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The Wonder of Palekh

For years, a small Russian village named Palekh has been receiving critical acclaim for the production of its art. The expression, "Palekh is the village academy!" came from the reputation that the village acquired from the quality art that it produces. A plaque at the entrance of the village greets visitors with the slogan, "Welcome to the birthplace of the Fire Bird!" Such expressions as "the wonder of Palekh" or "the Palekh miracle" were widespread epithets of the creative artists of Palekh. Its art school was referred to as a "shaper of talents" in official business documents of the day.
Since it's glory days in the Soviet era, bureaucratic activity around Palekh has decreased. Recent enthusiastic exclamations were transformed into everyday expressions. Now these exclamations are frequently used, but with hints of irony. The craft, which never acclimated to, but yet evolved around the principles of a free market, faces economic difficulties these days. Despite the current state of affairs and overall pessimism of life in Russia, when reviewing the good and bad years in Palekh's history, one realizes that the true believers are justified in saying that Palekh is an artistic wonder and miracle.
Palekh has gone through two major periods in its artistic development, that both parallel each other but have distinct differences from one another. The division between the two periods was the October Revolution of 1917. After the Revolution, Palekh stepped into a new era, in which it started to produce its famous lacquer miniatures, which was labeled the "miracle born by the Revolution." This "chamber-style" art declared itself so strongly and courageously that it immediately won worldwide recognition.
Just a few places where Palekh's art made an impact after the Revolution: 1923 - Palekh has enormous success in Moscow. 1924 - triumph in Venice. 1925 - "Grand Prix" at the World Exhibition in Paris. 1927 - ovations in Milan. France, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Spain, Holland, China, Japan, America, and many other countries have showcased Palekh's art at various art expositions. For more than 75 years, the art of Palekh has been displayed at the most prestigious exhibition halls and museums worldwide .
Palekh's acquisition of worldwide respect came as a result of it being the quintessential symbol of lacquer miniature production in Russia. Igniting the creative force behind Palekh's art is Fedoskino, another well established lacquer miniature producer, located in the region of Moscow. Artistic competition came from Kholuy and Mstera, which also led to greater development of the Palekh style. An enviable destiny, indeed! What is the secret? What is the phenomenon behind Palekh's artistic incarnation?
Is it that divine light sparked Ivan Golikov, Palekh's lacquer miniature art's ingenious creator? Was it Maxim Gorkiy's writings about the revolution that created an aura, which enveloped the new art form in this region? These individuals should by credited for their input. On the other hand, if it was not for the icon-painting industry before the Revolution, Palekh would not have emerged if it did not have its roots firmly embedded in the style of ancient Byzantium icon painting traditions. Seeing that before the 1917 revolution, the founders of modern Palekh art were all excellent icon-painters, the transition to the painting of lacquer miniatures resulted in a huge success.
When did Palekh art begin? This question is almost impossible to tackle in a scholarly manner. Accoring to legend the first icon-painters appeared in Palekh during the 13th Century. These icon-painters were craftsmen from the Vladimir-Suzdal principality, that fled to the most remote depths of the Palekh provinces, to elude the mighty Mongol Khan Batu. On the other hand, the majority of known historical texts from the time testify that the icon-painting craft developed in Palekh only in the 17th century. The conservative establishment of the era did not treat these craftsmen with much adoration. The hard working and talented artists were producing superb quality icons at a fraction of the price of the "well-to-do" city-based icon workshops, which had quite and elite customer base.
Simon Ushakov, a famous and well-established icon painter "for the elite" wrote to his colleague Iosif Vladimirov with sorrow: "Men from Shuya, Kholuy and Palekh sell icons at fairs and in remote villages, and exchange them, like children's toys, for eggs or onions." Without being given a chance to find it's own character, Palekh was placed in the same category with other provincial centers. Negative statements such as this are a good example of the unfair treatment Palekh received during its infancy.
The artisans of Kholuy and Mstera, alongside with icons of high quality, produced unpretentious, so-called "popular" icons, intended for the most undemanding buyer. Since both villages were located on busy roads near the large commercial cities of Vladimir, Rostov, and Nizhni Novgorod, these productions were sold quickly in very large quantities.
Palekh icon painting originally evolved under quite different conditions. The village was lost among virgin woods and swampy bogs. It had no trade routes passing through it, and no big commercial fairs were held there. Palekh was not even shown on a general geographic map of the Russian Empire at the time. Palekh's inhabitants were able to create new art, restore ancient samples, and craft icon originals in peace and solidarity without the commotion and bustle of other icon producing centers.
