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Russian hand-painted trays from Zhostovo.


Nether dining in style at a tavern or partaking of tea in the privacy of his home, no farmer, merchant or burgher, in fact no nineteenth-century Russian, would have thought the occasion complete without one of the colourful hand-painted trays which to this day continue to delight the eye in many an urban flat and country cottage.

The basic material of which the tray is made is a thin-plated sheet of iron, coated with several layers of priming and japanning. The resulting smooth and glossy surface produces a highly effective and pleasing sheen. In olden times the metal was cut and hammered into shape by hand; now this arduous and time-consuming operation has been completely mechanized.

The decoration, which is executed in oils, is carried out in several stages. First comes a general notion, achieved by arranging several basic patches of colour. Then the tray is placed in a kiln and fired for several hours. After it cools, flowers and leaves are out-lined, a certain amount of shading is done, and highlights are added here and there by means of slightly tinted zinc white. Then the craftsman gives the tray a few finishing touches by tracing elegant lines around the leaves and petals, emphasizing their colourfulness and integrating the design with the background.

The aforementioned common traditional techniques naturally bear the stamp of the craftsman`s individual style; thus, highlights may be sharp and distinct or soft and blurred, while brushwork may be gentle and graceful or robust and dynamic.

Anatoly Bakushinsky, an eminent Soviet art historian and critic, termed tray decora-tion "the product of rapid and inimitable improvisation".1 Actually, no craftsman ever copies either his own earlier designs or the inventions and innovations of col-leagues, and yet their profoundly appealing, seemingly facile ease and consummate artistry is the upshot of the accumulated skill and talent of generations of artisans who, in the past, were mostly anonymous peasants.

Whereas painted wooden utensils, embroidery and certain other works of folk art have been more or less common in Russia for centuries, the art of making painted trays is a fairly recent arrival in this country. It comes under the category of lacquerware, which includes such miniature papier-mache objects as snuffboxes and caskets.

The art of the lacquered miniature probably originated in China and reached Europe towards the close of the seventeenth century. In Russia, the first lacquered or, more accurately, japanned trays were made in the Urals in the early eighteenth century, and, later, in St. Petersburg. However, from the second half of the nineteenth century the village of Zhostovo near Moscow has been the leading centre of this craft.

The trays made in the Urals set the scene for a rise in the popularity of Russian hand-painted, japanned and varnished metalwork generally at the turn of the eighteenth century. Workshops mushroomed around factories and mills manufacturing sheet iron, especially in Nizhni Tagil. Archival records1 tell us that not only trays were painted and japanned, but also occasional tables, chests, caskets, pails, plates, etc. Still it was trays, oblong, round, oval, octagonal or fancy-shaped, that were the main articles to be em-bellished in this manner. The designs on these trays, executed in different media, struck the viewer by the diversity of their subjects. A late eighteenth century document notes that "the apprentice to a master of painting and lacquer" had to learn how to paint with "oils, silver, gold and metal dust", and "to depict narrative scenes, flowers and landscapes after sundry pictures and engravings"

Still extant are several highly original trays decorated with mythological and histor-ical subjects, such as Hector Taking Leave of Andromache or scenes from the lives of Napoleon and Peter the Great and also many with stylized floral and fruit designs. Trays embellished with narrative scenes were, as a rule, painted by professional artists of standing, either serf artists, such as Pavel Bazhenov or Yakov Arefyev, whose owners had sent them to art academies in St. Petersburg or abroad to study, or their pupils from the School of Lacquer Work and Japanning in Nizhni Tagil.

Subject matter was usually culled from engravings, mostly of Western European origin, and reinterpreted creatively: the craftsman changed both colour scheme and composition in order to adapt them better to the shape chosen for the tray. It was fre-quently the case that the painting on the tray was more expressive than the original. Whereas in the engraving Napoleon Pardons the Due de Saint-Simon His Treachery all the figures are drawn to one scale, on the tray Napoleon is presented as the key to both the idea and the compositional arrangement. Also more dynamic are such Russian his-torical scenes as Peter the Great on Lake Ladoga or Peter the Great Taking Supper with Prince Menshikov. One curious reinterpretation is that of Gerard de la Barthe`s 1794 engraving of A View of Mokhovaya Street and the Pashkov House in Moscow on a tray made after the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812 and known as The Fire at the Pashkov House. The subject matter has been updated by adding French soldiers scour-ing the streets of the Russian city and waylaying Muscovites, and also billowing clouds of smoke that almost blot out the flame-filled skies above the building.

