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Golden Khokhloma

KhokhlomaThe North of the Nizhni Novgorod province is a beautiful land. The lush green of the flood plain meadows 'stretches along the low left bank of the Volga bordered with boundless dense forests. The forests extend to the Kostroma and Vyatka provinces and are crisscrossed with winding clear-water streams Linda, Uzola, Kerzhenets and the navigable Vetluga river, a major Volga tributary. Villages and small hamlets are hiding in the forests or lurking near the streams. The lands beyond the Volga made a major contribution to the Russian history, it is a country of many legends. This is the land that was ravaged by the invading Mongol hordes of Batu Khan passing through it on their conquest of Europe more than seven centuries back. This is where the lake Svetloyar is whose lear waters are still preserving the legendary town of 'Kitezh the citizens of which refused to surrender to the evil force and were redeemed by the Providence as the town was hidden on the bottom of the lake. The deep forests around the ancient town of Semenov gave shelter to the Old Believers hermits hiding from the persecution of the official Moscow Orthodox Church and preserving ancient Russian cultural customs that had gradually expired elsewhere in Russia. Another ancient town on the Volga is Gorodets, one of the major strongholds of the Suzdal Principality of medieval Russia which grew to become a major Volga navigation hub and a center of crafts and trading. The Makariev Zheltovodskii (Yellow Water) Monastery on the Volga downstream from Gorodets for two centuries was the site of the "principal market-place of Russia", the famed Makariev Fair.

The folk arts and folklore flourished in the Trans-Volga area of the Nizhni Novgorod province. No other territory in Russia could equal it in the number and originality of the folk arts and crafts that had sprang to life and were developed in the local communities. Even today in the villages beyond the Volga one can see wooden houses richly decorated with wood carvings depicting amiable lions guarding the homesteads and sly pixies hiding in intricately twisting tree branches. The collections at the best Russian museums include among the highly-valued treasures the wooden distaffs from Gorodets, on which the anonymous peasant artists depicted cheerful scenes of folk festivals and feasts. The inimitable skills and meticulous diligence of the Volga craftsmen were evidenced by the intricately carved boards for shaping gingerbread and for calico printing, the painted wooden matryoshka dolls (series of hollow dolls of diminishing size, one inside the other), the exquisite woven tapestries, or tambour and golden lace embroideries.

The Khokhloma painting on wooden articles is, perhaps, the one type of Nizhni Novgorod folk craft that became most popular in Russia and foreign countries. The Khokhloma handicraft became known as early as the 18th century. For instance, the geographer Evdokim Zyablovsky wrote after his journey to the Nizhni Novgorod province in 1790s that the inhabitants of the Trans-Volga area complained about the lack of arable land. He noted, though, that they had mastered many wood-working skills. He wrote, "Local woodland is another source of community welfare. The abundance of wood allows some villagers to manufacture by turning various dishes, cups, plates, and other similar wooden articles", which are then "varnished and decorated all over with golden ornaments and bright flowery patterns". The geographer concluded, "The articles are light in weight, solid, and well proportioned and the black and yellow varnishes they brew from the linseed oil are very strong and clear".

The handicraft of manufacturing wooden utensils with peculiar decorative painting imitating gilding received the appellation of Khokhloma art from one of the villages where it originally had been practiced in ancient times and which grew to become a trading post to which the local craftsmen brought their wares for sale starting from the 18th century. Customers highly valued the light and strong Khokhloma cups, dishes, and other household utensils, which were handy for the household chores and beautiful to look at. Their classic time-tested shapes, exquisite flower and plant ornaments painted in festive yet serene colors and combinations of a deep black background, the cinnabar vermilion, and the gilding glittering under a varnish layer made the wooden utensils in modest village kitchens look like precious-metal plates and dishes in noblemen's houses.

The lush "grass-leaves" decorative ornaments and their peculiar color scheme suggest that the Khokhloma art is rooted in the ancient Russian decorative culture while the imitation of gilt ornaments on wood dates back to the medieval handicraft skills. The painting technique has been somewhat upgraded but remains essentially the same as in the ancient time. The gilding effect is produced by means of the following process. The walls of the wooden containers are first primed with clay in water, impregnated with boiled linseed oil, and dusted with aluminum powder (tin powder was used in the 18th 19th centuries). The silvery-looking surface is painted over, the article is varnished and heated in a special oven. The varnish acquires a yellowish tint with heating and the silvery ornaments under the amber-colored varnish layer look gilded.

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