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