Mstera lacquer painting

Tuesday 14 June: Day 5 of the 2011 Russia trip

Before the Revolution Mstera was a noted centre of icon-painting, an occupation which was suppressed under the atheist Soviet Union. In the 1920s a group of former icon-painters started a new venture in Mstera, using their skills to make objects decorated with scenes in miniature from Russian folklore and from modern life, instead of religious subjects. We visited the recently renovated monastery cathedral. Now that Christianity is again flourishing in Russia, the Mstera artists have filled the interior with new icons.

We went to their workshop to learn about the making of lacquer miniatures. Several layers of cardboard are stretched around a metal mould of the shape and size of box required, and soaked in linseed oil to make the piece impervious to insects. A coat of primer is applied, then several layers of lacquer. Each coat must dry thoroughly, and it takes a month to get to the stage where the painting begins. The surface is polished before the design is painted in tempura (the same medium as used in icon-painting).

Up till now I had always managed to resist buying lacquer boxes. They tend to be very expensive if they are really good – not surprisingly, given the hours of highly skilled work put into them – and beyond my resources.  I have bought a few lovely lacquer brooches over the years and usually wear one when I give talks on Russian arts. But in Mstera this year I couldn’t resist buying my first box. This may not be such a virtuoso design as on the most detailed and intricate pieces, but it was the delicate blue of the sky that seduced me. Mstera is noted amongst the four famous centres of lacquer painting (the others being Palekh, Fedoskino and Kholui) for depicting blue skies, rather than a black background. Also Mstera designs are characteristic for their inclusion of floral motifs.


After we had visited the town’s museum with its fine collection of lacquer painting from the 1920s onwards, we were to be treated to a picnic beside the river, organised by some of the artists. Unfortunately it was raining. It was a very pretty place and it would have been delightful to eat outdoors, though remembering past alfresco Russian meals, at least this time we avoided the attention of wasps and mosquitos. The lady looking after a nearby beer tent encouraged us to set up in there with all the food, primus stoves etc. and we had a great party, concluding inevitably with numerous vodka toasts to art and international friendship.



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