Russia has a miniature tradition that is relatively modern compared to those of south Central Asia, China and Japan. It began with the end of imperial Russia in 1917, when the power of the church came to an end. When the church lost its power, the tradition of icon painting also ceased.
A hundred years before those events, German lacquerware, in the form of tobacco containers, had made its way to Russia, and Russian artists had subsequently begun to produce their own versions. Unemployed icon painters found a new canvas in these lacquered paper maché tobacco boxes--and the small, exquisitely decorated Russian lacquerware that we know today was born.
Because my grandmother did fine painting on lacquerware, the Russian boxes have always interested me. They are made in stages. The box parts are first formed of a pressed cardboard. Then, they are immersed and boiled in linseed oil, before being baked! (I like my species rose which smells like linseed oil, but I can’t imagine living downwind from this…) Wood-like, these parts are then assembled into boxes by those who specialize in the art, coated with a primer, baked again, and sanded. Only after all of these steps do the boxes become the miniature painting artist’s responsibility.
Today, most of this work takes place in factories, in each of four well-known lacquerware villages. Some work is also done from private homes. When the tradition began, work was organized in the form of artist cooperatives. As a result, an identity as “artist villages” persists and the village names continue to be associated with the four styles of decoration: Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui.
Artists in ceramic have often recognized that there are clay lovers and glaze/firing lovers amongst us. It’s not uncommon to be known for one's strength. As a result, losses can be overshadowed; they typically go unnoticed. The process of creating Russian lacquer boxes raises the question of whether or not ceramic artists working in small formats couldn’t attain a significantly higher level in their work --by taking stock of strengths and working cooperatively.
Which segment of production brings you bliss, which tends to be a drudge? Is it possible your match exists in someone, or among several people, who would just love your drudgery? Could you share the tasks? The Russian lacquerware boxes suggest great benefits from the idea.
While we sometimes have difficulty justifying our own investment in such small work as beads, buttons and jewelry, it gives me pause to consider that these small Russian works of art are considered worthy of not just the work of one dedicated professional artist, but many.
For us, moving from an individual to a cooperative form of production would be a cultural challenge, but the Russian results suggest that the benefits might be tremendous.