Birch (“bereza” or “berezka” in Russian) trees are not only beautiful, but quite bountiful in certain parts of Russia (think mid-region f...
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Russian Craft - Khokhloma
Khokhloma painted wooden kitchenware and jewelry boxes are instantly recognizable. Even if you don’t know (or can’t pronounce) the name, I am certain that you have seen a box, or a spoon, or a basket, or even a piece of furniture with a stunning floral ornament featuring leaves, berries and even birds depicted so skillfully that you can’t take your eyes off them.
Khokhloma (often called “Golden Khokhloma”) is a Russian traditional style of wood painting that dates back to the 17th century. It’s interesting that the craft has changed very little throughout history. The rich floral pattern of scarlet red, black and gold is so distinctly unique that it’s virtually impossible not to recognize it. The art is very popular and well-known all around the world. The only other thing that exceeds the popularity of Khokhloma painting is Russian traditional nesting dolls.
As you have probably guessed, the name sends us back into the 17th century, when the art of wood painting first appeared. There are two versions of the origin of the craft. But there’s no doubt that Khokhloma was the name of the village where local craftsmen brought their painted wooden tableware to sell and that’s where the name of the craft came from.
As I have already mentioned, there are two points of view on the origin of the Khokhloma craft. The first and the most popular one is that the handicraft was founded by the Old Believers living in the local woods. Now you are probably wondering who the Old Believers were. Well, they separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 as a protest against the reforms of patriarch Nikon. You can read more about the schism here. There were a few icon-painters among the Old Believers who taught local craftsmen to paint wood. According to the legend, Andrey Loskut was one of the most talented icon painters. He did not accept the religious reforms initiated by Patriarch Nikon, so he decided to leave the monastery and settle in the forest, hoping that the patriarch wouldn’t find him. But his art of wood painting gave him away. When the patriarch learned that Andrey left the monastery and found out where he was hiding he ordered the soldiers to seize the monk. But the icon painter taught the village people the secrets of wood painting to make sure the craft wouldn’t die with him, and then he burnt his hut and supposedly burned himself there, too.
Quite a scary legend, isn’t it? However there’s another point of view on the origin of the craft. Frankly speaking, it looks more realistic to me.
According to some old documents, the art of wood painting similar to Khokhloma style was used even before the Old Believers appeared. At that period (17th century) the Nizhny Novgorod province was just starting to recover after the Mongol invasion. New settlers started to move to the lands. Soon peasants in Lyskovo, Murashkino and Semyonov villages started making wooden tableware painted with tin powder or silver. This method of painting wood actually appeared first in icon painting and was later used in painting wooden tableware and furniture.
The popularity of the craft grew quite rapidly. In 1790 geographer Evdokim Zyablovsky visited the Nizhny Novgorod province and wrote afterwards that though there was a definite lack of arable land in the province, the peasants learned to make the most of the woods surrounding them. Many people mastered wood-working skills and started making dishes, cups, plates and other wooden pieces of kitchenware. He also noted that they varnished those articles and decorated them with golden ornaments and bright floral patterns. He emphasized that the articles were lightweight and solid, which made them durable and perfect for everyday use.
At the beginning, the development of the craft went slowly because tin was quite expensive. The craftsmen realized that they needed rich buyers in order to preserve the craft. And those rich buyers turned to be monasteries. The peasants of Khokhloma, Skorobogatovo, and around 80 other settlements in the Nizhny Novgorod area supplied the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, one of the most important monasteries and the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were often called to work in the Lavra workshops, where they learned to make wooden tableware that looked as if it was made of gold. The Volga River was close by, so it was really easy to ship the goods then to well-known trade centers of Russia and other countries. Khokhloma tableware was very popular in Middle Asia, Persia and India, as well as Great Britain, Germany and France.
Khokhloma painting became widely popular in the second half of the 19th century. Just like other Russian traditional crafts, it experienced a crisis in the early 20th century, but was revitalized in the early 1930s and now Khokhloma tableware is one of the traditional export items to many countries around the world.
