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Lacquer Painting - Mstera

Icon, Mstera
Geographical Situation.

Known as Bogoyavlenskaya Sloboda before 1917, the village now takes its name from the little Msterka (Mstiorka) River, which flows through it, merging with the Kliyazma. It is in Vladimir Region, but not far from the border with Ivanovo Region, south of Palekh and Kholui, in breathtakingly beautiful countryside - the one that forms the backdrop to its paintings.

Techniques and Style

As one of the tempera villages, the preparation of the paint is similar to the Palekh method, though in the case of Mstera the artist would sometimes grind his own pigments out of colored pebbles he would find in Msterka. Their miniatures are characteristically done in pale tones, usually on an ivory background. Colours are commonly more muted those of the other villages with figures, sometimes elongated, against backgrounds of light blue or other pastel shades, with landscapes predominating, the trees showing a tendency towards Stroganoff style. The overall effect is that of a "Persian tapestry". Faces are usually "cartoonish", lacking the realism of Palekh or Kholui. The use of gold is traditionally avoided, except in borders, which are often intricate. Bylini (epic stories) and skazki (fairy-tales) dominate the subject matter of Mstera, though it has produced many classic boxes of political topics and village scenes in the Soviet times.


Mstera in the Seventeenth Century was a mercantile village with a flourishing trades in fish and salt, as well as being a market gardening center. However, a lack of arable land forced it to adapt to art and craft production for its survival, notably icon painting, but also the famed White Satin Stitch and Vladimir Colour Stitch embroideries. By the late Nineteenth Century a staggering proportion of the population was engaged in iconography and related trades.
After the success of Palekh Mstera was the next tempera village to learn to transfer its art on to Lukutinsky. Initially, though, a cooperative - called The Association of Former Icon Painters was set up, but the work they did was mostly decorating wooden kitchen articles and nested dolls. A second cooperative was formed in 1923, but with little progress on the first.

However, under the impact of the Palekh experience, two craftsmen went to Fedoskino in the late 1920s to learn papier-mÁchČ manufacture, while two more went to the site of Golikov's original idea, the Moscow Museum of Handicrafts, to study the technique. In 1931 seven artists organized the Proletarian Art Artel, which had grown to fifty-five in number by 1933. Following a suggestion by Anatoly Bakushinsky, an art critic who had also helped Palekh, the budding studio expanded on the border decorations which had been the characteristic feature of Mstera icon painting, and was to characterize its new medium also. At first the Mstera artists were dogged by an inability to break free from the strictures of iconography, a situation from which they were extricated by the "troika" of three painters: N.P. Klykov, A.F. Kotiagin and A.I. Briagin.

After the Perestroika era, Mstera was the most well known place among the four villages for the plenty cheap copies and even imitations of the other schools, which ruined the prices for the Mstera painters’ boxes, but for sure there were and specially are nowadays dozens of creative and talented masters. Old Mstera boxes before ‘50s are extremely rare.

Special place in Mstera painting takes icon painting. As it has some specific features. This tradition was held by Byzantine art, the successors of which were first and foremost the Vladimir and Suzdal icon painters.The Byzantine technique of painting with flux and Byzantine icon painting was preserved in Mstera for many centuries, right up until the start of the 20th century.

In Russia, at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, it was no accident that the creation and development of the science of restoration of ancient Russian art was closely associated with the names of the Mstera icon-painters and restorers. It was they who became the main medium for the reintroduction of "forgotten" ancient Russian art among the St. Petersburg and Moscow professors of the history of art. Almost the whole Mstera population was involved to some extent with the icon-painting industry. As a rule, icon-painting workshops were handed down from generation to generation and were a family business. One of the largest icon-painting workshops was that of Suslov (a man who came from the shores of the White Sea) and the oldest was that of the Old Believer, Yantsev.

After the revolution, the private icon-painting workshops in Mstera were closed. The hungry years after the revolution forced many inhabitants of Mstera to move to the bread basket provinces. But the majority stayed on in their home town of Mstera, where a new life was gradually starting to come into being. In January 1923, the first group of former Mstera icon-painters was formed.

In January 1931, the cooperative decided to send a group of artists to Moscow to study papier-mache art. In addition another group was sent to Fedoskino to study lacquering and polishing. It was then that a group of artists was formed to paint objects made out of papier-mache. The 1930's played a very important role in the further development of the genre. This was because the art of miniature lacquer painting was based on the traditions of Mstera icon-painting, which had existed in that area for many centuries and the experienced icon-painters and restorers became the basis for this new art form.

The leading Mstera artist among the painters of miniatures should by right be Nikolai Klykov (1861-1944). It was he, who for a long time was the driving force behind the search for an original style for the Mstera lacquered miniatures. His former way of life no longer existed and he was forced to find new ways of developing Mstera art. In his early work, he used the traditions of the ancient Russian miniatures of the 15th to 16th centuries. The most attractive style for the artists was the Stroganov style. He believed that the great delicacy and colourful variety of this style was most ideally suited to papier-mache miniatures.

It is characteristic for the period of "atheism", that the Mstera artists did not stop depicting the sky in their miniature lacquered works (unlike the Palekh artists who started to paint on black lacquer). In this way, they were able to keep their spiritual traditions going back to icon-painting, in which the depiction of the sky as the real and celestial frontier of this world, had enormous meaning. The 30's see many topical works by N.P.Klykov. And it is here that we see a harmonious, stable and colourful way of life. Klykov painted works depicting Russian folk tales and episodes from the works of Russian writers, but hardly changed the landscapes in which his contemporary heroes found themselves. In 1937, at the World Exhibition in Paris, Klykov's work "Dubrovsky", received a diploma and a gold medal.

The second generation of Mstera miniature artists were born after the revolution and were trained at the technical and artistic school that had been set up in 1932. Besides, the creative talents of these young miniaturists was interrupted by the Second World War. New period for the development of Mstera miniature lacquered art was the start of the 1960s. At that time, the visual arts, witch also included lacquered miniatures, were under the influence of the so-called “sever style”, with its generalizations, laconism and emphasized decorativeness.

In the 1970's, the development of Mstera lacquered miniature painting went along the lines of not so much rejection of the old aesthetic ideals, but the creation of positive programs for its further development. The new generation of artists, who replaced those of the 60's, had no declared program, but on the other hand, they had a strong desire to express their own creative individuality. At the beginning of the third millennium, there has been a flowering of Mstera art, that is of icon painting and lacquering miniatures painting. The creativity of the young artists make it possible to look at Mstera art in term of an open system which is looking to the future.


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