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Russian folk art

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T he North of the Nizhni Novgorod province is a bountiful land. The lush green of the flood plain meadows stretches along the low left bank of the Volga bordered with boundless dense forests. Villages and small hamlets are hiding in the forests or lurking near the streams. The lands beyond the Volga made a major contribution to the Russian history; it is a country of many legends. This is the land that was ravaged by the invading Mongol hordes of Batu Khan passing through it on their conquest of Europe more than seven centuries back. This is where the lake Svetloyar is whose clear waters are still preserving the legendary town of Kitezh the citizens of which refused to surrender to the evil force and were redeemed by the Providence as the town was hidden on the bottom of the lake. The folk arts and folklore flourished in the Trans-Volga area of the Nizhni Novgorod province. No other territory in Russia could equal it in the number and originality of the folk arts and crafts that had sprang to life and were developed in the local communities. The Khokhloma painting on wooden articles is, perhaps, the one type of Nizhni Novgorod folk craft that became most popular in Russia and foreign countries.

Unknown craftsmen. Barrel/stool

Unknown craftsmen
Barrel/stool. 1880s

     Most art historians date back the origin of the Khokhloma painting style to the 17th century. At that period the northernmost lands of the Nizhni Novgorod province were just starting to recover after the desolation brought by the Mongol invaders. New settlers moved into the ravaged area beyond the Volga. The handicraft of manufacturing wooden utensils with peculiar decorative painting imitating gilding received the appellation of Khokhloma art from one of the villages where it originally had been practiced in ancient times and which grew to become a trading post to which the local craftsmen brought their wares for sale starting from the 18th century.
     The Khokhloma handicraft became known as early as the 18th century. For instance, the geographer Evdokim Zyablovsky wrote after his journey to the Nizhni Novgorod province in 1790s that the inhabitants of the Trans-Volga area complained about the lack of arable land. He noted, though, that they had mastered many wood-working skills. He wrote, "Local woodland is another source of community welfare. The abundance of wood allows some villagers to manufacture by turning various dishes, cups, plates, and other similar wooden articles", which are then "varnished and decorated all over with golden ornaments and bright flowery patterns". The geographer concluded, "The articles are light in weight, solid, and well proportioned and the black and yellow varnishes they brew from the linseed oil are very strong and clear".

A.Kuznetsova. Chiken-shaped scoop

Chiken-shaped scoop. 1930

     It is not accidental that the Khokhloma painting motifs remind one of the lush grassy ornaments executed in cinnabar in the ancient manuscripts or the painted frames of the icons representing scenes from saints lives with their golden curled leaves weaving against the scarlet or black background. The Khokhloma style generally exhibits a combination of the red, gold, and black typical of the decorative painting of that region in late 17th century and first half of the 18th century. The three colors had a profound symbolism for decorating the sacred church vessels and the dishes and cups used in the monasteries and nunneries, as well as in icon ornaments. The red color represented the beauty, the gold color symbolized the spiritual heavenly light, while the black color signified the graciousgrief cleansing the human soul. The religious symbolism of colors was lost in the Khokhloma art but the precise and solemn scheme of colors inherent in the festive design of the "gilded" dishes grew to be traditionally used for decorating all wooden Khokhloma articles and made them especially favored by the customers.
     A vivid description of the Khokhloma wooden utensils was given by the Russian court physician G. Reman who came to the Makariev Fair in 1805. In the picturesque chaos of the numerous fair stalls and booths along the Volga bank he saw a long row of wagons and carts packed with extraordinary wooden utensils. Reman admired their strength as the lightweight dry wood of the huge cups did not show any cracks despite the extreme heat of the sun-scorched sand where they stood.

V.Tsvetkova. "Plentitude"

V.Tsvetkova  Vase "Plentitude".  2001

      The feeling of living nature characteristic of the rural folk painters permeates the "grass-leaves" Khokhloma painting style. Some motifs of the "grass-leaves" style are also rooted in the folklore. The juicy grasses, the vermilion flashes of cinnabar, and the graceful brush strokes depicted the quest for beauty of the country painter, his desire to show a humble grass stalk as a magic and fantastic plant braided in exquisite curls. They remind one of the images in the ancient wedding folk songs in which the "lusty golden hops" are flourishing along the path leading the bridegroom to his beloved where the "silken grasses" are bowing to them and the flowers are instantly bursting into bloom. The "grass-leaves" patterns have much in common with the Russian folk songs in their rhythms and poetical themes as the romantic feelings in them are expressed in terms of the nature images.
     The Kovernino district of the Nizhni Novgorod province is famous as the birthplace of the Khokhloma painting style. There are families in this area who have been keeping secret formulas of the painting trade and transferring them from one generation to the next for more than three centuries. A visitor to the Kovernino area strolling along the Uzola river keeps on admiring the delightful views of fields and woods stretching to the horizon, the hamlets hiding on the hill slopes, the leisurely flowing waters of the Uzola river, and the lush meadows and birch groves along its banks. In the quiet of a summer evening the local women can be heard singling an ancient folk song in a traditional style "for different parts". The Semino ornaments are akin to soulful Russian folk songs; the local artists as a group may be likened to an ensemble of solo performers whose voices are unique and easily recognizable but are joined together in a sweet melody.

E.Zaitseva "Princess-Swan"

E.Zaitseva  "Princess-Swan".  Scoop
(after a tale of A.Pouchkin "Tale about tsar Saltan"). 1999

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N.Chicalova-Denisova. Duck-shaped scoop

Duck-shaped scoop. 1943

T.Belyantseva. Scoop "Tsar Saltan"

T.Belyantseva  "Tsar Saltan"
Scoop whis suspended miniature scoops. 1980

V.Shvetsova.Cockerel-shaped scoop

Cockerel-shaped scoop. 2001

T.Belyantseva. "Slavonic"

T.Belyantseva  "Slavonic"
Set of vine cups. 2003

V.Shvetsova. Set of fish clishes

Set of fish dishes. "Pike perch" 1998


V.Tsvetkova  Vase "GoldFish"
(after the tale of A.Pushkin)  2000


Vase "Swan". 2003