Palekh's art began to be noticed and its diligent work ethic was soon rewarded. Palekh artists were offered contracts to work at the Imperial Chamber of Weapons in Moscow, which was the leading art academy of Ancient Russia. The Chamber would commision groups, or "artels," of Palekh artists to various cities and villages of Russia. Ancient frescoes were restored, walls of churches were decorated, and heavenly images on wood panels - "icons" - were painted. There may even be a blood relation between two famous figures in the world of icon painting. The two persons are separated by two centuries - the imperial iconographer Georgiy Zimoviev, who is mentioned in ancient texts, and prominent Palekh lacquer miniature painter Nikolay Zinovyev.
By the 18th century, the classical Byzantium style of painting icons fell out of fashion. To many it seemed development in icon painting had come to a screeching halt. A more secular direction in icon art was introduced. At that point Palekh's artists developed their own style in Russian icon-painting, to sustain their economy and to keep up with the latest trends, called the "Palekh Style."
Palekh artists incorporated their age-old knowledge and techniques into their new style. The ethereal quality of church wall frescoes of the Upper Volga region impressed strongly upon the artists fo Palekh. The delicate ornamental language of Stroganov's craftsmen fascinated them. They were captivated by the Moscow Imperial Style's precise filigree manner of painting. They were also influenced by the realist paintings of the Fryazhskiy masters. This inspiration, entwined with the traditions of folk culture, generated a bright and unique art form.
Not surprisingly Palekh emerged as the center of Russian icon painting. This fact was quickly confirmed, as prominent authorities on Russian painting at the time were applauding Palekh for its art. At the request of Wolfgang Gete, a government official who became interested in icon painting, research was carried out on the art of the Suzdal region. The research showed that traditional craftsmenship had more or less vanished in city painters, but prospered with village painters who started to be influenced by the likes of those in Palekh.
Palekh came to be known as the keyholder of the ancient traditions in iconography. The centuries-old development of medieval icon artistry evolved into what is now synonymous with Palekh. During the painting of Palekh's Krestovozdvizhenskiy Temple (1810's), the icon-painters did not know that they were completing one of the last jewels in the tradition of Russian icon-painting. Palekh artisans were again commissioned to perform the work in Moscow, at the end of the 19th Cenury, in the renovation of the Granovitaya Chamber at the site of the Kremlin. Another prestigious job that Palekh's artists took on was the decoration of the State Historical Museum. The artists from Palekh gained so much acclaim that the restoration of frescos in Russias ancient cathedrals was usually entrusted only to them.
In front of the 20th Century stood a threshold that was about to be shattered by many historical events. At the beginning of the century, Palekh icon painting came under heavy attacks of criticism from many academic circles in art. Palekh was able to withstand new conveyor-belt methods of mass producig art, which were trying to eliminate the manual production of icons to lower costs and increase sales. However, it couldn't stop the force of the Revolution which blanketed all parts of Russia and its people. The Revolution, split the minds, bodies, and souls of Russian society. "Icon-daubers" became unwanted. Not only the painters but the icons themselves became enemies in the eyes of the new Communist regime. Icons were mercilessly mutilated and desicrated at the hands of the new power that overtook Russia.
Losing the means by which they lived, icon-painters resorted to engaging in husbandry, horticulture, braiding bast shoes, and decorating wooden utensils and nesting dolls to make ends meet. In this time of great change and suffering the fate of these talented artists lied upon a different path.
In the 1920s, during the heat of the Soviets' new economic policy, an eccentric artist, I. I. Golikov, visited his brother-in-law in Moscow to discuss lacquer art. Golikov was fascinated with Lukutin lacquer wares which were on display at the Handicraft Museum. This inspired experimentation in the artist and he decided to reproduce what he saw, with a twist of his own. He met with the directors of the museum to acquire blank papier-mache boxes. The directors could not see potential in the former icon-painter and they did not honor his request. Ivan Golikov didn't give up, he was allowed to work with papier-mache pans from A. A. Glazunov's workshop, on which he painted two compositions: "The Hunt for a Bear" and "Adam in Paradise". His work exceeded all expectations, and as soon as the museum purchased these first miniatures, lacquer art in Palekh was born.
Official recognition of Palekh's Artel of Old Painting took place on December 5, 1924, which was founded by seven fellow artisans of Palekh. The work at the Artel started with the painting of papier-mache items of various forms: small chest coffers, lacquer boxes, small painted boxes, and bead boxes. The Artel expanded tremendously within the first decade of its existence. The joint venture that these seven men engaged in employed more than one hundred artists, and due to its enormous growth, the Artel was reassembled and renamed as, "The Creative-Productions Union of Palekh."
