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.