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by Olivia Kroth
The blue and white Gzhel ceramics are made in the area around the village of Gzhel, located 60 km southwest of Moscow. About thirty villages produce this charming traditional pottery and ship it throughout Russia. Archaeological excavations on the territory of Gzhel confirmed the existence of a developed ceramic craft, since 1318. The first mention of Gzhel as a locality is found in the testament of Ivan Danilovich Kalita (1288 – 1341), since 1325 Prince of Moscow. He legated the profitable ceramic workshops of Gzhel to his son.
During the reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, from 1645 to 1676, Gzhel became the exclusive supplier of apothecary vessels for the Аpothecary Guild in Moscow. They were subject to increased quality requirements. This marked the beginning of ceramic production in Russia.
In 1724, the merchant Afanasy Filippovich Grebenshchikov opened the first ceramics factory in Moscow. He acquired materials in Gzhel and hired workers from that region. His factory became the first to produce majolica in Russia. Since workers from Gzhel were recruited to work at the factory, the local people in Gzhel also began to master the production of majolica on their own, competing with the Grebenshchikov factory in Moscow. When it was closed down, in 1774, Gzhel remained the only place where majolica was produced.
“Ploughed land, hayfields, firewood. Peasants paying their rent. They live on making different sorts of pottery and sets of dishes, which they send to various towns and cities by road and river.”
This is how Gzhel was described in the Economic Notes to the Ordnance Survey Plans in the Gzhel Volost, Bronnitsy Uyezd, Moscow Governorate, in 1760. Traditions of creating ceramic articles and utensils had been developed here, for many centuries. The location of Gzhel allowed craftsmen to quickly and efficiently sell their goods at local markets of neighbouring towns and cities. Of course, the popularity of Gzhel pottery was boosted by the proximity to Moscow, a major consumer of dishes („Scientific Russia“).
In 1802, the Kulikov brothers opened a small ceramics manufacture in the village of Volodino. In 1810, in the village of Novo-Kharitonovo a large manufacture was founded by the local blacksmith Yakov Vasilyevich with his sons Terenty and Anisim, who later took on the name of Kuznetsov and became known as the «porcelain kings».
By 1812, there were 25 factories producing pottery in Gzhel. Among them the most popular were the factories of Ermil Ivanov and Laptev in the village of Kuzyaevo. According to the signatures on the remaining products, the masters Nikifor Semyonovich Gusyatnikov, Ivan Nikiforovich Srosley, Ivan Ivanovich Kokun are known.
In addition to dishes they made toys in the form of animals and decorative figurines, showing scenes from Russian life. Shiny birds, cats, dogs, hens, horses, tigers were painted in a peculiar folk style with decorative flowers, leaves, herbs.
By the middle of the 19th century, already more than 30 factories worked in the Gzhel region, producing blue and white ceramics with the distinctive touch of famous designers. Products of this period can be seen in the largest museums of the country: the Russian Museum and the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg, the Historical Museum in Moscow, as well as in the museum «Association» of the Gzhel factory itself.
The second half of the 19th century was a period of heightened artistic achievements in the Gzhel ceramic art. In their efforts to obtain fine earthenware and porcelain, the owners of production facilities constantly improved the composition of the white mass. Many excellent masters and creators of their own factories started as simple workers in Gzhel.
At the beginning of the 20th century, ceramic production was concentrated in the hands of the Kuznetsov dynasty, the «kings of porcelain», who once came from Gzhel. After the October Revolution, the Kuznetsov factories were nationalized.
Gzhel began the restoration of its craft, in the middle of the 20th century. From 1945 to 1949, the third stage of development began, with the use of cobalt paints on white clay. Alexander Borisovich Saltykov studied, analyzed, classified the patterns of decorative art for Gzhel ceramics. He developed the «ABC of brushstroke».
Natalia Ivanovna Bessarabova used this manual in her work until 1955, when she left the firm, leaving behind some talented successors. Her style has been characterized as expressive simplicity, a sort of clear and free painting, which emphasizes the shape of vessels.
Some of the plates and platters for fish food remind us that Gzhel and the other villages producing them have been living from fishery, since ancient times. The villages of Gzhel, Kosherovo, Obukhovo and Troshkovo are located on the banks of the river Gzhelka, a left tributary of the Moscow River. The Gzhelka is 32 km long and frozen from mid-November to mid-April.
Today, the upper reaches of the Gzhelka have remained untouched. The middle course has been turned into a cascade of large ponds for the Gzhelka fish farm. In the lower reaches the river is straightened by a channel.The fish farm ponds are full of bream, carp, perch and roach. Guests and tourists can pay tofish there.