The new Palekh became quite multicultural while at the same time keeping a firm hold on its national roots. When examining Palekh's art, the eye can readily see that not only did its influences come from its homeland in the west but also from the exotic cultures from the far east.
The Lukutino lacquer articles, which were introduced to the Russian public at the end of the 18th century, actually originated in Western Europe. A Russian merchant, Piotr Korobov, hired two German craftsmen from Braunschweg to manufacture lacquer peaks for the caps of military uniforms. The factory was assembled in a village not far from Moscow, and its production became an art form all its own during the time of Lukutin. Fedoskino's contemporary style of lacquer miniature painting is based on old Lukutin traditions.
Fedoskino was a place where Palekh's artists could take a great deal of knowledge. In Fedoskino they were introduced to new artistic concepts, to contemporary societal art, and aspects of western culture. The new medium of working with papier-mache did not come as easy as most might think for Palekh's artists. Even when Palekh established for itself a fool-proof way to manufacture its papier-mache, artists from the city were sent to Fedoskino to collaborate on ways to enhance the manufacturing process. Namely the goals of the envoys to Fedoskino were to unearth the secrets to reproduce the strength, lightweight, and durable product that Fedoskino was able to produce.
The State Museum of Palekh Art, has on display a unique lacquer box by the master Golikov, which depicts the winter scene of the "Troika" on the cover of a case of cigarettes. To hold the piece itself is very pleasurable, not only because of its aesthetic quality but, because of the weightless and graceful manner that it holds itself in ones hand.
It is easy to understand the cultural link through art between Fedoskino, Palekh, Western Europe and the cultures of the Far East. Today, lacquer miniatures made of papier-mache are much less functional; rather they serve as exquisite pieces of fine art.
The inovators of Palekh lacquer miniatures, began their craft during time in which different styles of painting were hardly disputed. The "old-timer" painters (as they were called in Palekh) created pieces "at God's will," trusting their hearts, eyes, and hands. "The artist should show a whirlwind in his work," proclaimed an eclectic Golikov. Before beginning his work, he loved to scatter flowers on the table, and scatter paints on the subjects. "At first glance, it's a bouquet; but if you look closely - it's a battle, or a party."
Even with the creative diversity which the first-generation artists possessed there were many organizing elements that gave all of their pieces stylistic unity. Icon painting traditions influenced every aspect of lacquer art. This included: the monumental figurative order of I. V. Markichev's articles, the intense graphic representation of I. N. Shakurov's compositions, the colorful ornamental and picturesque works of A. V. Kolotukhin, the superfine intermixing of paints by I. M. Barkanov, and the skillful gold leaf paintings of I. I. Zubkov.
Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, played a very important role in influencing the works of the artists in Palekh. The entire genre of scene painting was re-invented, based on works by this 19th century literary juggernaut. This expolsion of insperation was incited by A.M. Gorkiy who presented the complete collection of Pushkin's writings to the Artel, becoming the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the poet and the painter.
At first the artists depicted scenes from Pushkin's fairy tales and poems, and later they moved to depicting scenes from tragedies, lyric poems, and prose. The world of Pushkin entered the hearts of Palekh artists forever. Artist G. V. Zhidkov is to be credited with the introduction of Pushkin genre scenes on Palekh lacquer art. In the 1930's Zhidkov was expelled from the Tretyakov gallery, and exiled to Palekh from Moscow. Becoming the director of a museum in Palekh, he actively collaborated with the artists and decided to head a project to paint a great number of lacquer miniatures involving themes from Pushkin's writings.
Under the leadership of Zhidkov, Palekh's classical Pushkin theme depictions became beautiful icon-like paintings of stories and fairy tales, such as "The Tale of the Magic Golden Fish," "The Golden Cockerel," "An Oak Tree Grinning by The Sea," "Ruslan and Ludmila," and others. Zhidkov's legacy will be remembered as being the man who brought Pushkin to the world of lacquer miniatures.
Pushkin themes played an important role in the history of Palekh. The art was undergoing stages of radical change. With these changes the period of experimenting was complete, and serious creative work was beginning to take place.
Within a few years the artists decided to set up an institute to teach the painting of lacquer miniatures in Palekh. The younger generation of painters had no iconographic experience due to the new Communist regimes prohibiton to paint icons. This made it necessary to educate them in the old ways of the old icon-painters without the formal teaching of icon-painting. A one-on-one approach to teaching the new painters was necessary and a method where the apprentice was placed next to the teacher observing his work and then trying to repeat the techniques which were used. This is the way one of most talented lacquer miniature masters, P. D. Bazhenov, learned his craft. He became the Artel's first apprentice under the guidance of the master Golikov himself.
