The "AGITLAK" Project
The art of the lacquer miniature has by no means been neglected by scholars, but the project before you, given the name "Agitlak" by collector Alexander Dobrovinsky, offers something new.
Palekh, Fedoskino, Mstera and Kholui are generally thought of as sources of those favorite souvenirs of foreign visitors. Their subjects: troikas, tea time, episodes from tales by Pushkin, Russian beauties and so on painted, with consummate skill, on the lids of little boxes. Few people realize, I think it fair to say, that such painted containers — jewel cases, compacts, cigaret holders, glasses cases, trophy cups and writing and drawing pads — produced by these world-famous guilds in the 1930s served as powerful weapons of socialist propaganda. Palekh, which until the revolution was known as a village of icon-painters, can serve as our example.
Palekh icons and iconographic images had been sold by peddlers traveling from village to village. The revolution of 1917 took the ground from beneath the feet of Palekh's artists. The icon workshops, which had produced a variety of religion-related things, were closed. The former "God-daubers" had to find other ways to earn a living: weaving foot-warmers, doing portraits of peasants and girls for a few potatoes. But then a better way was found to manage in the new "atheist" environment. They would paint miniatures on papier-mache boxes, but the scenes would be "Meeting Lenin at the Finland Station," "The New Village," "The Peasant Reading-Room," "On Guard for the Revolution," "A Specialist Arrives in the Village," "An Order for Grain Confiscation," "A Court of Pioneers and the Trial of Baba-Yaga," "Village Reporter Dunasha" and the like, all dictated by the new way of life.
Organized as the Artel, or Cooperative, of Ancient Painting, Palekh's artists went directly from creating "God-inspired" icons to immersion in the new and growing movement of socialist realism. As a center of lacquer-ware production, Palekh - formerly an icon-painting citadel — was marching in step with the nation. The transformation from boards and linseed oil to papier-mache and lacquer took just a few years.
In a real sense, the revolution freed these artists' hands, liberating them from the standard, repetitive images of the past and opening up new possibilities for composition. Maxim Gorky, a strong supporter of the new craft, called lacquer boxes "one of the miracles created by the revolution."
"Our life now will be beautiful, like our pictures and boxes. The revolution has changed our work from monotonous repetition into a great, free art," Ivan Golikov, the first of the Palekh masters, confirmed.
Within the country, Palekh ware was never in great demand, but the trend-setters of Paris, American collectors and foreign artists knew Palekh well. The basis for the development of the craft was export trade. Exports were a crucial part of the economy of the USSR.
The international marketing of Palekh lacquers was led by a born manager, Yakov Ganetsky (real name: Furstenberg). While living in Switzerland before the revolution, he was an intermediary in Lenin's dealings with the Germans to obtain financial support for the Bolsheviks. After his return to Russia in 1918, Comrade Ganetsky joined the Peoples Commissariat of Finance of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and helped manage the central bank. The individual who earlier helped realize the financing of the Russian revolution now became the principal force behind Soviet exports of folk crafts, especially the work produced in Palekh. The idea behind Comrade Ganetsky's work: "to make gold out of paper."
Most of the works of Palekh's extraordinary folk artists, their names known only to a few, have now been returned to their native land from scattered sites around the world by the collectors who inspired this project. We, the team of curators for the project, make no claim to art-historical discovery, but we do hope to restore to memory one of the most tragic pages in the history of this guild-craft. Our hope is that these works will have the renewed attention of scholars and connoisseurs and that interest will reach beyond the ranks of specialists.
The "Agitlak" project includes a wide variety of cultural initiatives, including an exhibition in the spring of 2009 in the city of Ples (Ivanovo Region) and publication of this album.*
* "Agitak." Gamma-Press, Moscow, 2009
Conception: Natalia Semyonova
Text: Yevgeniya Gershovich
Design: Irina Tarkhanova-Yakubson
Translation: Howard M. Goldfinger
560 pp., 1,500 illustrations in color
Text in Russian and English