Landscapes, a favourite theme, are variations on classical painting with its romantic, yet austere treatment of subject. Harbours, bays with craggy coasts, colonnaded palaces and turreted castles are presented in a generalized fashion, and the central picture is framed with pleasing gilded borders of sumptuous, superbly drawn garlands, baskets of flowers, capitals of columns or heraldic beasts.

Most trays are ornamented with floral designs that, as a rule, fill the entire field; graceful, sinuous garlands which duplicate the shape of the tray either frame the small, centrally positioned bouquet or link the large corner blossoms, while a vase of flowers or one highly decorative flower is placed in the centre. The arrangement frequently sug-gests classical ornamental design, yet is of a simpler and more colourful order, trans-formed by the craftsman`s vivid brushwork. Exquisite, finely drawn sprays, leaves and blades of grass effectively accentuate the painterly splendour of the larger forms. The warm reds and oranges either gently merge with the darker field or are placed in bold contrast to blues and greens. The round trays are decorated in a manner remi-niscent of ceiling painting. Spreading sprays of flowers, analogous in outline, size and decor, which serve to integrate the entire design into one composite whole, are depicted in the gaps formed by ornamental fillets and friezes. The backgrounds of bottle and olive greens, golds and reds are likewise beautifully blended. The so-called fruit trays, the decoration of which is most uncommon, with no anal-ogy in any other craft, must be considered separately.

The manufacture of trays in Nizhni Tagil flourished up to the mid-nineteenth cen-tury. However, as markets were far away, craftsmen were compelled to let their work go very cheaply to a middleman, which forced them to step up output and churn out trays of an inferior standard. In fact, by the early twentieth century they were decorating as many as 75 trays a day. Gradually the craft declined; mediocre glued-on prints ousted hand-painted decoration. ?????! designs assumed a dull uniformity and not infrequently stencils were employed.

By the mid-nineteenth century, St. Petersburg attained prominence. Earlier, still in the eighteenth century, St. Petersburg craftsmen had produced panels and other objects of lacquered wood embellished a la chinoise. However, by the 1830s they began produc-ing mostly trays of sheet iron and such kindred items as trays for snuffers and bread and cake baskets ornamented with refined painting or inlaid with mother of pearl. The out-put of the factories of Yegor Kondratyev and Yakov Labutin, which was conspicuous for its exquisite late Rococo designs, enjoyed particularly high repute. The subtly deline-ated flowers and exotic birds are complemented by gold-painted rocaille scrolls, sprays, shells and lattices merging into graceful, often asymmetrically arranged compositions which flow freely from the raised margins towards the central field. Now and again, framed by elegantly winding garlands and sprays, there are romantic landscapes, set off by castles or vase-topped parapets amidst palm trees. The actual shape of the tray, which has a curvaceous scalloped edge much like a piecrust, is especially pleasing. The Petersburg trays hark back to eighteenth-century decoration, echoing in a more elaborate manner the painting of panels on walls and above doorways.

Zhostovo, a village outside Moscow, assumed prominence in the making of hand-painted trays around the 1870s, when manufacturers in St. Petersburg were closing down one after another. Indeed, numerous workshops producing hand-painted japan-ned objects of papier mache had already been founded in this village and others outside Moscow, such as Ostashkovo, Khiebnikovo and Troitskoye, in the early nineteenth century. In fact, the first establishment of this kind was the factory set up by the Korobov and Lukutin merchant families in the late eighteenth century in the village of Fedos-kino, a mere seven kilometers from Zhostovo. In the 1830s and 1840s several of these enterprises began to produce, as well as the ordinary run of snuffboxes, cigarette cases, jewel chests and other trivia, oval or round trays of japanned papier -mache embellished with a decorative gold border.