However, this method of teaching was not suitable for everyone, and it was used only for a short time. The Art School in Palekh was founded in 1935.In comparison to other educational institutions in Russia, the school had many peculiar features. A first of its kind in Russia, it was a school that produced masters skilled to manufacture a specific craft.
The methods of painting, which were based on two mutually exclusive systems of icon-painting and academic art, made the training very specific. The instructions were based on original samples of the best lacquer miniature masterpieces and traditional icons. Palekh masters painted the same way as did their icon-painting ancestors, with egg tempera, brushes made from the tails of squirrels, and using gold paint prepared using age-old techniques. The ancient Russian tradition continued to be passed on without interruption.
Palekh became the guardian of the pasts rich heritage even during a time of ideological hurricanes, orgies of atheism, and the struggles that the State was having with religion. Since there was no other source of opposition to the new Communist regime, the churches became desicrated wastelands, expositions of ancient paintings were closed to the public, and old art had become an ideological enemy of the State to the extent that even mentioning the name of the artist Andrei Rublev caused apprehension.
In the wake of the new reforms, curiosities arose. For example, Rublev's "Trinity" icon was among the originals the students of the school used for learning. While explaining the figurative structure of the piece, the teacher, the well-known Zinovyev, continually tried not to draw attention to the spiritual origin of the painting. Zinovyev would refer to the Angels in the icon as the "girls with the spears."
The old stereotypes continued during the thaw of the Gorbachev era. In the 1980's, when the iron curtain was lifted and opportunities for international relations appeared, the art form experienced an incredible commercial boom. Palekh became very popular again and foreign tourists were flooding in to buy the art and the market started to determine the character of the art's production.
The Russian people returned to celebrating such holidays as Christmas and Easter when complete religious freedom was given back to them. At the same time Palekh articles became cherished and pleasant gifts. Even then ridiculous situations still came to pass. When shipping an item to a customer, the production managers wrestled with the problem of how to label a products such as Easter eggs on official documents. To say that the piece was an Easter egg, as it really was, was still impossible. Easter eggs became known as, "objects of ellipsoid form" in the documents which accompanied Palekh productions.
There was a time when ancient Russian icons saved and created a new style of art in Palekh. Today, a boomerang effect is taking place with the slow revival of icon-painting which is shaping up to once again become a staple in Palekhs fine painting tradition. Despite an icon-painting branch being opened in the art school, to find an artist who did not paint icons was much easier than finding one that did.
The Palekh craft was able to evolve during a sixty year period under the infrastucture of a central art organization. By the end of the 1980's that organization broke up into a number of independent partnerships, all imposing their own policies on how to manufacture lacquer miniatures.
"Palekh Partnership",founded in 1989, considers itself to be the direct descendent of the organizations which operated using the basic principles based on the old techniques in manufacturing Palekh art. The lineage of the new "Partnership" starts in 1924, as the "Artel of Old Painting", being renamed in 1935 as "The Creative-Productions Union of Palekh", then being given the name of "artistic and industrial workshops" in 1954. The "Partnership" which exists today does not celebrate its anniversaries as being one of a creation but they celebrate them as a resurrection of the old style which they are continuing.
Today, more than 100 artists of various generations and bacgrounds are working in the Partnership. Each year, graduates of the art school are hired into the staff of the Partnership, and the most skilled masters among the "Partnership" become instructors at the school. Therefore the skills and techniques are passed on from master to pupil in a continuous cycle which ensure the development of the craft in traditional fashions.
The creative path of the "Partnership" is guided by the artistic council, which under the influence of modern economy, must not only think of the pure art form, but must take into account monetary fluctuations of the market. What make this organization an unorthodox one is the distinct split between the painting of icons and lacquer miniatures.
The neglection of Russian cathedrals has brought out an activism of such sincere participation to restore old icons and to paint new ones, one day we might be talking about trying to find a way to preserve the art of lacquer miniature art in Russia. In this the fate of lacquer art in Russia has already been decided. But only God can know what will come next.
Generations to come are forever indebted to the Palekh painters who were commissioned in the restorations of Russia's cathedrals. The first restoration they performed was of the Ilyinskaya church and from now until the present day they do restorations throughout Russia. They paint icon miniatures, which are in high demand by jewelers, which are perfect when used for praying. Today in the Partnership, it is difficult to find an artist who has not practiced icon-painting at least once. Now many young artists under the age of thirty have devoted their lives to the craft of icon-painting.
