A Russian Assignment

The art of lacquered papier mache´ goes back to the 13th century in China. It eventually came to Russia in the 18th century by way of Japan, Persia, India and western Europe. Today’s miniatures may be found in museums and private collections worldwide.

Generations of skilled Russian miniaturists having worked through the centuries on icon painting shaped the art today known as the Russian lacquered miniature. With the Revolution of 1917 came the decline of hand-painted icons. The skilled artisans turned from sacred themes to the rich heritage of Russian folklore and legend.

Four villages represent four art schools that produce this ancient art each one with a distinctive style. The villages of Palekh, Kholui, Mstera and Fedoskino are northeast or north of Moscow. The beauty of Palekh is known throughout the world for the masterful and inspired work of its artists who’ve carried on the glory of an artistic tradition for five centuries.

In January of 1991 the premier artists representing each of the villages came together in a dimly lit and dusty room in Moscow. They each brought with them their finest works. I joined them along with my client to photograph these wonderful samples of the best of Russian artistic culture. We were to prepare a book that would accompany the American exhibits in New York, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco.

While shooting for two days in the crowded room with the artists, interpreter, client and my Russian assistant it became clear to me that an art cooperative isn’t always so cooperative. In fact, as the days progressed, the conversations got louder and more tempestuous with each artist clamoring to have his work featured. I vividly remember one artist holding one of his boxes in front of my view camera’s lens and trying to remove a competitors box already in place. Either one of those treasures could command a place in one of the world’s finest museums. I was astounded by the egos displayed by each of the artists and even more surprised that we were able to avoid fist fights.

When the shoot was finished we all shared a celebratory meal and exchanged gifts and vigorous hugs. It was a memorable exploration of the warmth of the Russian soul.

About Fisherman and Fish by Vladimir Bushkov, 1990, Palekh Casket

About Fisherman and Fish by Vladimir Bushkov, 1990, Palekh Casket

The Snow Maiden by Nina Lopatina, 1990, Palekh Casket

The Snow Maiden by Nina Lopatina, 1990, Palekh Casket

Russian Troykas by Boris Kukuliyev, 1990, Palekh Casket

Russian Troykas by Boris Kukuliyev, 1990, Palekh Casket

Ruslan and Lyudmila by Alexandr Gelishev, 1990,Palekh Casket

Ruslan and Lyudmila by Alexandr Gelishev, 1990,Palekh Casket

Russian lacquer miniature

Russian lacquer miniature

Lid of Box by Oleg Dukhanin, Palekh

Lid of Box by Oleg Dukhanin, Palekh

 

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4 Comments

  1. alva January 30, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    Didn’t know you had such an assignment. Thanks for posting. You are always giving us visual treats. Alva

  2. William Koechling January 30, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Thanks, Alva. It was quite a while ago.

    I didn’t mention in the post that much of the painting on the boxes was done with brushes that contain a single wolf hair. The boxes are quite small with the lid pictured above being about five inches wide. There is an enormous amount of detail in each painting.

  3. howard whitaker February 3, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    Fascinating, Bill! A great story, and very interesting work by these artists. Thanks.

  4. William Koechling February 3, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    Thanks for taking a look, Howie. It may not look like it but these were pretty difficult to photograph. It was very similar to trying to light and photograph a multifaceted mirror without having the camera or yourself in the mirror.

    The artists are amazingly talented painting a fair amount of the detail work with a brush containing a single hair!

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