Soviet laquer miniatures from
the collections of Alexander Dobrovinsiy and Elena Tabak
Conceived & edited by Natalia Semyonova
Text Yevgeniya Gershkovich
Translation Howard M. Goldfinger
Design Irina Tarkhanova-Yakubson
Photography Vladislav Karukin
Project curators Alexander Dobrovinsky, Natalia Semyonova
Consultant Sergei Bobovnikov
Published by Gamma-Press, Moscow 560 pp., more than 1,500 illustrations
The book presents the unique collections of lacquer miniatures — from Palekh, Fedoskino, Mstera and Kholui — belonging to the widely known lawyer Alexander Dobrovinsky and Yelena Tabak.
Here, for the first time, the works of the famed guilds of Palekh, Fedoskino, Mstera and Kholui — small cases, jewel boxes, compacts, cigaret cases, glasses holders, trophies, sketch pads and notebooks — are presented not as they usually are, as beautiful souvenirs from Russia, but as the powerful weapon they were in the armory of socialist propaganda and popular mobilization.
"One of the miracles created by the revolution," Maxim Gorky said of the lacquer miniatures. Ivan Golikov, the first of the Palekh master artists, said: "Our life will now become beautiful like our pictures and boxes.
The revolution has made of our tiresome, repetitive labors a great, free art." The revolution had taken the ground from under the feet of the icon-painters of the village of Palekh. On April 25, 1919, V. I. Lenin signed a decree of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, "On Measures to Assist the Handicraft Industry." The guilds were henceforth declared off-limits to expropriations. The artist Ivan Golikov first saw lacquer boxes, from Fedoskino, made of papier-mache on a visit to the Handicrafts Museum in Moscow. He quickly mastered the technique. This was the beginning of the now world-famous Palekh lacquer guild. The year was 1922. Throwing off the trappings of religion, Palekh began marching in step with the nation. Organized as the Artel, or Cooperative, of Ancient Painting, the artists went from the creation of "God-inspired" icons to immersion in the new and growing movement of socialist realism. With some aid from the fanatics of Proletkult (1917—1932), Palekh sought to adapt to the collectivist style of the era and find its own path. Its understanding of the new doctrine was primitive, and at first the peasant icon-painters had no idea what to paint on their "Soviet boxes."
The young country needed hard currency. The essential task for Palekh was "to make gold from paper." Just as the Soviets traded in art from the palaces and museums, so they traded in the creations of folk crafts. Demand for lacquer was never great within the country itself, but Palekh was very well known to the fashion-setters of Paris, American collectors and foreign artists. What was demanded of the former icon-painters were "folktales" that served the purposes of propaganda. The boxes of Palekh, like those of Fedoskino, Mstera and Kholui, became small elements in the ideological machine, became what we now call "agitlak."
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