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Russian folk art

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T he village of Zhostovo outside Moscow has become a symbol of unique folk art. For more than 150 years now many of its inhabitants have been developing the skill of decorating but one thing, trays. Their skillful hands have turned this household utensil into a work of art. Bouquets or garden and field flowers strewn against the black background adorn these trays, giving people joie-de-vivre and awakening admiration over the beauty and diversity of nature. Every human being shares these feelings, and therefore few people remain indifferent to the Zhostovo craft, which has long become world famous. Zhostovo wares belong to the family of Russian lacquers, whose history goes back to the emergence of miniature lacquer painting on papier-mache in the village of Danilkovo near Fedoskino in the Moscow Region, in the late 18th century.

S.Pronin. Oval winged tray

S.Pronin  Oval winged tray. 1998

    The tray as a household utensil had been known since times immemorial, but in the 19th century the demand for trays rose as a result of the growth of cities and the expansion of the network of hotels, eateries and bars, where trays were used both for their immediate purpose and as interior decorations. It was that new market that enabled the Zhostovo masters to establish themselves as a distinctive tray-making industry. They took into account the experience of other production centers, but instead of merely borrowing the shapes and techniques they liked, they reworked them into their own inimitable style.
    The first trays were made in Zhostovo in 1807, when Filipp Nikitich Vishnyakov founded his workshop. After he moved to Moscow, his brother Taras carried on the family business. Yegor Vishnyakov started the manufacture of papier-mache and metal lacquers in the village of Ostashkovo 2km away from Zhostovo in 1815, and Osip Filippovich Vishnyakov, whose name is associated with the flourishing of the craft, opened his workshop in 1825.

Peter the Great on Lake Ladoga

"Peter the Great on Lake Ladoga"
Studio of T.M. Belyayev. 1850

    Every tray was usually handled by three craftsmen - a smith, who produced shapes, a spatler, who covered the tray with a layer of ground, and a painter, who did the painting. After the tray was dried, the ground-worker covered it with lacquer. In the beginning the workshop master and members of his family worked on a par with other employees.
    As the Zhostovo craftsmen expanded production, they took account of and absorbed the experience of other tray-makers. They were prompted the idea of replacing papier-mache with metal, which was hardier, by trays from Nizhny Tagil, which had become a well-known production center way back in the 17th century. Those masters were making large trays painted from original canvasses or engravings.
    The Zhostovo masters admired the virtuoso mastery of St. Petersburg trays and learned from them the art of decorative still life, also adapting it to fit their own wares. Along with absorbing some of the techniques of other tray-makers, the Zhostovo craftsmen primarily tried to develop their own, local traditions. Zhostovo tray-making was born of the miniature lacquer painting craft that was practised in villages and townships around Moscow, and that umbilical cord was not cut for a long time. Until the 20th century the trays and lacquered wares were produced in the same workshop and painted by the same masters. Even after tray-making had spun off as a distinctive industry, the Zhostovo tray painters continued to improve the techniques of processing lacquered papier-mache boxes while using the same grounds, lacquers and oil paints

P.Plakhov."Flowers, bird and butterfly"

P.Plakhov  "Flowers, bird and butterfly"
Tray.  1950

     The specific Fedoskino techniques of multilayer painting, subsequent light brushes against metallized or multicolored backgrounds and mother-of-pearl inlay were borrowed from lacquer miniature painting and applied to tray-making. The scenes painted on early trays - troika carriages, tea-parties and rustic character scenes - were close to the compositions used on lacquer miniature
    Alongside using genre scenes, Zhostovo craftsmen increasingly developed their own style of decorative floral compositions. Local artistic traditions and the creative development of the main accomplishments of other crafts enabled Zhostovo craftsmen to evolve their original style and an unique system of the local craft that are manifest in every piece dating to that period.The Zhostovo masters painted their trays on colored and golden backgrounds as well as on black and white ones. The surface of the tray was prepared with bronze or aluminum dust which, showing through lacquer, shone like gold and resembled the famous Khokhloma wares. The colors looked especially vibrant against the golden background and the tray seemed a really precious item.
    In the 1910s, Zhostovo tray-making, like many other folk crafts, was hit by a crisis. The demand for trays had slumped, and production was shrinking. Painters and smiths were leaving their workshops for farming or seasonal work. It was only in the 1920s, with the overall revival of folk crafts and the rebirth of artels across the country, that they reemerged around Zhostovo.

