortune-telling, card-playing, homely houses of the landed gentry, finely dressed young gentlewomen engaged in embroidery etc., hunting scenes, views of St Petersburg and Moscow, and depictions of horse-cab drivers, merchants and shop assistants. These varied and detailed scenes of everyday life were often derived from the paintings or drawings of famous professional artists. Constantly reworked at Fedoskino in the spirit of the traditional peasant arts, they were adapted to express popular and idealized notions of life. In the work of these peasant masters reality was trans-formed, acquiring the optimism and vitality of their own festive celebration of life. This accounts for the rhythmic completeness of the whole as repeated in the miniature. It explains the picture like nature of the artistic image which is idealized and abstracted from specific circumstance and detail. Hence, also the striving of the Lukutin masters to avoid any drama. Given the slightest opportunity, the subject of the majority of copied miniatures was simplified and displaced by landscape. The latter provided an emotional setting that echoed the mood of the figures depicted. Landscape evolved as an independent theme in the Fedoskino miniatures. The unity of man and nature was a fundamental theme in the art of lacquer miniatures. The individual blended with the landscape, and this found its expression in the use of palette, rhythm and interplay of color. This quality and the intimately lyrical nature of the Lukutin paintings on small domestic objects (not only snuffboxes but also plates, boxes, glasses etc), was linked to a way of viewing the world nurtured by mediaeval Russian artistic traditions and the 18th and early 19th century paintings of Borovikovsky and Venetsianov. It was this that explains the flourishing of such genres as the miniature and the informal portrait. Yet even when the Fedoskino painting comes closest to the professional arts it still retains an inimitable originality thanks to its lies with folklore.
In the popular mind, the colorful elegance of the garments worn by the inhabitants of the gentry estates and the splendor of their formal outings were identified with ideals of beauty, truth and liberty. They blended and mingled with poetic and fairy tale images of peasant life that were far from the realities of everyday existence.
This, perhaps, is why scenes from works by the painter Roussel ("Grandmother's tales", "Russian folk dance" and "The happy family") were so freely and vigorously borrowed and adapted. These idyllic compositions first became widely known as engravings. As lacquer miniatures they were painted in bright and pure colors. The dominance of vermilion, used to denote the main image, and the intense individual colors gave them a joyful, song like resonance. Lively depictions of summer and winter troikas were also very much in tune with the spirit of the miniatures. Original works by professional artists, and especially A. O. Orlovsky's drawings of troikas, received a new decorative and figurative treatment in the lacquers of the Lukutin Masters. Lithographs of Orlovsky's troikas were very popular among the peasantry a phenomenon comparable to that of the Russian drawing-room romance: once it had left the gentry estate, it became a part of folk culture.
The distinctive features of the Fedoskino style of illustration in its classical. Lukutin Workshop, period derive from a creative synthesis. The images and subjects of professional Russian painting of the first half of the 19th century were combined with the ideals and artistic methods of traditional Russian folk art. The original models were progressively altered. The subject was simplified, the symmetry and enclosed circular bounds of the composition were intensified, while the palette was restricted and the image, idealized. The result was the creation of a quite different and self-sufficient type of art that reflected the tastes and conceptions of both the gentry and large sections of the urban population. Among them were the lower middle classes, the merchants and related social groups and. of course, the peasant masters of the Fedoskino works themselves.
By the mid 19th century about one thousand peasants were already engaged in producing lacquer miniatures. The world still retained its wholeness in the popular imagination. However, towards the end of the century the artistic quality of the lacquers declined noticeably. In 1904 the Lukutin works closed, following the death of its last owner. Six years later the "Fedoskino Guild of Former Masters of the Lukutin Works" was established. And into the 1930s the old artists would preserve the glory of their craft and try to pass it on to the young. As the years passed, though, the traditions and skills of their trade were irrecoverably lost. The mass output of Fedoskino rarely rose above the average in quality. The exceptions were the landscape and still life genres where outstanding masters with their own distinctive artistic styles continued lo work (A.G.Vishnyakov. V.S.Borodkin and A.I.Leznov).
The Palekh school of lacquer miniatures appeared in the 1920s and was followed, in the 1930s, by those of Mstera and Kholui. The work at Fedoskino served as an example to them and, to some extent, provided a model in the preparation of lacquer items on papier-mâché. Yet these three related schools, located in the area of the mediaeval Vladimir-Suzdal principality, shared one fundamental stylistic trait that distinguished them from Fedoskino in the Moscow region.
At heart they represented a direct and creative continuation of the traditional artistic techniques used in Russian icon-painting, both in its mediaeval and later forms. These were then applied, with great tact, mainly lo themes from fairy-tales, ballads and historical events, or to scenes from contemporary life stylized in the same spirit. This art was the work of hereditary professional icon-painters who found themselves unemployed as a result of the persecution of the church and of Christians after the 1917 Revolution. Wonderful artists like Ivan Golikov, Alexander Kotukhin, Ivan Zubkov, Nikolay Zinoviev, Ivan Bakanov, Ivan Markichev and Ivan Vakurov had to master the art of making papier-mache and lacquer boxes and (most important of all) learn how to prepare and polish the lacquer, since the Fedoskino masters did not share many of these secrets with others. While the basic technologies in the treatment of papier-mache were the same, the painting in Palekh was quite distinctive. There, as indeed in Mstera and Kholui. It was not oil-paint but an egg-based tempera that was used. The bright localized colors were applied to the white guidelines on the black background. The typically delicate flowing line, and abundance of golden lines followed a definite system and order, the ornament was also drawn in gold.
