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The Mastercraftsmen of Palekh Miniatures: Icons to Souvenir Boxes to Icons
T. M. Melnikova, Winter Morning, box, 1990, papier-mâché, tempera, gold, and lacquer, Collection of ROSIZO.

OMAHA, NBThe Joslyn Art Museum presents The Mastercraftsmen of Palekh Miniatures: Icons to Souvenir Boxes to Icons, on view through January 11, 2009. Visitors to the former Soviet Union and to today's Russia are confronted in tourist shops with an array of striking hand-painted, black lacquer papier-mâché boxes. Available in countless sizes and prices, what is lost to the casual eye is the extraordinary and venerable tradition of the craftsmanship entailed in producing them — techniques that date back centuries and have been adapted regularly to satisfy popular taste, religious mores, and political directives. This is the first American exhibition to examine these works of art, made in the Russian village of Palekh (pronounced PAW-lekh), about 225 miles northeast of Moscow.

Palekh was known before the 1917 Russian Revolution as a center for two-dimensional icon painting, examples of which are represented in the exhibition. After the rise of Soviet Communism and official atheism, religious icons had to disappear. Palekh craftsmen saw lacquer boxes from the village of Fedoskino at a Moscow craft fair in 1922 and believed they could make boxes of similar quality. They decorated them using the same techniques as were used for icon painting, giving a regional Palekh stamp on the Fedoskino box tradition. These Palekh boxes became the dominant product, especially when subject matter moved away from suspect religious images to a rich and acceptable genre of nationalistic Russian folk tales and Soviet propaganda.

It takes months to make a Palekh box. The blank, unpainted papier-mâché box alone takes six weeks to produce. Strips of cardboard are coated with a flour and water paste then wrapped and compressed around a wooden mold of the desired shape. This shape, together with unmolded box parts, is submerged briefly in boiling-hot linseed oil. The box parts are then placed in a 50-degree-centigrade oven to dry. Over the course of a month, the temperature is slowly raised to 120 degrees and then lowered to room temperature. The cooled box parts are glued together and primed with layers of special paint over six weeks. Next, the artist paints the picture in about five layers, adding more color with each successive layer and applying lacquer between each. Final touches include a protective film, painted filigree, and seven coats of lacquer. The final coat is brushed with a yarn brush and pumice to a brilliant sheen.

The exhibition examines the entire range of Palekh artistic production with objects from 18th-century Palekh icons, Soviet-era boxes, and more recent work reviving the pre-Revolutionary tradition. The works range in size from a 1 x 1½-inch box for beads to a 23 x 17-inch jewelry box decorated to honor Stalin. The display also includes decorative objects such as Easter eggs (both from pre- and post-Soviet production). Palekh boxes from the private collections of Suzanne and Walter Scott and Gail and Michael Yanney will also be featured.

This exhibition is presented by the Foundation for International Arts & Education, Bethesda, Maryland, and the State Museum-Exhibition Center ROSIZO, Moscow. The exhibition is made possible by the generous support from Art Alliance LLC. Additional funding is provided by Konstantin Grigorishin and The Burlington Capital Group / Gail and Michael Yanney. In Omaha, the exhibition is sponsored by Gail and Michael Yanney.

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