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Posts Tagged ‘Russian icons’

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Photos: James Hill for the New York Times
A student at the Higher School of Folk Art in the village of Kholui, Russia.

Years ago, a Massachusetts industrialist who was fascinated by Russian religious icons turned his large collection into the Museum of Russian Icons, a site worth visiting if you are ever near Clinton, Massachusetts.

But after the Russian Revolution outlawed religion, icons stopped being made for a long time. Resourceful icon painters developed a new art form — lacquer boxes that drew on the same skills as the icons and were collectible in their own right. Then the Wheel of Fortune turned again. Icons are now on top, and the new art form is endangered.

Neil MacFarquhar writes at the New York Times, “Once upon a time, the small, picturesque Russian village of Palekh gained fame far and wide for producing religious icons.

“Then one day, a revolution came and its adherents, growling, ‘There is no god,’ banned such art.

“Hundreds of artists eventually learned to adorn lacquer boxes instead, painting scenes from Russian fairy tales or romanticized versions of country life. These delicate miniatures made the village famous anew, especially after foreign collectors plunked down tens of thousands of dollars buying an art form considered uniquely Russian.

“Then the fickle wheel of history rotated once more. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church revived icon painting. It is miniature art now facing extinction.

‘It is going to be lost,’ said Yevgeny A. Sivyakov, 71, an accomplished miniaturist. ‘It is a frightening period right now.’

“The youngest generation of artists shows little interest, he said. ‘Everyone speaks of commerce — what is the point of developing lacquer miniatures when good money is being paid for icons, for frescoes?’

“Stunning antique icons and miniatures fill the collection of the State Museum of Palekh Art. The boxes are adorned with characters from Russian fairy tales — princes and princesses, the legendary firebird and Baba Yaga, a sorceress — replacing the Virgin Mary and the saints. The four seasons were a favorite theme, with countless troikas dashing across snowy fields.

“Each papier-mâché box, blackened with mud from the Teza River, is a blaze of meticulous detail. To paint faces, for example, the artists commonly used a brush made of just one hair from a squirrel’s tail.

“The egg tempera paint gave the boxes a polished glow, enhanced by rubbing them with bone. In addition, the Palekh tradition of edging in gold every person, animal and sometimes every leaf made the details pop out of the black background. …

“When icons were banned, [icon painters] floundered about for alternatives, including book illustrations and set designs.

“Then Ivan I. Golikov, a painter, stumbled upon a small exhibition in Moscow featuring 18th-century Asian painted lacquer boxes. In December 1924, Mr. Golikov founded the Ancient Russian Painting Workshop in Palekh. Throughout the Soviet years, a single collective produced the boxes.

“Palekh attracted both Russian and foreign visitors. Virtually everyone in Palekh will tell you that the Soviet Union earned some $1 million annually in hard currency off the boxes, which Western collectors considered a rarity.

“Lacquer boxes, as did all things following the Soviet Union’s demise, experienced a period of anarchy. Cheap fakes flooded the market and prices collapsed. If a shoebox-sized lacquer box that required a year to paint once sold for more than $40,000 abroad, that same box would earn about $5,000 today.

“Something smaller — a glasses case, for example — goes for $121 in the Palekh museum store. An imitation in Moscow costs less than $5. Demand for originals has fallen sharply. Few Russians can afford such prices, and foreign collectors died out.

“Sergei Bobovnikov, an antiques dealer in St. Petersburg, said there might be 150 regular buyers in the country, with an antique piece commanding $350 to hundreds of thousands for an original by Mr. Golikov or other founders of the Palekh school. ‘They invented a whole new style,’ Mr. Bobovnikov said.”

Learn what has happened since here.

Top: a Soviet-era Palekh board painted in 1975 and entitled “Holiday of Russian Winter in Palekh.” Bottom: detail from a Soviet-era Palekh plate, painted in 1955, entitled “Flourish, land of the Kolhoz!”

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