Russian folk art Zhostovo painted trays
Zhostovo, is a major center of Russian folk art. Their consummate skill turns domestic utensils into fine decorative works. The bright designs, hand-painted in vigorous brush sparkle against the shining surface of lacquer. Nor do they make exact replicas of their own designs. Their seemingly effortless manner stems from superb proficiency-the legacy of several generations of anonymous peasant craftsmen.
The trays are quite popular nowadays, too. Interior decorators often use them to create bright wall panels, and their sparkling designs never fail to appeal to viewers. They are a permanent feature of exhibitions held both at home and abroad, and there is a steady demand for them in many countries.
Painted lacquer trays began produce in Russia in the first half of the eighteenth century in the Urals by the Demidov magnates at their Nizhny Tagil factory. Subsequently, such trays were produced also in St. Petersburg. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Zhostovo village near Moscow emerged as the main tray-making center.
Painted trays were an integral part of the Old Russian life style. They were in use everywhere – in inns and tearooms, in merchants’ and peasants’ homes, in the dwellings of urban artisans and office employees.
Besides, the originality of Zhostovo trays appealed to many outstanding Russian painters. Boris Kustodiyev, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Ilya Mashkov, Alexander Kuprin and Pavel Kuznetsov often included them in their still lifes.
Zhostovo characteristic style emerged fully in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. The trays could be different shapes (oval, bean-shaped, figured). They were subdivided into ‘festooned’, ‘Gothic’, ‘Rococo’ and ‘Siberian’. They greatly varied in size, ranging from 17 to 45 cm in length.
The main painting motifs were floral and landscape. There were, moreover, ‘tortoiseshell’, and ‘silvery’ trays (for the latter, metallic powders were used). Some trays bore representations of scenes from the people’s life (Making Bast Shoes, Tea Drinking. Troika, etc.). The most popular floral composition was a bunch of flowers placed in the tray’s center, with a miniature golden design running along the rim. This particular composition was probably inspired by that of sill lifes in nineteenth- century easel painting. But at Zhostovo the flower-bunch motif was more ornamental than in easel painting. The flowers were distributed in a conventional manner over the shining background of lacquer. The luxurious blooms and leaves were set off by supple stems and springs; delicate herbs helped to tie the painting to the background.
The consummate skill of the tray painters was the result of a systematic, long training. Apprenticed as a child, a young artist was believed to be fully initiated only at seventeen.
Trademarks on the trays and exhibition catalogues gave only the names of manufacturers, with the artists sinking into anonymity. The people’s memory, however, has brought to us the names of K. Gribkov, A.Kartyshev, I. Levin, S. Mitrofanov, and others.
Today the craftsmen strive more than ever before to convey in their painting the fresh breath of nature and to offer their own interpretation of the contemporary art trends. The specificity of genuine folk art is such that, far from impairing the precious legacy of the past, creative experiments may develop and enrich it. The new versions of flower bunches, the new decorative treatment of form and size, of rhythm and color scheme, are organically fitted to the distinctive Zhostovo imagery and idiom.
Today the Zhostovo traditions are happily developed by many gifted contemporary artists, each with his or her own manner and style.
Nikolai Antipov’s painting stands out for its elegance, be it vibrant polychrome compositions or graceful linear designs for which he uses metallic powders and mother-of-pearl. Antipov skilfully plays up the lacquer background: the bulkier flowers seem to sink into it, and the light and dark brushstrokes alternate to create an iridescent effect.
Yevgeny Lapshin has opted for a captivating, soft treatment of the motifs, with a preference for delicate color schemes.
Nina Goncharova’s forte is her mastery of the old Zhostovo traditions, which she uses in her own creative manner. She excels both in the classical flower-bunch motif and in decorative compositions with fanciful birds. She has introduced new elements, such as golden sunflowers, graceful chrysanthemums, winding sprigs of the rowan tree.
Nikolai Mazhayev is interested in reviving the genre scenes and landscapes, once so popular at Zhostovo. His are vigorous, laconic, fresh works, devoid of the naivete of the erstwhile Zhostovo landscape trays.
For many years now Zhostovo’s artists have been led by Boris Grafov. He has succeeded in stimulating and guiding the creative initiative of the individual artists. Grafov’s own work testifies to his rich imagination and very distinctive treatment of traditional motifs.
The widely diverse styles and manners of the Russian tray painters, their intense and large-scale creative experiments clearly testify to the tremendous potentialities and vitality of this traditional art craft.