The unbelievably colorful Palekh souvenirs
are known in all countries of the world. The elegant black-lacquered
art pieces on which the heroes of Russian folklore come to life
- the amazing fire-birds and the gold-manned troikas subjugate
us with fairy tale-like world of beauty, movement and harmony
of their color chords.
of Palekh is stretches widely out among the woods and fields
in a picturesque corner of the Ivanovo county. In the XV century
it was a part of the Vladimir-Susdal lands and was one of
the first ancient centers of icon drawing trade. In the XVII-XVIII
centuries Palekh's craftsmen became the most famous in the
icon business. They worked out a style all of their own which
can be distinguished by the fine line tempera drawing saturated
with gold. Their work was valued for the depth of its images
and for their fairy-tale-like ornamental design.
After the 1917 bolshevik's coup, when the
icon business went down, Palekh masters tried to decorate
wooden toys, dishes, porcelain and glass. But the most interesting
way turned out to be painting black-lacquered boxes made of
papier-mache by the likes of E.Golikov, E.Vakurov, A.Kotukhin,
and E.Bakanov. Those masters along with some of their fellow
villagers established, in 1924, a shop of ancient art in which
a new kind of folk art was born-the Palekh artistic lacquers.
By the end of 1920`s there was a wide assortment of Palekh
art objects. Beautiful by their proportions, elegant by form,
the little jewelry boxes, bead boxes, and powder cases beamed
with bright colors and sparkled with golden decorative patterns.
Ordinary things were transformed into objects of art in the
hands of talented artists. Ancient hunting scenes and battles
from Russian epics, village scenes and prayers, literary plots
and the joy of work - everything was reflected in the art
of these distinctive artists. In their art they embody the
folk culture. They are inherent of the passionate feeling
of life and modernity. The art of Palekh miniatures expresses
the true national character. Many examples of Palekh art have
received recognition at international exhibitions and have
For years, a small Russian village named Palekh
has been receiving critical acclaim for the production of
its art. The expression, "Palekh is the village academy!"
came from the reputation that the village acquired from the
quality art that it produces. A plaque at the entrance of
the village greets visitors with the slogan, "Welcome
to the birthplace of the Fire Bird!" Such expressions
as "the wonder of Palekh" or "the Palekh miracle"
were widespread epithets of the creative artists of Palekh.
Its art school was referred to as a "shaper of talents"
in official business documents of the day.
Since it's glory days in the Soviet era, bureaucratic
activity around Palekh has decreased. Recent enthusiastic
exclamations were transformed into everyday expressions. Now
these exclamations are frequently used, but with hints of
irony. The craft, which never acclimated to, but yet evolved
around the principles of a free market, faces economic difficulties
these days. Despite the current state of affairs and overall
pessimism of life in Russia, when reviewing the good and bad
years in Palekh's history, one realizes that the true believers
are justified in saying that Palekh is an artistic wonder
Palekh has gone through two major periods in
its artistic development, that both parallel each other but
have distinct differences from one another. The division between
the two periods was the October Revolution of 1917. After
the Revolution, Palekh stepped into a new era, in which it
started to produce its famous lacquer miniatures, which was
labeled the "miracle born by the Revolution." This
"chamber-style" art declared itself so strongly
and courageously that it immediately won worldwide recognition.
Just a few places where Palekh's art made an impact after
the Revolution: 1923 - Palekh has enormous success in Moscow.
1924 - triumph in Venice. 1925 - "Grand Prix" at
the World Exhibition in Paris. 1927 - ovations in Milan. France,
Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Spain, Holland, China,
Japan, America, and many other countries have showcased Palekh's
art at various art expositions. For more than 75 years, the
art of Palekh has been displayed at the most prestigious exhibition
halls and museums worldwide
Palekh's acquisition of worldwide respect came
as a result of it being the quintessential symbol of lacquer
miniature production in Russia. Igniting the creative force
behind Palekh's art is Fedoskino, another well established
lacquer miniature producer, located in the region of Moscow.
Artistic competition came from Kholuy and Mstera, which also
led to greater development of the Palekh style. An enviable
destiny, indeed! What is the secret? What is the phenomenon
behind Palekh's artistic incarnation?
Is it that divine light sparked Ivan Golikov,
Palekh's lacquer miniature art's ingenious creator? Was it
Maxim Gorkiy's writings about the revolution that created
an aura, which enveloped the new art form in this region?
These individuals should by credited for their input. On the
other hand, if it was not for the icon-painting industry before
the Revolution, Palekh would not have emerged if it did not
have its roots firmly embedded in the style of ancient Byzantium
icon painting traditions. Seeing that before the 1917 revolution,
the founders of modern Palekh art were all excellent icon-painters,
the transition to the painting of lacquer miniatures resulted
in a huge success
did Palekh art begin? This question is almost impossible to
tackle in a scholarly manner. Accoring to legend the first
icon-painters appeared in Palekh during the 13th Century.
