The mention of Rostov enamels brings to mind precious miniatures, which have for centuries adorned church utensils, household objects and pieces of jewellery. Bright colours glowing against white enamel plaques brought to life scenes of biblical and Russian history and mirrored multifarious life and the beauty of native land. Masterful craftsmen of Rostov the Great, in which a unique technique of enameling was carried on for over two centuries, are producing these treasures to our day. In the past, craftsmen of the Rostov bishopric and the monasteries painted, on commission from the clergy, enamel plaques to decorate icons, chalices, reliquaries and other cult objects. Later on townsfolk took up the expensive craft of enameling , passing its secrets from father to son, from one generation to another.
In its two-century history Rostov enamels have repeatedly gone through the periods of florescence and decline. The main theme of the craft - a tribute to the beauty of the native land and to man's lofty spirit - was, however, never abandoned. Rostov enamellers have preserved to our day and carried on the best traditions of Russian enamel miniature painting. The craft never existed in isolation: while developing the local tradition of icon painting, it came under the influence of other schools of painting. The technique of cloisonne enamel was known to have been employed in Kievan Rus way back in the 11th century. It was referred to as "finift", which is the Old Greek for alloy or shining stone. The vitreous surface of enamel, decorating old ritual vessels, women's diadems, colt-pendants, barmy-shoulder pieces and so on, indeed shone with a deep light of precious stones.
The enameling did not start from scratch in Rostov, whose icon painters and silversmiths were well acclaimed in the past. The Rostov bishopric was known to have had an icon-painting workshop since olden days. It is hard to say when the expensive craft of enamelling struck root in that provincial town. Legend has it that an exiled Italian enameller taught his craft to local icon painters in the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, but there is no documentary evidence of that fact. Many scholars sought to shed light on the obscure history of the emergence of Rostov enamels. Some connected it with the activity of metropolitan Iona Sysoyevich, who contributed to the development of the Rostov bishopric in the late 17th century. The bishopric workshop was operational until the late 1780s, fulfilling clerical orders from different Russian cities and towns. After the metropolitan's office was transferred to Yaroslavl, some enamellers continued to execute the bishopric's orders, while other, such as the Isayevs brothers were granted relative independence and came to be registered at the enamel workshop of the Rostov artisan tribunal. That fact can be considered as a starting point in the development of enamelling as a full-fledged trade in the town. The Rostov bishopric workshop had an important role to play in the evolution of Rostov enamels.
The Rostov enamel tradition is, however,
far more versatile. It developed for centuries in close contact
with other major art schools and grand styles. From the outset Rostov
enamellers espoused the flamboyant symbol-laden baroque style and
evolved, on its basis, their own artistic tradition. The pictorial
style of Rostov enamels began to be renovated in the first half
of the 19th century both due to a change in taste and due to the
impact of the classicist principles of Rostov's temple architecture
and its interior decoration. Enamel miniatures, which decorated
church utensils formed but a minute segment of the entire ensemble
and, naturally, adopted the pictorial idiom of the new style. Rostov
enamellers used as models engravings from paintings by West European
and Russian artists, as well as numerous original religious paintings
that landed in Rostov monasteries and churches in the form of donations.
Rostov craftsmen sold their wares in different Russian cities and
towns and, when visiting the capital, could see works by Academy
artists. Less tied up with religious canons, enamellers living in
cities were faster to assimilate classicist pictorial techniques.
They naturally took in iconography and traditional shapes, as well
as the lofty aesthetic ideals of the new style.The special atmosphere
of a provincial town and the affinity between the local townsfolk
and peasants could not but influence the development of enamelling.
Though guided in general by St. Petersburg trends, Rostov enamelling
remained true to the values of local folk culture in the first half
of the 19th century. By the mid-19th century there were about 50
enamellers in Rostov, some of them running their own businesses
but the majority working at home. United by a trade corporation,
the enamellers remained independent both in their work and in marketing
their products. The best of them retained individuality and their
own original idiom.
After the 1917-revolution Rostov's craftsmen
formed an artel, which produced enamel caskets, boxes, brooches
and cuff links. Many talented painters capable of carrying on the
local tradition joined the business in the late 1960s. They analysed
new possibilities for the development of Rostov enamels. A close-knit
group of gifted craftsmen appeared at the factory in the 1970s and
the 1980s. Graduates of different art schools, skilled in the craft,
mastered the secrets of the pictorial tradition and the decorative
art of enamelling. The best of them, endowed with bright creative
individuality, worked to renovate the idiom of Rostov enamels and
to modify jewellery designs.The decorative nature of miniature paintings,
which could embellish both big and small objects, ensured the longevity
and the wide application of Rostov enamels. They shine with motley
hues in jewellery pieces produced by today's craftsmen. A frame
of metal wire twining in fancy patterns complements exquisite enamel
miniatures. The painters and jewellers pool efforts to create extraordinary
integral works of art, be it a decorative panel, a casket, a portrait
or women's jewellery. Though not indispensable, these things add
colour to our households and life, giving joy and warmth to the
inhabitants of this cold industrialised world. When we look at these
miniature pictures of Russian nature or old history, we are brought
back to our sources and eternal values.
Another stage in the history of Zhostovo
craft started in the 1960s and continues to our day. Overcoming
tendencies leaning toward easel painting and natural is in, tray
painting has been gaining in prestige and popularity not only owing
to large-scale output of serial works, but also owing to unique
items that increasingly attracted public attention at numerous exhibitions
both at home and abroad. Ever since its outset Zhostovo craft has
been developed by several generations of craftsmen, who formed painter
dynasties. It is being carried on today by the familial Belyayev,
Kledov, Antipov, Saveliev, Gogin and Vishnyakov clans. Many of them
have been granted the honorable title of the Merited Artist of Russia,
are members of the Artists' Union, have been decorated with medals
of the Academy of Arts, and have won diplomas and awards at numerous
exhibitions of different levels. Their works are stored as a national
treasury and exhibited by major national museums.
Constantly perfecting their craftsmanship,
Zhostovo painters give free rein to improvisation, demonstrating
diverse styles and techniques. Modern Zhostovo craftsmen are increasingly
turning the tray from a household object into a work of art, and
decorative Zhostovo painting is elevated to the level of an independent
genre capable of addressing directly people's thoughts and feelings.
B. Grafov goes on to say: "Zhostovo trays are increasingly
acquiring the meaning of decorative objects rather than a mere household
utensil by virtue of the special importance of their painting. Our
trays are both beautiful and meaningful. At first sight the painting
seems to be finishing off and adorning the tray, but there is more
to it than meets the eye... Take a closer look and you'll be enchanted
with the meaning of the bouquet... Every flower is looking at you
and telling you something, or reminding you of something. These
flowers are inimitable and always different, each with its own original
character, and even the artist himself will not be able to produce
the same bouquet."
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