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Lacquer Painting - Palekh

Bakanov Ivan, "The Golden Cockerel", 1934
The unbelievably colorful Palekh souvenirs are known in all countries of the world. The elegant black-lacquered art pieces on which the heroes of Russian folklore come to life - the amazing fire-birds and the gold-manned troikas subjugate us with fairy tale-like world of beauty, movement and harmony of their color chords.

The village of Palekh is stretches widely out among the woods and fields in a picturesque corner of the Ivanovo county. In the XV century it was a part of the Vladimir-Susdal lands and was one of the first ancient centers of icon drawing trade. In the XVII-XVIII centuries Palekh's craftsmen became the most famous in the icon business. They worked out a style all of their own which can be distinguished by the fine line tempera drawing saturated with gold. Their work was valued for the depth of its images and for their fairy-tale-like ornamental design.

After the 1917 bolshevik's coup, when the icon business went down, Palekh masters tried to decorate wooden toys, dishes, porcelain and glass. But the most interesting way turned out to be painting black-lacquered boxes made of papier-mache by the likes of E.Golikov, E.Vakurov, A.Kotukhin, and E.Bakanov. Those masters along with some of their fellow villagers established, in 1924, a shop of ancient art in which a new kind of folk art was born-the Palekh artistic lacquers. By the end of 1920`s there was a wide assortment of Palekh art objects. Beautiful by their proportions, elegant by form, the little jewelry boxes, bead boxes, and powder cases beamed with bright colors and sparkled with golden decorative patterns. Ordinary things were transformed into objects of art in the hands of talented artists. Ancient hunting scenes and battles from Russian epics, village scenes and prayers, literary plots and the joy of work - everything was reflected in the art of these distinctive artists. In their art they embody the folk culture. They are inherent of the passionate feeling of life and modernity. The art of Palekh miniatures expresses the true national character. Many examples of Palekh art have received recognition at international exhibitions and have become world-known.

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

Icon, PalekhWhen 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 souvenirs 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.


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