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Lacquer Painting - Kholui

Anonymous author. The Virgin of Smolensk Icon. Late 17th century
Kholui, known throughout the world as a centre of papier-mache lacquer miniatures and famous in Russia in the past for its skillful icon painters, is thought to be one of the oldest settlements in the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality. It is situated on the banks of the small but deep and fancifully meandering Tesa River, to which it owes its name. "Kholui" or "kholuiniki," the vernacular for wattle fences, according to Vladimir Dahl's Dictionary of the Russian Language, were used there for fishing.

Legend has it that the settlement appeared in the 13th century, when the Russian land was invaded by the Tartar-Mongol nomads. When they seized and devasted Vladimir and the nearby villages, people sought refuge deep inside the woods and on the swamps. They settled along the banks of the Klyazma River and its numerous tributaries - the Nerl, the Uvod, the Shizhigda, the Tesa and the Lukh, felling wood, rendering habitable those remote parts, ploughing land, breeding cattle, hunting and fishing. Mundane cares, far from abating the Orthodox spirit among the indigenes, on the contrary, enhanced it. That religious spirit has always been rather strong in Russia. The local people built churches, cast bells and painted icons. In toil and prayer our distant ancestors thus gradually developed those parts, which looked attractive at any time of the year.

The beautiful meandering Tesa River continues to enchant with its full water in the spring, leafy groves, pine-tree forests and water-meadows covered with flower carpets in the summer, the falling golden leaves in the autumn and snow-laden boundless expanses in the winter. The special charm of those parts did not go unnoticed and became a source of inspiration for local craftsmen.

The earliest documented mention of Kholui dates back to the 16th century. According to an order sent by the Grand Prince Ivan Vasilievich of Moscow to the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, "On Exempting the Starodubsky Salt Mines from Taxes" (1546), Kholui belonged at that time to the monastery, to which Kholui's inhabitants supplied locally mined salt, a valuable product in those days.

In documents dated 1613 Kholui was already mentioned as an icon painters' settlement, granted to Prince Dmitry Pozharsky for helping to free Moscow from the Polish invaders. Art critics often cite Kholui icon painting, very much like that of Palekh and Mstyora, as old Russian painting. According to them, the first icon painters of Kholui were monks from the Trinity Monastery, a part of the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, who taught local craftsmen the art of icon painting. The Monastery's archimandrate Afanasy was, for example, known to have given an order to choose in Kholui ten children from 12 to 15 "...keen both of mind and of icon painting prowess, literate, and, giving them abode, food and clothes at the monastery, have monk Pavel teach them painting." Disciples from Shuya and Mstyora were sent to Kholui to be trained in icon painting. Kholui thus emerged in the late 17th century as the centre of the icon painting tradition of the Trinity-Sergius Monastery. Icon painting developed fairly quickly in Kholui in the early 18th century: demand grew with every passing year. Kholui icons were highly appreciated in northern Russia, especially in the Vologda, Arkhangelsk and Olonets gubernias and St. Petersburg itself. Trainloads of icons were sent to Siberia. Kholui also received commissions for icons from Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia. Great demand naturally promoted the development of the craft.

Exceptional gift and profound knowledge of the possibilities and methods of tempera enabled artists to produce wonderful works of art. They also did fresco painting, decorating the walls and vaults of local churches and cathedrals. Icon painting workshops gradually became specialised: some produced miniatures, others big icons for cathedrals and still others frescoes. There appeared shrouds painted in oil on canvas rather than on board. Kholui emerged as a major trade and crafts centre, annually producing from 1.5 to 2 million icons. Its favourable geographical location at the cros-sing of many waterways and ground trade routes facilitated lively trade in icons, shrouds, gonfalons, embroideries and other locally-made handicrafts.

Fairs held regularly in Kholui-the Troitskaya in spring and the Tikhvinskaya in autumn-were well-known in Russia. By the mid-19th century, five fairs were annually held there, attended mostly by tradesmen from cities and towns along the Volga. Up to 300 stalls and over a hundred booths were opened during the fairs. Goods galore were brought in-timber and icon boards from Makariev and Kostroma, grain from Saratov and fish from Astrakhan. Merchants from Persia and Turkey came to those fairs. Trade was extensive and lively, with turnover running into tens of thousands of silver rubles. For Kholui residents icon painting and trade were the only source of income, enabling them to build houses and churches.Thus, on the right bank of the Tesa in 1737 the Tikhvin Church was built. Some years later, in 1745-1753 on the left bank of the Tesa the Troitskaya (Trinity) summer and Vvedenskaya (Presentation) winter Churches appeared. A verst (3,500 English feet) outside Kholui, next to a pine-tree forest, an architectural ensemble of a men's monastery - the Borkovsko-Nikolayevskaya Pustyn - took shape with a summer cathedral, a church, monastic cells, a refectory and numerous outbuildings. They also built chapels, a pier, a tavern, shops, a school, a hospital, inns, brick houses for the wealthy and a lot of other facilities, including nine icon painting workshops.

Kholui became a volost centre of the Viazniki uyezd of the Vladimir gubernia and an original centre of traditional folk culture.

Anonymous author. The Trinity. Icon. Early 20 th centuryExpanding icon production to meet the demand constantly prompted the owners of icon painting workshops to employ more painters, as manual labour was not productive enough. They also introduced the division of labour. Icon painters who devoted much time and effort to every icon they painted from beginning to end, striving after expressive images, no longer satisfied entrepreneurs. There appeared hack icon painters called dolichniki (pre-face), who could deftly execute certain parts of icons, such as clothes, landscape and ornaments. More qualified painters called lichniki (face painters), as a rule, did the faces, the hands and the bodies. That type of specialisation boosted productivity, but art was gradually relegated to the background. Shrouds began to be made of print fabrics, and icons printed on paper or stamped on tin-plate appeared on sale. The process of "industrialising" the sacred art of icon painting and its negative consequences worried the clergy, the enlightened Russians and professional painters. In public opinion, the situation could only be remedied by founding icon painting schools. The first step towards local education was the opening in 1861 of a two-class vocational school, the first in the Vladimir gubernia, which gave classes in the Scrip-tures, the Russian language, national history, geography, arithmetics and psalms. In 1882, the Alexander Nevsky brotherhood founded in Vladimir opened, in Kholui, six-year drawing classes, which were later transformed into an icon painting school. Icon painting, drawing and painting within the framework of the Academy of Arts curriculum were taught there.

N. N. Kharlamov, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts was sent in 1892 to Kholui to act as the school's headmaster and teacher. In addition, the Academy's Vice-President Count I. I. Tolstoy gave material support to the school by sending visual aids, plaster sculptures, samples of graphic works and paintings and syllabi. Subsequently the school was unofficially referred to as the Kharlamov school.

The school also offered classes in stamping, gilding, plastic anatomy and special subjects, such as composition and tempera techniques.

The activity of the icon painting and drawing school (1882-1920) was quite fruitful. Its first graduates formed an association and engaged in icon and wall painting under the supervision of their teacher, N. N. Kharlamov. They did the famous frescoes and iconstand for the Russian embassy church in Vienna, as well as for the Orthodox cathedrals of Cracow and Kishinev, and other churches in many Russian towns.

In 1902, another graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, E. A. Zarin, came to head the school and to teach in it. The Academy exercised stronger influence on the activity of the Kholui icon painting and drawing school, which expanded its curriculum to give broader knowledge of world art and icon painting traditions and paid more attention to drawing as a basis of pictorial arts. About three years later the school was popularly called the Zarin school.

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