These icon-painters were craftsmen from the Vladimir-Suzdal
principality, that fled to the most remote depths of the Palekh
provinces, to elude the mighty Mongol Khan Batu. On the other
hand, the majority of known historical texts from the time
testify that the icon-painting craft developed in Palekh only
in the 17th century. The conservative establishment of the
era did not treat these craftsmen with much adoration. The
hard working and talented artists were producing superb quality
icons at a fraction of the price of the "well-to-do"
city-based icon workshops, which had quite and elite customer
Simon Ushakov, a famous and well-established
icon painter "for the elite" wrote to his colleague
Iosif Vladimirov with sorrow: "Men from Shuya, Kholuy
and Palekh sell icons at fairs and in remote villages, and
exchange them, like children's toys, for eggs or onions."
Without being given a chance to find it's own character, Palekh
was placed in the same category with other provincial centers.
Negative statements such as this are a good example of the
unfair treatment Palekh received during its infancy.
The artisans of Kholuy and Mstera, alongside
with icons of high quality, produced unpretentious, so-called
"popular" icons, intended for the most undemanding
buyer. Since both villages were located on busy roads near
the large commercial cities of Vladimir, Rostov, and Nizhni
Novgorod, these productions were sold quickly in very large
Palekh icon painting originally evolved under
quite different conditions. The village was lost among virgin
woods and swampy bogs. It had no trade routes passing through
it, and no big commercial fairs were held there. Palekh was
not even shown on a general geographic map of the Russian
Empire at the time. Palekh's inhabitants were able to create
new art, restore ancient samples, and craft icon originals
in peace and solidarity without the commotion and bustle of
other icon producing centers.
Palekh's art began to be noticed and its diligent
work ethic was soon rewarded. Palekh artists were offered
contracts to work at the Imperial Chamber of Weapons in Moscow,
which was the leading art academy of Ancient Russia. The Chamber
would commision groups, or "artels," of Palekh artists
to various cities and villages of Russia. Ancient frescoes
were restored, walls of churches were decorated, and heavenly
images on wood panels - "icons" - were painted.
There may even be a blood relation between two famous figures
in the world of icon painting. The two persons are separated
by two centuries - the imperial iconographer Georgiy Zimoviev,
who is mentioned in ancient texts, and prominent Palekh lacquer
miniature painter Nikolay Zinovyev.
By the 18th century, the classical Byzantium
style of painting icons fell out of fashion. To many it seemed
development in icon painting had come to a screeching halt.
A more secular direction in icon art was introduced. At that
point Palekh's artists developed their own style in Russian
icon-painting, to sustain their economy and to keep up with
the latest trends, called the "Palekh Style."
Palekh artists incorporated their age-old knowledge
and techniques into their new style. The ethereal quality
of church wall frescoes of the Upper Volga region impressed
strongly upon the artists fo Palekh. The delicate ornamental
language of Stroganov's craftsmen fascinated them. They were
captivated by the Moscow Imperial Style's precise filigree
manner of painting. They were also influenced by the realist
paintings of the Fryazhskiy masters. This inspiration, entwined
with the traditions of folk culture, generated a bright and
unique art form.
Not surprisingly Palekh souvenirs emerged as
the center of Russian icon painting. This fact was quickly
confirmed, as prominent authorities on Russian painting at
the time were applauding Palekh for its art. At the request
of Wolfgang Gete, a government official who became interested
in icon painting, research was carried out on the art of the
Suzdal region. The research showed that traditional craftsmenship
had more or less vanished in city painters, but prospered
with village painters who started to be influenced by the
likes of those in Palekh.
Palekh came to be known as the keyholder of
the ancient traditions in iconography. The centuries-old development
of medieval icon artistry evolved into what is now synonymous
with Palekh. During the painting of Palekh's Krestovozdvizhenskiy
Temple (1810's), the icon-painters did not know that they
were completing one of the last jewels in the tradition of
Russian icon-painting. Palekh artisans were again commissioned
to perform the work in Moscow, at the end of the 19th Cenury,
in the renovation of the Granovitaya Chamber at the site of
the Kremlin. Another prestigious job that Palekh's artists
took on was the decoration of the State Historical Museum.
The artists from Palekh gained so much acclaim that the restoration
of frescos in Russias ancient cathedrals was usually entrusted
only to them
In front of the 20th Century stood a threshold
that was about to be shattered by many historical events.
At the beginning of the century, Palekh icon painting came
under heavy attacks of criticism from many academic circles
in art. Palekh was able to withstand new conveyor-belt methods
of mass producig art, which were trying to eliminate the manual
production of icons to lower costs and increase sales. However,
it couldn't stop the force of the Revolution which blanketed
all parts of Russia and its people. The Revolution, split
the minds, bodies, and souls of Russian society. "Icon-daubers"
became unwanted. Not only the painters but the icons themselves
became enemies in the eyes of the new Communist regime. Icons
were mercilessly mutilated and desicrated at the hands of
the new power that overtook Russia.
Losing the means by which they lived, icon-painters
resorted to engaging in husbandry, horticulture, braiding
bast shoes, and decorating wooden utensils and nesting dolls
to make ends meet. In this time of great change and suffering
the fate of these talented artists lied upon a different path.