A deep feeling for the native Russian landscape and nature pervades these paintings. This quality was well developed in the Palekh miniatures and is particularly to be felt in the vigorous images of hunts and battles. Ivan Golikov, who did more than any other lo develop the art of Palekh, painted unsurpassed works on such subjects. His compositions seethe with mention, and the lids of the boxes decorated in his passionate and life-affirming style glow with all the colors of the rainbow.
Depending on the effect they wished to achieve, the Palekh masters applied their paint in thick or almost translucent layers, thereby creating an exceptionally rich variety of tonal effects. Their sense and awareness of each different object, a feeling they brought with them from icon-painting, provided the artistic framework behind the Palekh miniatures. The singing lines and musical repetition of the elements in the composition trans-formed the depiction into a delicate pattern that gave shape to the smooth and shining surface of the black lacquer. The Palekh masters under stand the painted area to have not only form but mass. This led to the predominance of the black background and the lack of any ornamental frame (which would appear later in Mstera miniatures) so that the miniature merges with the box or other article to form a single object. Gold was applied with a fine brush making the form glow, and was used to indicate leaves on trees, the outlines of hills, architecture and ornamental details of the compo-sition. The Palekh masters inherited from mediaeval Russian artists the idea that paint was a precious material. The mediaeval Russian method of a gradual shading from dark to light was used to accentuate the landscape, gives a special nuance to hills, water and palaces, and created an enchanting delight with its tenderly flowing tones that add a richness to the painted surface. With the addition of gold the painting was completed and then sealed with lacquer.
Nature was also delicately and perceptively depicted in these miniatures. In the works of Zubkov we find an elegance of composition, and a vitality of line and its flowing continuous rhythm, combined with a striking directness of expression. His pictures of village life are filled with calm, silence and meditation. The effect of depth in his compositions is created by the existence of several parallel planes of depiction. The glittering blue of the sky may be sensed in the soft golden paint on its black velvet lacquer background. In Palekh miniatures the sky is never literally depicted: the black background has not been painted in and neither is the horizon defined.
The decorative structure of the Palekh miniature reflected the artists' deep understanding of folk song. Whether we look at the complex interplay of rhythms in the miniature, the mingling lines of its figures or the consonance of blocks of color and depths of field, echoes of Russian folksongs can be heard. Formerly, icons based on subjects from religious songs and hymns were painted in Palekh. In the lacquer miniatures the song enabled the painted image to acquire a musical and rhythmical structure. The local masters particularly liked to illustrate certain songs: "Down Mother Volga", "We have sown and we have relied our flax", "I harvested my strip of land", and "See where the bold troika flies". The artists deep feeling for song and melody were reflected in their artistic treatment of the miniature.
Again it was Ivan Golikov who painted the most outstanding works of this genre. Both musical and poetic echoes can be found in his miniatures. His interpretation of the mediaeval Russian classic "Lay of lgor's Host" is a work of genius. A distinctive and expansive rhythm conveys the determined spirit of the Russian warriors who had come to defend their motherland. The color blue in this series is always threatening. Blue flashes of lightning rend the clouds on the morning of the battle at the Kayala river; Svyatoslav sees a blue wine containing deadly poison in his dream; and the werewolf Vseslav is shrouded in blue mist. Golikov makes extensive use of this symbolic meaning of the color, especially when depicting the eclipse of the sun over the heads of lgor's army.
The artists of Mstera also began their work by focusing on landscapes. They grew, like Palekh, from the icon-painting tradition. And here also a lyrical element finds its way into the epic structure of the miniature painting.
The Mstera "Proletarian Art" Guild of Lacquer Painters was established in 1931. It brought together masters of the craft who in the past had been icon-painters (N.P.Klykov, A.I.Bryagin, A.F.Kotyagin, I.A.Serebryakov, B.V.Yurin and others). From the outset the Mstera guild had an export department.
As in Palekh, scenes of peaceful labor, hunting scenes and festive celebrations serves) as the basis for the revival of the art of miniature painting. There are none of the fantastic Palekh mountains or trees in the Mstera miniatures. They are replaced by sky-blue and pink hills covered with woods and groves, and rivers and lakes that shine in the sunlight and radiate back light and sunshine. In the art of Palekh line was considered as important as color; in Mstera, from the very beginning, there was a preference for a more picturesque approach. If there was a tendency in Palekh miniatures to develop and unfold a narrative and symbolic image, then in Mstera the trend was more to detailed depiction. The Mstera miniature has a colored ground, moist often of light blue or ochre. The artist immediately conceives his image as part of an enclosed world. The miniature, restricted within its frame and ornament, gazes back at the viewer as though seen through a show-window. The palette in the Mstera miniature, we should add, is not based on the use of contrasts. It varies from cool silvery-blue to a warm and golden reddish-ochre. The surface seems filled with light and air while the individuals depicted against this background seem lo be signs or symbols of nature itself.