The «Gzhel Association» is a flourishing and successful firm. The history of the factory is told on its website: «Three wars in the first half of the 20th century, devastation, lack of fuel and raw materials seemed to have finally buried the artistic traditions of the Gzhel craft. But Gzhel like a Phoenix bird was reborn from the ashes, in the middle of the 20th century.»
«The modern stage of development began in a difficult post-war period, from the end of the 40s of the 20th century. Then two artists – N.I. Bessarabova and A.B. Saltykov – based on old samples, revived the practically lost techniques for the production of porcelain with cobalt underglaze painting. Their initiative was picked up and continued by a galaxy of talented artists, who later became classics of the modern Gzhel style – T.S. Dunashova, L.P. Azarova, Z.I. Okulova and others.»
«Blue and white painting successfully fits into the cultural code of the Russian mentality – a combination of blue skies, white churches and golden domes (gilding is often used in modern Gzhel painting). But the main style-forming element is the proprietary brush stroke with shadows, capable of creating many subtle gradations of blue.»
«Gzhel today is a ceramic capital, it is a craft that has preserved its original traditions, the continuity of generations, who created their own modern artistic style. Gzhel has an art school giving professional education as part of the cultural heritage of Russia.»
In 1983, the «Gzhel Association» opened company offices and stores in Moscow, Leningrad, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo, London. In 1986, the plant was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples, for its huge contribution to the unification of the culture of different countries. In 2002, a higher educational institution was created in Gzhel to train specialists of folk arts and crafts in Russia.
The spacious flagship shop in Moscow boasts a large range of blue and white Gzhel masterpieces in the Russian capital. Figurines, tableware, vases and interior decor from chandeliers to clocks can be found here. There is also an intriguing selection of handpainted tiles.
Hours: Daily 10:00 – 21:00
The «Gzhel Association» factory owns a museum which can be visited by appointment on a guided tour. The museum has more than 2000 exhibited items, including the earliest examples of dishes fromthe 14th and 15th centuries, found during archaeological excavations on the territory of Gzhel. Beautiful examples of majolica from the heyday of the 18th century, faience and semi-faience with white-blue and colour painting, as well as the finest «Kuznetsov porcelain» are also exhibited. The largest section of the museum is devoted to modern times, which began in the late 40s of the last century.
In one of the museum halls visitors can trace the whole chain of education and development of future artists – from kindergarden, where children make their first attempts to embody their fantasies in clay, to the Gzhel College of Art and Industry. In workshops the students do not only learn about composition but get to know all the secrets of the craft and profit from the experience of specialists.
The «Gzhel Association» offers excursions and masterclasses. They can be contacted here: Moscow region, Ramensky district, p / o Novo-Kharitonovo, village Turygino, Administrative building «Association Gzhel» Email: email@example.com
From frosty white to sky-blue: the inhabitants of the village Gzhel used to say that their sky is bluer than blue, like nowhere else, while their frost and snow in winter are whiter than white. So they decided to transfer these colours on their pottery. Gzhel masters distinguish 20 shades of blue. Whether the colour will be lighter or darker depends on the master, how he uses the brush stroke.
Gzhel is a Russian style, a way of life. Modern craftsmen, designers and stylists use this old craft to embellish their own creations. With skillful hands, fantasy and imagination the blue and white pottery motifs are applied to contemporary works of interior design, home decor or clothes.
They use the blue and white Gzhel lifestyle to create carpets, cushions, curtains, furniture, home textiles, lamps, tiles, wallpaper. Bathrooms and kitchens, bedrooms, dining and living rooms are decorated with Ghzel motifs. These patterns native to Russia also inspire fashion designers for clothing and accessories, reinterpreting Russia’s rich folk heritage.
Interior decor in the style of Gzhel exudes freshness and purity: a blue print on white textile curtains and the tablecloth repeats the icy pattern on the window. A painted pillow on a smooth plain bedspread creates a feeling of morning freshness. A large Christmas ball with hand-painted Gzhel patterns, as if accidentally “forgotten” on a shelf, reminds us of Christmas and inspires hope.
Blue and white shades have a calming, positive effect on the psyche. In such an interior you want to sit down with a book and read or drink a cup of tea, immersed in your thoughts. The modern world rarely gives us such an opportunity. As the rhythm of modern life is gaining momentum every year, we might want to have some peace and tranquility, at least at home.
The Gzhel lifestyle is popular in Russia because it gives an airy lightnes to the interior and transfers the mind to the past. It revives the atmosphere of the Russian dacha, the country home, a safe place with charm and comfort, where families gather on weekends.
For tourists a piece of Gzhel pottery is a nice souvenir to take home. Not only will it be useful in the kitchen or on the dining table. As an ornament in your home Gzhel pottery will remind you of your voyage to Russia, as it remains one of the well-known symbols of Russian folk arts and crafts.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow. Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com