I.Vladikina. "Two branches"

I.Vladikina  "Two branches".  1995

    Zhostovo fell on hard times in the 1920s and 1930s. The tendency for the uncompromising assertion of modernity and realism that were common for Soviet art prompted the authorities in charge of the folk crafts to try to influence their traditional developmental trends and impose on the Zhostovo painters easel-painting and naturalist models of ornamental and thematic compositions that had been devised by professional artists without any regard for the specific features of the local craft. The leading Zhostovo painters understood that those innovations were alien to the very nature of folk art, so they effectively countered those new trends and infused new ideas into the traditional school of painting.
    In 1940, the Fedoskino vocational school opened a department of Zhostovo painting to train young craftsmen. Two remarkable Zhostovo painters, P.Plakhov and V.Dyuzhayev, taught there for many years, the activity that was responsible for their emergence as original masters. They trained several generations of young craftsmen, who developed in their own way the Zhostovo painting traditions, and themselves represented two different, highly dissimilar aspects of the local craft.
    Another stage in the history of Zhostovo craft started in the 1960s and continues to our day. Overcoming tendencies leaning toward easel painting and natural is in, tray painting has been gaining in prestige and popularity not only owing to large-scale output of serial works, but also owing to unique items that increasingly attracted public attention at numerous exhibitions both at home and abroad. Ever since its outset Zhostovo craft has been developed by several generations of craftsmen, who formed painter dynasties. It is being carried on today by the familial Belyayev, Kledov, Antipov, Saveliev, Gogin and Vishnyakov clans. Many of them have been granted the honorable title of the Merited Artist of Russia, are members of the Artists' Union, have been decorated with medals of the Academy of Arts, and have won diplomas and awards at numerous exhibitions of different levels. Their works are stored as a national treasury and exhibited by major national museums.

 G.Hitrov. "A morning outside Moscow"

G.Hitrov  "A morning outside Moscow".  2002

    Constantly perfecting their craftsmanship, Zhostovo painters give free rein to improvisation, demonstrating diverse styles and techniques. Modern Zhostovo craftsmen are increasingly turning the tray from a household object into a work of art, and decorative Zhostovo painting is elevated to the level of an independent genre capable of addressing directly people's thoughts and feelings. B. Grafov goes on to say: "Zhostovo trays are increasingly acquiring the meaning of decorative objects rather than a mere household utensil by virtue of the special importance of their painting. Our trays are both beautiful and meaningful. At first sight the painting seems to be finishing off and adorning the tray, but there is more to it than meets the eye... Take a closer look and you'll be enchanted with the meaning of the bouquet... Every flower is looking at you and telling you something, or reminding you of something. These flowers are inimitable and always different, each with its own original character, and even the artist himself will not be able to produce the same bouquet."
    Zhostovo trays have transformed from a household object into full-fledged decorative panels in the course of their history, and the craft which served as an auxiliary source of income for farmers, has acquired the status of a unique Russian folk art.

T.Sholokhova. "Evening garden"

T.Sholokhova. "Evening garden" 1993

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O.Bolshova. Oval winged tray

O.Bolshova  Oval winged tray.  1999

K.Gribkov. Octahedral tray

K.Gribkov.  Octahedral tray.  1920

O.Bolshova. Oval tray

O.Bolshova. Oval tray.  2003

A.Topilin. Figured tray

A.Topilin.  Figured tray.  2001

B.Belyaev. Oval winged tray

B.Belyaev. Oval winged tray

A.Philippov. Rectangular tray

A.Philippov.  Rectangular tray. 2004

B.Grafov. "Morning bouquet"

B.Grafov. "Morning bouquet"

N.Antipov. "Roses"

N.Antipov. "Roses"
Tray. 1977

B.Savelyev "Two branches"
B.Savelyev "Two branches"
Plateau. 1986

 M.Savelyev. "Style life with fruit"
M.Savelyev. "Style life with fruit"