In the works of Klykov, Bryagin, Kotyagin and Serebryakov the relation between the image and stylistic character of the painting and the range of subjects and themes they choose is of great interest. For the most part these are pastoral, hunting, battle or chase scenes and, to a lesser extent, landscapes. The radiantly bright and lively colors give the impression that something real is being depicted. This contrasts particularly with the works of Palekh. If we look more closely, however, then we can see how the distant and wide landscapes of the Mstera miniature strive lo immediately embrace the entire world. The structuring of space, which may he compressed or expanded, is defined by a movement that seems unending. A work like "Fruit gathering", for instance, becomes a kind of tableau, and its epic scale endows it with the quality of a fable or an allegory. This elevated structure of emotions and artistry in the painted narration distinguishes the Mstera miniature from the stylistics of naive or primitive art, though Mstera was also a centre for the mass production of woodprints or lubok and not just associated with icon-painting and restoration of mediaeval paintings.
The fantastic forms of the stylized, infinitely delicate still-life studies of E.V.Yurin and the extravagant flower compositions of V.S.Korsakova represent an interesting and novel trend in the development of the art of Mstera.
A distinctive and original artistic approach is demonstrated in the works of I.N.Morozov. He has a special sense of the oneness of the world, a delicate feeling for color, and makes skilful use of decorative elements when creating complex compositions involving numerous figures from historical and folktale themes: "Dmitry Donskoy led his forces to defend Moscow in 1380", "lgor's Battle", "the Tale of the Golden Cockerel" and others.
Kholui, the youngest of the centers of lacquer tempera miniatures, was first closely connected with Mstera and then with Palekh. Yet soon the Kholui masters, themselves also hereditary icon-painters, diverged from the strict artistic system of the Mstera and Palekh centers.
Here an epically generalized image, with leanings towards the early Russian epic ballads and especially to historical subjects, was combined with a picturesque interpretation of form and a fantasy in its decorative compositions. The principles laid down in the 1930s by the great master S.A.Mokin (and subsequently developed by V.I.Kiselyov, N.N.Denisov, V.A.Belov, B.V.Tikhonravov and N.I.Baburin) formed the basis of this tradition.
Beginning with the 1940s the art of the lacquer miniature experienced several decades of severe crisis. The totalitarian regime, which left its mark on every sphere of culture, now began lo attack not only the icon-painting tradition but also the use of metaphor and symbol as a whole. Socialist Realism demanded propaganda work and a realistic form of depiction that undermined the traditions of the miniature and denied its specific artistic, decorative and thematic originality. The language of allegory was abandoned and the new lacquers were crude imitations of posters or photographs.
Fedoskino masters were transferred to the mechanical copying of classical Russian and Soviet paintings. In Palekh, Mstera and Kholui the greater part of output was devoted lo portraits of Party leaders and pompous official events: "The March of the Victors", "The Festival of Harvest", "Handing Out the Awards" and so on. Against such a background the work of artists who proved able to preserve the traditional craft (I.I.Strakhov, V.D.Lipitsky, S.P.Rogatov, M.S.Chizhov and G.I.Larishev in Fedoskino; I.P.Vakurov, N.M.Zinoviev and D.N.Butorin in Palekh, and I.A.Fomichev and E.V.Yurin in Mslera) was a comforting phenomenon. In Mstera N.I.Shishakov, Lev A.Fomichev and V.F.Nekosov all made a name for themselves with their search for new artistic approaches.
The renaissance in the art of the lacquer miniature began in the 1970s and, above all, in Palekh. An enormous and still insufficiently appreciated contribution was made to restoring the philosophy of this lost craft by the artists B.M.Khodov, I.B.Livanova, and Ye.F.Shchanitsyna. Today interesting and creative work is being produced by B.M.Yermolaev, N.I.Golikov and G.N.Kochetov in Palekh: by S.I.Kozlov, A.V.Korchagin and Yu.V.Karapaev in Fedoskino: and by P.A.Mityashin, V.A.Yolkin, Sergey Dmitriev, Ye.Yu.Grachev and V.V.Kharchev in Kholui.
The new creative impulse has been productive. Working closely with the studios, the leading artists have tried to restore the skills and experience of the past to the contemporary miniature, painting variations on one or another motif or theme. They make brilliant use of allegorical language and folk imagination translated from mediaeval and folk art. This gives them wide scope for embodying their artistic ideas in meaningful stylized and symbolic images: the unity of man and nature is poetically portrayed as the essential source of life, the principles of love and goodness are perceived as the foundations of the world's oneness, and all that is depicted in the miniature gleams, glitters and glows.
Marie Alexandrovna Nekrasova