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New Reality, Same Artistry

A Russian village once famous for its icons restores its legacy

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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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 Palekh’s artists, whose icons adorn some of Russia’s most important churches, including the cathedrals in Moscow’s 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 region’s ancient trading centers, Palekh’s 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 Russia’s Orthodox heritage and once the exclusive province of the country’s 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 Moscow’s 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 Russia’s 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.

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