Khokhloma: Russian folk art

Russia, with its birch bark baskets, nesting dolls, and gilded icons, may seem exotic, even strange, to Westerners. Though the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, many American collectors remain unfamiliar with her wide variety of crafts and treasures.

For centuries on end, wood, so abundant in this land of dense forests, was commonly fashioned into utilitarian, domestic objects. Each winter, when bitter snows blanketed the fields and winds swept the woodlands, peasants traditionally exchanged their plows and cut-saws for blocks of wood and carving knives at their firesides. For long months, by the dim light of their smoky cabins, they patiently turned out wooden plates, bowls, spoons, and ladles. Those with time and inclination may have painted their handicrafts.

By the mid-17th century, expert craftsmen in Khokhloma (pronounce this by clearing your throat twice, then rhyming with “coma”), a trading post in the Nizhny Novgorod region, along the mighty Volga River, had gained fame for creating a unique, decorative wooden lacquer ware.

Perhaps khokhlomas, as Khokhloma’s creations themselves came to be known, were inspired by Russia’s traditional religious works of art.

According to some sources, khokhloma’s traditional color combination, red, black, and gold, once held deep religious significance. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they explain, vivid shades of red representing beauty, black representing grief that cleanses the soul, and gold representing heavenly light once embellished sacred church vessels and icons. True, only clergy and wealthy nobility could afford to own such expensive works of art, which featured gold-haloed saints set against shimmering gold leaf backgrounds.

But because of their similarity, a woodsman or laborer, eyeing his first red, black, and golden khokhloma purchase, must have felt as if he owned a bit of heaven. Though he likely ate from his plainer pieces daily, he probably used his finest khokhlomas only on special occasions, like christenings, marriages, and religious holidays—if at all.

Creating khokhloma was, and still is, an intricate, time-consuming craft passed down from generation to generation. First, artisans seasoned blocks of linden, beech, or birch, then either carved them with knives or turned them on lathes to create traditional domestic items. After drying them in kilns, they primed them with liquid clay to seal their pores. Then they fired their creations again. Next they hand rubbed them several times with raw linseed oil until they turned glossy. Finally, they coated these items with special metallic powder, and fired them up yet again. When khokhlomas emerged from the kiln, they glistened with golden (or occasionally silver) color like fine metal ware. Yet khokhlomas do not contain a bit of metal. To further gild the lily, skilled artists then adorned these shiny implements with traditional red and black geometric patterns or highly stylized flowers. Then they finished them with coats of clear lacquer.

By the 20th century, interest in khokhloma had waned dramatically. Russia’s 1917 October Revolution, however, heralded a national revival of the country’s folk arts, including khokhloma. Through the 1920s and ’30s, artisans banded together into cooperative associations, adopting modern tools and techniques, like replacing tin with aluminum powder and replacing linseed with synthetic oil. In the past, khokhlomas had easily cracked, crazed, chipped, or dulled through years of use. With today’s innovations, however, even delicate ones, once deemed suitable only for decoration or festive occasions, are durable enough for use year round.

In the 1960s, the Soviets, to encourage production, founded two khokhloma factories, one near Khokhloma village and another in nearby Semyonov. Between them, 1,000 artisans preserve this craft’s secret techniques and traditions for future generations, producing domestic items, furniture, and souvenirs. Even today, crafting a khokhloma can take anywhere from two to four months, depending on the intricacy of its design and its size. Since each is hand painted, each is one of a kind. Because Russians hold master artists in high esteem, the Soviet Union, in 1979, issued postage stamp honoring khokhloma craftsmen and their art.

Most modern khokhlomas, to increase customer appeal, feature themes drawn from nature. Luscious-looking strawberries, red and black currants, cherries, rowanberries, and raspberries, all a-swirl with grapevines are favorite choices. So are khokhlomas rich with gilded green leaves and orange berries, though they break with traditional colors. Today, khokhlomas come in a thousand shapes and sizes, including egg cups, honey pots, trinket boxes, mugs, goblets, cutting boards, and salt boxes.

As years go by, khokhloma continues to gain in popularity. Few tourists leave Russia without tucking a khokhloma souvenir or two in their suitcases. Khokhloma designs adorn t-shirts, decorate world class racecars, and even grace the tails of several British Airways Boeing 757s. Sets of popular khokhloma spoons, inexpensive and widely available even in the U.S., make unusual gifts or striking decorative accents for dining areas or kitchens. So do khokhloma trays, tea sets, spice sets, serving dishes, and candle holders. Delicate keepsake boxes or fetching brooches make fine, relatively low cost personal gifts. All-inclusive dining sets, which include serving bowls and platters in varying sizes, may, on the other hand, command hundreds of dollars. Larger, more intricate pieces, like khokhloma swan-bowls, chairs, beds, benches, and children’s table and stool sets, naturally are even more costly.

Russians, true romanticists at heart, embrace khokhloma’s beauty and history as one. Nearly every household in Russian boasts glassed cabinets filled with khokhloma tea cups, saucers, and serving dishes. Many of their treasures, like brightly lacquered borsch ladles, vodka shot glasses, bread basins, diminutive bowls and spoons for enjoying jam, and caviar sets, reflect typical Russian culture. There are even khokhloma toy balalaikas, beloved folk stringed instruments, available on the market.

Indeed, according to Russia Live! Magazine, khokhloma’s vibrant hues symbolize the “bright and fiery red colors of the Russian spirit…. the golden glance of buckwheat honey, the scarlet ash of berries, the emerald foliage, and autumn gold of Russia’s landscape.” To top things off, khokhloma’s flowers, berries, grass, and leaves are said to bring good luck and love.

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