From the middle of the nineteenth century and especially towards its close, the out-put of trays from Zhostovo increased, with sheet iron ousting papier mache as the basic material and with trays gradually superseding other items. Several of these trays, as well as waiters, coasters, pans and bread and cake baskets, bear the mark of the work-shops, or factories, as they were known, of the Vishniakov, Godin, Tsyganov and Sorokin merchant families. The advantageous location near Russia`s metropolis, which supplied all the materials required for the manufacture of trays, ensured a steady sale without recourse to middlemen.

Decoration gradually became richer and more diverse, branching out into attractive floral designs, landscapes and narrative scenes. In addition to the japanned ground upon which the polychrome decoration was painted, craftsmen made wide use of imitation gold foil (potal or Dutch metal) - ultra-thin strips of a copper-zinc alloy beaten into thin leaves. In such cases, details would mostly be done in browns in order to produce two-dimensional and at the same time purely decorative effect.

Another type of background was the so-called tortoise-shell field, which was achieved by having the light-toned surface of the tray smoked while still wet.

Among the novel shapes introduced one could mention the guitar pattern, the Sibe-rian pattern, an oblong with slightly rounded corners, and the piectust pattern; trays made with the latter pattern were "winged", Gothic or Rococo depending on whether the central part was oval, oblong, or irregular.

Late Rococo influences from St. Petersburg were still evident in Zhostovo ware of the 1860s and early 1870s. Subsequently, the fanciful asymmetry disappeared and the flowers became more precisely traced. By the late 1870s Zhostovo had developed a style of its own which was actually a variation on the floral designs so common in diverse Rus-sian decorative arts (Kursk rugs, Ivanovo chintzes and Pavlovo block-printed shawls). In addition, the plants and flowers depicted are more natural than before. Now colourful bouquets, rather than garlands, are mostly in evidence, with more room assigned to the smooth, glossy background. The floral design is soft and rounded. The commonest pattern is a centrally positioned bouquet framed by a delicate design in gold, which invokes echoes of the typical nineteenth-century still life in its gilt frame. However, the motif is more decorative and stylized than in the still lifes on canvas, with the bouquet made up of handsomely arranged flowers freely superimposed upon the shiny japanned field. There are usually three or four large flowers - roses, tulips or dahlias - or smaller flowers such as pansies or morning glories surrounded by tiny scattered blooms and interlinked sprays and wreaths.

Craftsmen drew pleasing, expressive shapes for the entire bouquet, the crown of which often had two or three gently flowing, spreading sprays duplicating the shape of the tray. Meanwhile the graceful marginal decoration encircling the bouquet integrates with the smooth background. Zhostovo craftsmen have generally manifested a fine feeling for Nature`s beauties and a flair for conveying their vision through the medium of an exuberant, harmonious scheme of reds, blues, yellows and greens that are en-hanced by the sheen of the japanned background.

An excellent example of this mastery is the nosegay depicted on the breadbasket produced at the workshop owned by Yegor and Leonty Vishniakov. This is a truly artis-tic piece, though it comprises just one large bright bloom and a few smaller flowers amidst slender sprays of buds and leaves. How charming the elegant gold floral design with its sinuous, free-flowing movement is, and how pleasing the play of the graceful splashes of colour on the leaves! How exotic the central flower with its crimson petals and delicate pale blue heart is, and how boldly the craftsman has interspersed the design with small leaves done in blue and yellow to form a background for the pansies and thus attain a compositional entity! Fantasy and imagination impart amazing diversity to identical motifs, whether compact bouquets or sprays of flower with appealing glimpses of the lacquered field in black, gold or other tints showing between the stems.

Some designs are almost symmetrical, with a centrally positioned bunch of flowers framed by an evenly spaced trail decorated border, where charm is imparted by the graceful outline and expressive brushwork. On other trays the rhythm is more dynamic, with a sense of harmony achieved through a free balance of form and colour. Now and again the painter has deliberately intensified the decorative, stylized quality of the design by winding the stems into convoluted spirals and boldly introducing fruit and berries into his bunches of flowers. At times the bouquet is more reminiscent of a shrub with garland-like branches, and birds and butterflies flitting amongst the flowers.

