The Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross dominates the approach to Palekh. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Artist Andrei Arapov chose folklore and imperial authority as themes for this lacquered box. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A student practices her craft at the Palekh Art Academy. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Alexander and Margarita Mamin prefer to work on icons with their religious themes rather than papier-mâché boxes and plates with secular motifs, which the Soviets had insisted upon. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A Palekh resident works on a papier-mâché box. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Palekh’s museum houses this 20th-century icon of St. Nicholas by Nikolai Chudogvaretz. (photo: Sean Sprague)
The blue onion domes of the Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross rise above the wheat fields on the road to the Russian village of Palekh. Potholes plague the road, but travelers from Russia and across the globe still make the trek to the village, some 250 miles northeast of Moscow.
They are drawn, as they have been for over three centuries, by the fame of Palekhs artists, whose icons adorn some of Russias most important churches, including the cathedrals in Moscows Kremlin, the Novodevichy Convent, also in Moscow, and the Trinity Monastery at Sergei Posad, just outside the capital.
Palekh residents have been painting icons, and more recently miniature boxes, for over 350 years. The history of their craft has been intimately tied to the history of Russia itself, with their art changing with the disparate political and economic landscapes Russia has known in the modern period.
Sitting on the Golden Ring linking the regions ancient trading centers, Palekhs history began in the 13th century. Refugees from the Tartar-Mongol invasions burned a forest beside a river and built a new village. Palekh means burnt.
From its earliest days, the village evolved a distinct style of icon painting a tradition deeply rooted in Russias Orthodox heritage and once the exclusive province of the countrys famed monasteries. Palekh artists combined the expressive simplicity of the Novgorod artists of the 15th century with the vibrant color, gold highlighting and intricate detail of Moscows Strogonov School.
For centuries icon painting in Palekh was passed down by apprenticeship from father to son. In the 19th century the state supported Palekh artists, whose importance the monarchy recognized in reaffirming Russias spiritual and artistic symbols, and as a bastion against encroaching Western influences.
In 1814 there were said to be about 600 artists in Palekh, the same number as today. Icon ateliers dotted the village, with the most famous belonging to Nikita Safonov, who along with his son Mikhail undertook commissions across Russia. The reputation of Palekh grew so that by the end of the 19th century Palekh masters had established studios in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Nizny-Novgorod and Perm.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, however, interrupted the tradition, with the Bolsheviks banning icon painting in their attempt to rid Russia of its religious heritage.
Palekh adjusted to the times. Rather than becoming unemployed, its artists switched to other forms of expression. They began decorating porcelain, glass, eggs and wooden toys with nonreligious themes.
The painting of black-lacquered boxes made from papier-mâché was the most successful alternative. Local artist Ivan Golikov is credited with introducing Palekh to the boxes, whose origins lay in the Far East, but which had gained popularity in the village of Fedoskino, near Moscow.
In 1924 Mr. Golikov set up the Cooperative of Ancient Russian Painting in Palekh producing the boxes painted by him and other masters, including Ivan Vakuov, Alexander Kotukhin and Ivan Bakanov. Shortly thereafter women entered what had been a male-only profession. In 1934 the Palekh Art Academy was established; it continues to train local artisans.
Instruction at the academy focuses on the adornment of jewelry boxes and powder cases.
A small factory in Palekh produces the boxes. Strips of cardboard glued together are baked in an oven, lacquered and polished by hand.
The boxes are then turned over to the artists. They are most often painted with a black background with vibrant colors and intricate gold patterns using the egg tempera techniques and style of painting for which Palekhs icons had become renowned. Fine squirrel-hair brushes and magnifying glasses are the tools; a wolfs fang is used to polish the surface. The earliest subjects included fairy tales, poems, scenes from everyday life, troikas (carriages drawn by three horses) and works with a political message.
Under Soviet rule, Lenin, national achievements, cosmonauts, industrial workers and agricultural collectives were most often featured in the traditional style, with a touch of Socialist Realism the Soviet standard for all art.
Examples are on display at the Palekh museum. To date, the village has resisted mass production; replicas remain forbidden. Most artists in Palekh paint boxes, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many have reverted to icons.
Alexander and Margarita Mamin have been married 15 years and are both artists and graduates of the Palekh Art Academy. They live with their two children both of whom want to be artists in a log house surrounded by a vegetable garden.
These days we paint everything from miniatures to big paintings in churches, Mr. Mamin said. For years we had worked on small boxes, but now we prefer to paint icons, especially large ones for iconostases.
Palekh artists are doing more religious painting than before, especially the younger ones. The older artists have always painted boxes; many are reluctant to change.
