This article was originally published on SRAS.org in February, 2006 and was donated to this site at its launch in 2011. The article focuses on the only piece of Russian art to be featured at The Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition called “International Arts and Crafts” in 2006. That exhibit later toured America.
In his extensive account of the English section of the exhibition, Dmitri Grigorovich, the commissar of the Russian Department at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, praised the South Kensington Museum for its “educational environment” and its accessibility to all social classes. He quotes a certain Mr Koll who spoke at the museum’s opening in 1851, expressing a concern for improving the artistic quality of crafts and a call for “cultivating the artistic perception in society as a whole.” Everyone could profit from the artifacts and models exhibited at the museum, which were even occasionally donated by enthusiastic British citizens.
His sentiments were reflected in the wider artistic movements of the time, which claimed that the crafts had sunk low in the esteem of modern society and people were not able to enjoy labour anymore; in the words of British designer William Morris (1834-96), handicraftsmen had forsaken their task “to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life.”
Artists’ colonies were emerging at that time throughout Europe’s countrysides as a reaction to modern city life. They often shared Morris’ interest in saving traditional handicrafts from extinction in an increasingly industrialised Europe. The most important colony in Russia was established in Abramtsevo (near Moscow) on the estate of Savva and Elizaveta Mamontov. It researched, preserved, and furthered traditional peasant crafts as part of Russian culture, contributing to a national identity in the arts in the late 19th century. It blurred the boundaries between the fine and decorative arts and raised the aesthetic level of the handicrafts though education and display. Enthusiastic Russian citizens donated objects to Abramtsevo’s museum, just as the British had done for the South Kensington Museum.
The Mamontovs, who might have been familiar with Grigorovich’ report, were exceptionally active in promoting education through the establishment of workshops in Abramtsevo. In 1873, they commissioned architect Viktor Hartman to build a studio on their summer estate with carved wooden decorations typical of village houses. Three years later, Elizaveta Mamontova set up an art-carpentry workshop for peasant children there. She provided them with a free crafts education, tools, and job opportunities, simultaneously hoping to deter them from migrating to the city.
In 1885, Mamontova appointed the artist Elena Polenova, a well-educated and multifaceted artist of her time, as artistic director of the workshop. Polenova set up a four-year training program, familiarized herself with the ins and outs of furniture-making and designed furniture herself, while actively collecting authentic peasant art from the different regions (Vladimir, Tula, Kostroma, Vologodsky, and others) as examples for her pupils. An Ethnographic Museum was established in Abramtsevo to house this collection.
Moreover, as a specialist in ceramics, Polenova became the driving force behind the establishment of a ceramic workshop and also a short-lived embroidery workshop. Writing to Elizaveta Mamontova, on 27 September 1886, she states that they should “with all power try to save the precious remains of folk art.” Her efforts were not in vain. Under Polenova, the workshops flourished and many items were sold in Russia and abroad.
It is also interesting to note that Polenova also challenged the gender roles that had been historically assigned to the fine and decorative arts. She experimented with oil paints, which most art institutions allowed only males to study. Meanwhile, her male colleagues began to experiment with what were considered more feminine arts such as ceramics. Although academically trained male artists had historically avoided the more practical craftwork, at Abramtsevo painters such as Vasily Polenov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov, Michael Vrubel, Konstantin Korovin, Alexander Golovin became, to a greater or lesser extent, involved with woodworking, ceramics, theatre design, and illustration work. Their involvement not only raised the artistic level of the crafts, but paved the way for future generations of artists to work in these disciplines. One need only think of the dynamic theatre sets of avant-gardists such as Natalya Goncharova and Lyubov Popova or the ceramics of Kazimir Malevich and Ilya Chashnik.
As nationalism became the new paradigm in 19th century European art, both the Mamontovs and the influential critic Vladimir Stasov began propagating “Russianness” in the hopes of establishing “great Russian art.” Inspired by the adventure of exploring Russia’s cultural heritage – peasant art, icons, miniatures, church architecture, literature, drama, and fairytales – they began to encourage their integration with the arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) and crafts (furniture, ceramics and embroidery). The art produced there would have a lasting influence on the Russian art world.
Russian crafts, however, seem to continue to be underestimated. The South Kensington Museum, praised for its educational facilities by Dmitri Grigorovich in 1867, is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A, as it is popularly called, recently held an exhibition called “International Arts and Crafts.” From this exhibition it is clear that the Russian arts and crafts are not properly credited in a so-called “international” contextual presentation of the Arts and Crafts. Their obscure presentation and under-representation highlight the low priority the curators of the V&A gave to presenting the Russian arts and crafts in that larger context.
However, Abramtsevo’s sole representative, an item from the V&A’s own collection, certainly caught the eye in the small Russian section. It is a wall cupboard designed by Elena Polenova. As the most popular item of Abramtsevo’s furniture workshop, it is a frequently copied example. Several members of the Russian artistic intelligentsia such as Pavel Tretyakov, Vladimir Stasov, and the artistic “couple” Marianne von Werefkin and Alexey von Jawlensky, as well as two French families, purchased Polenova wall cupboards similar to the V&A exemplar. Yet another example can be found in the State Museum in Abramtsevo itself.
Polenova designed this wall cupboard on the basis of sketches that she had made during her collecting trips throughout Russia. One sheet in her album clearly demonstrates that in the final design she combined sketches of several parts of other cupboards from different villages. She even noted the names of the villages and provinces where they could be found: the column in Bogoslov in the Yaroslavl province; the lower box in Komyagin; and the handle in Valishchevo. As a center piece, she carved a stylized strawberry plant with two strawberries and flowers. The flowers look like tulips (often depicted in folk art) and the other two flowers seem to have been taken from ornaments on an 18th century carved casket found in the north of Russia (now at Abramtsevo’s Ethnographic Museum). Above it twinkles gilded stars against a blue background, similar to those found in the Byzantine churches of Ravenna. The central white circular motif, a rosette with clockwise curved grooves is especially interesting. If this wall cupboard is the “meadow wall cupboard,” Polenova was referring to in a letter to Mamontova, this circular motif should be read as the moon: “The door of the column cupboard with stars, moon, wild strawberries, and flowers represents uncultured nature.” All these motifs and the depiction of “uncultured nature” were well in keeping with the larger movement to champion folk art which itself was often viewed as a more pure “uncultured nature.”
Eager to preserve folk art, Polenova provided her students with authentic peasant artifacts at the Ethnographic Museum in Abramtsevo and artistic designs based on them of her own hand. In so doing, Polenova succeeded in Morris’ call “to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life,” to raise the crafts to a equal with fine art, to provide education and job opportunities for the lower classes and to enjoy work. Her wall cupboard and other furniture, made in accord with Nature, were duplicated and sold in significant numbers, beautifying the domestic interiors of many Russian and European consumers.