Articles with decoration on an imitation gold ground (potal) included in their designs bouquets and nosegays and also wreaths and garlands, which replaced the traditional gilt border decor of earlier papier-mache Zhostovo trays. These designs are frankly ornamental and flat, their outlines are markedly pronounced, and light golds, enlivened by graceful polychrome shading, stippling and brushstrokes, dominate the overall colour scheme. Though seemingly simpler to execute than multi-layer painting, this ornamen-tation is highly expressive. Thus, on pans made at Sergei Nikolayev`s workshop, tiny nosegays of modest five-petalled flowers or of cornflowers tied together with ears of wheat and blades of grass fan out elegantly across the wine-red japanned background, and their colour scheme harmonizes well with the border pattern. On the tray that Sergei Mitrofanov decorated in this fashion the easel still-life motif has been completely reinterpreted, with the fruit in the bowl and the wooden tabletop stylized to produce what is, in effect, a two-dimensional ornamental pattern.

Landscapes are, as a rule, naive representations of romantic scenes, with exotic castles and ruins set on the shores of lakes and with quaint cliffs steeped in the scarlet glow of sunset. In the desire to provide a highly decorative composition, craftsmen gave free rein to their imagination and worked swiftly and with ease.

A range of objects decorated with scenes of this kind has come down to us. Thus, on a cake basket from the Russian Museum, Leningrad, the red of the sky, the dark green of the foliage and the brown of the earth gradually merge with the colour of the borders, forming a pleasing gamut that is happily complemented by the pattern picked out in gold along the margins. On one of the trays from the Dashkin Workshop the landscape itself is quite modest, with only the tall, steep crags adding an exotic note. A signal contribution to the expressiveness of this motif is the free-flowing brushwork and the abrupt splashes of colour that blend into a beautiful whole.

Narrative scenes are taken mostly from contemporary Russian folk life. Among them are dashing troikas, tea-drinking ceremonies, with the samovar invariably in the place of honour, and the plaiting of bast shoes in rural cottages. Other items of this kind are exotic chinoiserie, mostly over an imitation gold ground, with liberally interpreted Oriental architecture and people wearing strange, alien dress. Many of these designs were culled from snuffbox miniatures, which Zhostovo craftsmen frequently modified to suit their own taste. Thus in the Chinaman Ringing a Bell scene on a tray from the Godin Bros. Workshop, the presentation is freer and more ornamen-tal than in the similar snuffbox miniature; the fantastic foliage with gold and green leaves is conveyed by exuberant splashes of colour and smaller, lighter touches; the human figures and the elegant golden turrets are subtly outlined.

The early twentieth century was an inauspicious period for the applied decorative arts, with eclecticism and kitsch dominating industrial design. Zhostovo was one of the very few craft centres able to rise above the vulgarity of philistinic taste and to truly flourish; it is small wonder that its trays attracted the appreciative eye of such eminent Russian painters as Boris Kustodiev, Piotr Konchalovsky, Ilya Mashkov, Alexander Kuprin and Pavel Kuznetsov, who often reproduced them in their still lifes.

This virtuousity of decoration was attained only after years of practice. Apprenticed to a master painter at a tender age, the craftsman reached the appropriate levels of skill only by the age of 17. However, exhibition catalogues of the period and marks on trays give the names only of the workshop proprietor, the craftsman himself remaining com-pletely anonymous. The names of such master craftsmen as Osip Burbyshov, Konstantin Gribkov, Ivan Levin and Sergei Mitrofanov would have been lost to posterity has they not been preserved in living memory.

Elderly residents of Zhostovo tell us that the craftsman`s life was hard, with a work-day of fourteen hours that would stretch to twenty on the eve of church feast days and national holidays. Moreover, the workshops were cramped and filled with the suffocat-ing fumes of turpentine and pigments; extensive use was likewise made of child labour. In 1912, craftsmen working in the village of Novosiltsevo organized an artel (cooper-ative workshop) of their own in a desperate attempt to escape the awful conditions in privately owned workshops. Formed exclusively of master painters who had worked at Fiodor Zinovyev`s factory, this artel, and the craft generally, ceased operations the moment the First World War broke out in 1914. Only in the 1920s, after the October Revolution of 1917, were the many previously privately owned establishments merged into a number of production cooperatives, which in 1929 were reorganized into the Metallopodnos (Metal Tray) Cooperative, that much later, in 1960, was renamed the Zhostovo Workshop of Decorative Painting.