Right now, there are two centers of Khokhloma painting in Russia. One is Semyonov, a small town in Nizhny Novgorod region where they make famous Semyonov nesting dolls. It was founded in the 17th century by a group of Old Believers (so maybe the legend isn’t so wrong after all). Khokhloma wood painting became an important part of the town economy in the beginning of the 20th century. Soon the Golden Khokhloma factory appeared there specializing in hand-carved and hand-painted gifts. Wooden hand-painted spoons are probably the most famous products of the factory now, but it creates all kinds of things including toys and furniture.
And the other center of the craft is Syomino village in Kovernin region. It is located near the woods where Khokhloma craft originally appeared. In the 20th century it was decided to build Khokhloma painting factory there that would make different painted items specifically for export to other countries. Thus the settlement became widely known abroad and in Russia. Practically everybody in the area has something to do with the craft. It is a family business, so the secret formulas of the painting craft are passed from one generation to another.
The thing is that Khokhloma artists have mastered an original technology of painting wood golden without actually using gold. At first they used silver powder, but it was too expensive. So they decided to change the technology a bit and to use tin powder instead of silver, and it worked great. Tin powder – that’s what makes Khokhloma articles shine like gold! As for the combination of golden, black and red colors, it was chosen by Khokhloma masters not just based on its popularity. Remember that the craft took a lot from icon painting? In the Russian Orthodox tradition red symbolized beauty, gold represented the heavenly light, and black symbolized the dark human soul cleansed by the gracious grief. Later this religious meaning of colors was lost, but the color scheme was preserved by Khokhloma masters. In fact, it became a traditional color scheme for all wooden Khokhloma articles. Those are the colors most favored by customers, too.
Khokhloma products are made the exact same way as centuries ago. It can take any time from 2 to 4 months to prepare a piece of Khokhloma depending on the size of the piece, as well as on the intricacy of the design. At first the wood is prepared and cut into the desired shape, and then the master applies a thin layer of brown clay and heats the piece in a kiln. Then the item is oiled three times with flaxseed oil and left to air dry. After that the master starts working on the color of the piece, and the first step here is covering it with aluminum metallic powder (that’s what they use now instead of tin). After that the master paints the piece with oil paints and dries the future masterpiece in the kiln again. Then the master covers the work with several layers of varnish and after each layer is applied the piece is dried again under a high temperature. The extreme temperature is vitally important for the finished piece, because without it the powdered aluminum won’t acquire this glistening golden color.
Those who have been following our blog for some time have probably noticed that in many cases Russian craftsmen don’t make preliminary sketches, and the Khokhloma masters aren’t an exception. They totally rely on their own imagination and skill to paint vivid floral ornaments that make Khokhloma so famous. They paint the images of blossoming bushes, grass, berries and flowers just like their forefathers did because these ornaments symbolized well-being and happiness for Russian people. Thus modern masters remain true to the old traditions, but they use modern materials and paints, which makes the colors deeper and the whole range of Khokhloma products more attractive and diverse. Each piece made by skillful masters is unique, and you would never be able to find any two items that would be exactly alike.
There are two types of Khokhloma painting: the so-called “upper painting” and the “background painting”. The “upper painting” type means that the master paints red and black ornaments against the golden background. This type of Khokhloma is generally more popular. It includes such traditional elements as grass and leaves. The masters of “background painting” first create a red or black background and then paint the golden design against it. This type of Khokhloma is harder to master, and that’s why it is not so widely spread as the first type. But it is very beautiful. One of the methods of background painting is called “kudrina” (from the Russian word meaning “curls”) because the master paints the golden ornament in delicate scrolls that actually look like curls. The background painting is also more expensive because it involves even more skill than the upper painting.
Khokhloma kitchenware and jewelry boxes are surely beautiful. But how practical are they? Would they make a great gift that could become your family treasure? They surely would. Were the Russian peasants who started making those painted articles concerned merely with beauty? Of course not! Khokhloma articles are supposed to be used in everyday life, so they have to be durable, lightweight and easy to use. And they are! You can eat and drink from your Khokhloma cups and bowls. Besides, if you have to move to a place with a different climate, you don’t have to worry about the paint cracking or wood warping. The Russian Store has a wide variety of Khokhloma bowls, cups, candle holders, spoons and other items. So what are you waiting for? Check out our Khokhloma collection and I promise that you will fall in love with Khokhloma!