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A Russian Lacquer Revival

Artists, freed from state interference, are returning to religious themes

By David MutchStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1992



ORLEANS, MASS.

ON a table where two Russian artists, Andry Petrov and Valery Korovkin, are hunched over their work, a large wolf's fang lies, perhaps an inch and a half long.

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They will later use the smooth, hard sides of the enamel tooth to burnish the delicate 24-carat gold figures and designs they paint onto black lacquered boxes. Ground gold is mixed in gum arabic for the application.

Some of the extremely fine lines are applied with one hair, at times under a magnifying glass. The brushes are of squirrel hair.

We were watching a small bit of a complex art form that has three distinct historical roots - Oriental laquerwork, Russian-Byzantine icon painting, and Russian folklore.

Sophisticated collectors, including museums, in Europe and elsewhere, have sought and bought the highly ornate boxes for over 60 years, but the Communist government of the former Soviet Union allowed them to be sold only through monopolistic channels. Some emigrants brought a few out to sell for cash, and tourists going into the country could buy them.

In the last several years, however, the elegant boxes have been finding their way into commercial markets, through a joint-venture trading company in Moscow called Dialogue. Its affiliate for the boxes is called Russian Style, which in the United States arranges shows and sales in galleries from Boston to Seattle. We saw the lacquerware at Tree's Place Gallery, where the artists, both from the village of Palekh, had stopped on a recent US tour.

A grouping of the artists in Palekh - well over 200 of them - are joint owners of Russian Style, which was formed less than a year ago.

Until Communism collapsed, these artists were painting icons. Russians started painting religious icons about four centuries after Vladimir I, grand duke of Kiev, had brought Christianity to Russia around the end of the first millennium. He had married the sister of Basil II, Emperor of Byzantium. But the Communists put a fast and brutal stop to such religious art early in this century.

A group of artists in Palekh, however, managed to convince the local Communist functionaries that the skills of icon art could be turned to secular subjects, especially illustrations of Russian folk tales. Had party officials disagreed, the centuries-old artistic tradition of icon painting might have been lost.

Three other villages - Mstera, Kholui, and Fedoskino were also able to shift to folk art.

Today, the artists are doing religious themes again, sometimes on the boxes. But most of the boxes carry illustrations from Russian folk and fairy tales, including, of course, Peter and the Wolf. Russia is a land of many such tales. The artists in Palekh - credited with producing the most unique lacquer boxes - must study the folk tales in detail when they attend art school in order to have a command of them as a resource in their work.

While the artists also paint figures and designs on other objects (the artists in Pedoskino do some painting on mother of pearl, for example, which is done in the Orient), lacquer boxes are by far the bulk of these Russians' work. The boxes themselves are made of a sturdy, papier-mache bright red inside, a softly lustrous ebony outside.

THE boxes are made by soaking cardboard in linseed oil, layering them, and rolling the layers with rolling pins by hand before shaping them. In the long and tedious process, in which complete drying can take months, the artisans rub soot in by hand to achieve the ebony color. The red on the inside is applied with lacquer. The boxes dry harder and smoother than wood, and they will not shrink or crack, as wood sometimes does. In the final construction steps, the boxes are lacquered and then burnished to a velvety smoothness by the palms of the artist's hands. Only then are they ready to be painted.

In painting the folklore figures, the artists use splendidly bright egg-tempera-based colors. These are put on over an initial base of zinc-white paint used for the first sketch of the figures. Many layers of lacquer have been applied before the painting, and then many afterwards.

The gold - applied only after the colors are dry and protected by the coats of lacquer - complements, enriches, and softens the effect of the bright colors. Ornate border designs in gold also ring the top and sides of the boxes. The design work on one box can go on for months, according to the artists.

The mood evoked by this art form, with its fine, rich, decorative figures, is sumptuous, splendid, akin in feeling to Oriental and even to art of the Indian subcontinent. It is starkly different from traditional Western painting, which depends on perspective and on subtle gradations of light and color.

The artists from the village of Fedoskino, however, paint copies of masters from the Moscow museums onto some of their boxes. Even Peter the Great turns up on a number of them.