Living and working conditions have changed beyond all recognition. The workshops are now housed in a brick building that was specially erected for the purpose in 1930. The craftsmen now receive the acknowledgement and esteem that before was accorded their employers. Andrei Gogin was the first to earn the title of Honoured Art Worker of the Russian Federation, a title which has also been conferred on Boris Grafov, Nikolai Antipov and Zoya Kliodova, while the Repin State Prize has been awarded to Nina Goncharova, Yevgeny Lapshin, Nikolai Mazhayev, Victor Kliodov, Mikhail Savelyev, Vladimir Zhmyliov and Viacheslav Letkov.

From the very outset, traditional designs and techniques were adopted as the basis of the newly revitalized craft. Leading the way was the generation that had started out at the turn of the century - Alexei Leznov, Ivan Leontyev, Dmitry and Nikita Kliodov, Andrei Gogin, Nikita Tsaplygin, Dmitry Kuznetsov, Matvei Mitrofanov, and Pavel Kurzin, whose handiwork is now part of Zhostovo`s golden treasury.

Alexei Leznov`s output is amazing for the ease of composition and the harmony of vibrant colours which seem to emanate silvery radiance. His compact bouquets never appear monotonous or top-heavy, because the artist effectively juxtaposes different forms. In one of his best pieces, his round Bouquet tray, he contrasts the large flamboy-ant centrally positioned bouquet with the surrounding elegantly disposed array of miniscule flowers. On another of his trays the representation of a large white bird with spread wings introduced into the floral design of coruscating pinks, golden oranges, blues and violets serves to integrate the entire composition. He also displays a flair for depicting bunches of flowers whose distinct, resilient forms radiate an enchanting appeal and create an impeccably arranged pattern.

Andrei Gogin, Leontyev`s pupil, introduced a completely novel design marked by a delicate colour scheme superimposed upon a light-toned or polychrome background. In his Poppies on a Blue Ground tray, the beautifully blended colour scheme is achieved through a gradual transition from the centrally positioned reds and pinks via pinkish violets and purplish and pale blues to the azure of the field.

Dmitry Kliodov`s exuberant compositions are notable for their especially decorative highlights, sometimes light-toned, sometimes polychrome and composed of tiny dashes and stippled dabs.

Whereas most craftsmen preferred lush garden flowers, especially roses, in their designs, Nikita Tsaplygin created his posies from unpretentious wild flowers, imparting an exquisite charm to them by means of free-flowing brushwork and an impressive colour scheme of blues, pinks, nacreous greens and golds. The highly innovative floral design, a reinterpretation of the early nineteenth-century golden-tinted Petersburgian rocaille, lends particular elegance to this artist`s work.

Matvei Mitrofanov`s compositions, on the other hand, are reminiscent of a carpet woven in diverse colours. By the use of varied techniques, he introduced into the multilayered design an ornamental, two-dimensional pattern of the type usually painted over a gold ground (potal).The output of Pavel Kurzin and Vasily Diuzhayev - the latter was a pupil of Alexei Leznov - is characterized by a minute carpet-like arrangement of plants and flowers that can be seen in nature.

Vastly Bolonin elaborated on the traditional floral spray motif, even at a time when his fellow craftsmen preferred the more compactly arranged bouquet. His compositions are graceful, yet laconic; the stems are not lost in an overwhelming profusion of flowers, but stand out distinct and clear against the smooth sheen of the back-ground.

The output of Alexander Vishniakov, a descendant of the celebrated family of that name, falls in rather a special category. His paintings display less conventional orna-mentation and his style and careful modelling is to a certain degree reminiscent of easel painting. Yet because of the expressive composition and robust colour schemes that he uses, his bouquets are appealingly decorative.