The diligence and faith of these enthusiastic young artists has yeilded phenomenal results. The new "Palekh Style" is quite comparable with the sacred relics kept in the museums of the Moscow Kremlin or in the Tretyakov Gallery. The strict orthodox believes and the technical skill of the "Partnership" artists were noted in a letter from Alexiy II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Now we can say with surety that iconography has became a separate branch of Palekh painting. Moreover, it brings with it stylistic corrections to the art of lacquer miniature. Just recently, the lacquer panel (or plaque, as it is called in Palekh) was in direct dependence on miniature, but now it has the obvious imprint of icon-painting traditions.
The lacquer panel of V. V. Buldakov thematically returns us to the initial works of Golikov, and similarly, to the paintings covering the vaulted ceilings of the Palekh cathedral.
B. A. Eropkin chose to paint a plate based on an episode from Pushkin's fairy tale "The Dead Tsarevna and the Seven Bogatyrs." However, he placed the composition not on black, as is usually done, but on a white background. Full of light and without sharp contrasts and warm red tones, the plate at once took on the character of ancient Russian painting; indeed, of Dionysis himself.
However, the greatest breakthrough of all the works in this genre may be a black lacquer panel called "The Hunt." Instead of battles and suffering, for many years and with admirable constancy U. A. Schanitsyn has been painting landscapes and people who live with faith in their soul and in harmony with nature.
One may conclude that each work is better than the previous: there is more freedom in the composition, the colors are calmer, and the gold applique is so natural, that it seems to be radiated by the sun. Such works continue the tradition and keep this style of art from disappearing.
Nature became the main theme of one of the last works of G. Y. Kochetov. The form of a box, or "casket," chosen for the painting "The Four Seasons" turned out to be ideal. It accommodated the four primary compositions and then a painting on the lid, successfully completing the design of a complex piece. The comprehensive and ever serious paintings of this master craftsman are free of vanity and excessive effects.
The end of the 20th century goes down in history with a series of brilliant anniversaries. In the period before the celebration of the 850th anniversary of the founding of Moscow, the art form has again turned to themes of the homeland. Now, when our Fatherland is so restless, and even tiny Palekh can't preserve the unity of ancient art, this subject is particularly sensitive.
What did the well-known Russian artist B. M. Yermolayev think and what did he experience when he was creating his "Bright Russia?" Certainly he thought about harmony, repeating several times the favorite theme of Ancient Russia, the circle. He thought about his native land, about peace and labor, and about harmony reigning in the heavens. These eternal concepts are escaping from our life, love is disappearing together with them, and mutual understanding is being lost.
Still, thankfully, there are Russians with names that have sounded optimistic and hopeful in any era. And the theme of unification has arisen once again in connection with 200th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin's birthday. The works of artists of all generations were displayed at the anniversary exhibition.
The "Partnership" displayed works based on fairytale subjects such as "Tsar Saltan" (V. A. Belozerova, N. F. Shanitsyna), "The Golden Cockerel" (G. N. Kochetov), and "The Dead Tsarevna and the Seven Bogatyrs" (N. N. Bogacheva, N. V. Buldakova, V. A. Brovkin). Poetry (S. I. Kamanin), dramatic works (V. F. Morokin, O. V. Kolygina, N. V. Buldakova), lyric poems (A. V. Doshlygin), and prose (T. L. Surkova) were also recited at the exhibition.
The creative works of A. N. Klipov became a separate line of Palekh's Pushkin series. Occasionally addressing traditional plots ("Fairy Tale about the Dead Tsarevna" and "The Feast") and images ("Gvidon"), he nevertheless has chosen another method of researching the poet's life. Having studied him his whole life, Klipov painted Pushkin in the way he understood him.
As a result, an image of the poet hitherto unknown in Palekh art has appeared. It is particularly visible in the pieces he made for the anniversary. Compared to other works on these subjects, Klipov's compositions "A Walk," "At the Fireplace," "Delvig Visiting Pushkin," and "Good Morning!" are distinguished by their cheerfulness and unusual energy.
It cannot be an accident when several seemingly unrelated but extremely influential events occur simultaneously--it is destiny. If Pushkin hadn't appeared in the world two centuries ago, Palekh would hardly have become the art center it is today. And it is absolutely incredible: such a small art form as miniature painting has lived for three quarters of a century independent of events happening around it. It has the capacity to remember the past, reviving Palekh icon painting, and to think about the future by beginning new branches of the art.
The "Palekh Partnership" has already made its way in life for a decade. Born in a time of serious events, this organization could stabilize things very soon--it has begun to work and has found its own creative niche. The works of the "Partnership" artists have been displayed abroad countless times; they are well known by domestic experts and are highly esteemed by collectors abroad. The success of an organization with such an historical name and with good roots is a testimonial that the "Palekh Partnership" has a bright future.