Painters have to find their own markets, which is difficult for the older artists, said Mr. Mamin. I am working on a series of 120 illustrations for the Bible, but am still looking for a buyer. Several artists now have Web sites to display their work. We have had to adapt to market forces.
Andrei Petrov is head of the Union of Artists of Palekh. He said only 67 of the 200 active artists in Palekh, which has a total population of about 5,000, are registered union members.
Artists earn the right to join the union by merit and by holding regular shows. An education at the academy is often the first step.
I entered the Palekh Art Academy at 15 and by the second year I fell in love with art, Mr. Petrov said. It was a five-year course, but it has been reduced to four years. There are two main subjects: technique and composition. We also learn drawing, anatomy, history of art and the subjects taught in other art schools.
Mr. Petrov carefully unwrapped an almost completed icon entitled Rejoicing of the Sorrowful, finely detailed and embellished with gold leaf. Some 12 inches in diameter, the icon had taken 10 months of his time. I mainly paint icons these days, he said, although I do some boxes.
His wife, Valentina, is also an artist. She described the stress involved with painting icons. Working on icons is as difficult as giving birth, she said. After a few months of working on icons one must return to miniature box painting just for the break.
Mr. Petrov said that painting an icon involves more than simply depicting a saint. Engagement with the spiritual dimension, he said, was both necessary and exhausting. He also predicted a major resurgence in icon painting with the return of religious freedom in Russia, not only in Palekh, but across the country.
Many say the academy has suffered from underfunding since the demise of the Soviet Union. A growing number of students are seeking apprenticeships at private workshops out of the belief that the teaching at the academy has declined.
Previously the state guaranteed jobs to its artists in government-run workshops, but now it is up to the individuals to make their way in a capitalist world once they leave the school.
Irina Livanova and Vadim Zotov are a couple in their 60s. Both still work as artists painting miniature boxes. Their cramped apartment was filled with jars of jam made from wild berries they had been picking that day. They laid out a feast of brown bread, cheese, apples, tea and a little vodka for their visitors and were eager to discuss Palekh, past, present and future.
Palekh painting has very ancient roots, but during Soviet times there was no respect for the tradition. There was suddenly an emphasis on individualism. Only since the 1980s has there been an upsurge in appreciation of folk art and the collective experience, he said.
It is a paradox that people believe they should evolve and change to keep folk art alive, but really they should be keeping the tradition ever refined. That is the essence of folk art.
Like many other artists in Palekh, Mr. Zotov supports improving access to markets for their artwork, but he opposes efforts by developers to alter drastically the character and look of the village to attract more tourists.
A seminar was recently held in the village with artists and Russian journalists to discuss the problems of Palekh. Most resident artists want to keep the village as it is. It would be spoiled by development, hotels, tourism, bars, nightclubs, new roads, he said. It would change the psychology of the place.
Developers are keen to open up Palekh for tourism. Although its artists are an obvious attraction, there is otherwise not much to offer. Unlike other towns on the Golden Ring such as Suzdal, Kostroma and Rostov, which abound with historic and cultural sites, Palekhs physical charms are not so obvious.
Its beauty is at work in the minds, eyes and hands of its artists, tucked away in their apartments and houses. Admittedly, the Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross with its three-story iconostasis painted by local artists is impressive, but the rest of Palekh is very much a typical post-Soviet village. Shabby five-floor apartment blocks from the Khrushchev era look due for demolition.
The academy is in a shoddy building, which, if in the West, would have been replaced long ago. A large Soviet-era structure designed as a complex of studios for individual artists stands unfinished and abandoned for the last 15 years, the victim of perestroika, or the restructuring of the Soviet economy, which began in the mid-1980s.
Old bread trucks splash through muddy potholes. Babushkas clutching plastic bags trudge to a street market where peasants sell wormy apples and milk fresh from their own cows. There are some charming log cabins with ornate windows, but drab poverty is the rule.
Despite this appearance, tranquil Palekh continues as a powerhouse for Russian symbols and art. It is not the only artists village in the region: Fedoskino, Mstera and Khouli are also well-known for their distinct styles of folk art.
But Palekh, the oldest and most celebrated, seems to stand above them all. It has survived the centuries, adapting to changing social and political climates.
Famous by the 18th century, Palekh was recognized as personifying Russias soul through its imagery and was key in the resurgence of national pride and cultural identity.
After 1917 it adapted to the Soviet regimes atheism by turning toward nonreligious artifacts and themes.
With the collapse of Soviet rule, Palekh artists are returning to icon painting. They face challenges in a new Russia grappling with the vicissitudes of international markets and other development issues, but their creative genius abides.
Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.