Nikita Kliodov favoured exuberant landscapes, replete with turreted castles, wooded mountains and snow-white swans. In his work we are confronted with a fancifully con-ceived blend of the exotic and the everyday, for instance, rustic Russian izbas nestling in green gardens against a highly romantic backdrop of crags and clouds.

A certain number of the sketches contributed by the staff of the Moscow Museum of Handicrafts in the 1920s and early 1930s in an overall effort to revive folk art, were adopted by Alexei Leznov, who confessed that these innovative approaches enabled him to gain a broader perspective and better understanding of colour. His imagination was captured by such motifs as a floral spray with birds or a pheasant amidst flowers, and especially by Piotr Konchalovsky`s vigorous, imaginative canvases. Under this artist`s influence he produced several panels and trays into the decoration of which he interwove skillfully reconstructed motifs from easel painting.

His typically Zhostovo representation of still lives consisting of fruit in a basket, or of flowers and fruit in a vase are good examples of this. In his work, the apples and pears seem enveloped in a soft incandescence, the knobbly pineapple has been transformed into a gleaming sphere of gold exuding a shower of numerous sparkling lights and hand-somely topped by a spray of golden-green leaves. Though the shape of the vase is only hinted at by a series of light-toned patches on the dark, japanned background, the trans-lucent glass is most convincingly represented.

Another fascinating, extremely decorative reinterpretation of an easel still life is provided by Vasily Grachov in a very unusual tray which depicts red flowers in a basket against a similar red background.

Zhostovo traditions are carried forward today by some 200 painters, the leading lights among whom represent the generation born in the 1930s and apprenticed in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the critical eye of such experienced veterans as Andrei Gogin and Pavel Plakhov. Though they differ greatly from the craftsmen of old, they show a full understanding of the special features of the Zhostovo craft along with a devo-tion to established tradition which is expressed not only in the application of the previously employed motifs and methods, but also even more strongly in their team spirit, which enables every artist to assimilate and reinterpret every new motif in his or her own individual style. In fact it is this team spirit that serves to support superlative personal achievement in artistic endeavour and sweep away the inferior and mediocre.

Although the various traditional types and techniques of ornamental decoration are widely used today, there is always room for innovation, in shape or motif. Thus today, apart from trays, decorative wall panels and elegant pans and tills are grafted. Particu-larly worthy of note are the needlework boxes with flower designs currently being pro-duced; these were, as a rule, formerly embellished with narrative miniatures. larger flowers seem to be placed in the depth, while an effective play of light is generated on the surface by the use of varying light and dark shades. Yevgeny Lapshin, on the other hand, demonstrates a painterly mellowness in his colour schemes, producing bouquets that appear to be veiled in a diaphanous haze.

Among the more innovative painters is the aforementioned Nina Goncharova, whose work has its origins in her intimate knowledge of artistic tradition and style: she treats traditional Zhostovo themes in a creative, masterly manner. As well as classical bouquets and designs with semi-fantastic birds, she enthusiastically undertakes such novel motifs as honey-yellow sunflowers, queenly chrysanthemums and fluffy rowan-tree branches, and shows identical ease in handling polychrome and two-dimensional ornamentation over an imitation gold ground (potal).

Nikolai Mazhayev is seeking to reintroduce the previously common Zhostovo prac-tice of narrative and landscape painting. Thus, his Alert, Salute und Lenin`s Hut in Raz-liv, which deal with contemporary subjects, are tackled in a fresh, vivid yet laconic manner, with nothing of the naivety of the earlier broadside-type landscape.

Boris Grafov, who for many years has headed the Zhostovo craftsmen, has shown himself to be a first-rate organizer well capable of channeling creative initiative in the right direction, giving free play to the imagination and affording his staff every oppor-tunity of interpreting traditional motifs in a completely individual fashion.

In conclusion it should be noted that the diverse range of individual styles, the vig-orous creative strivings, and the truly panoramic scale of craftsmanship and skill at Zhostovo all serve to illustrate the vast force and potential of this type of painting, which has absorbed the experience and talent of many generations, and is steadily ad-vancing, as appealing and enchanting as ever.

From the book "Zhostovo Hand-Painted Trays"



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