Monthly Archives: September 2013


The poster is far from being a minor art form in the Soviet Union. From the Revolution on, like the other short-lived arts, it made its appearance felt everywhere. At that time, posters were above all a mean of political propaganda, as is still the case today to a great extent. During the Revolution, their political character was determined by the events themselves, but this was also in keeping with Soviet conception of art. Marx had already implied that there existed a close link between art (superstructure) and economic evolution (infrastructure).

Many Russian thinkers, writers and artists were obsessed with the idea that art must be useful. Lenin went even further: he declared that artists should join forces with the working-classes.

The educational function of art proved of such help to the Revolution, that the soviet government decided to launch an important propaganda plan from 1918 on.

In 1971, one could still read that art’s principal function was to further the ideological development of the personality. No-one was in a better position to fulfil this role than the poster artist, as he was “not only an artist” but was at the same time “a politician and a journalist”, using his pencil and his brush “like weapons”.

During the first years after the Revolution of 1917, poster designers, like artists, were able to undertake this task freely, they were allowed to give free rein to their imagination provided it served the communist ideal.

The poster became a reflection of avant-garde artistic trends. But the totalitarian state quickly restored order in the cultural field, as in all other fields. It became compulsory for artists’ creations to comply with the norms of socialist realism laid down by the First Congress of soviet writers in 1934.

However, the consequences of this “artistic method” differed considerably between posters and paintings. While naturalist realism was favoured by easel-painting, strict stylization was frequently used in posters, nevertheless, both had a common attitude: the “party spirit” (partinost) was the only criterion on which work was based.



His practice and his biography have a strong relationship to nature and the landscape. At the start of the course his attitude to this was largely determined by the romantic dimension within modernism. This fits easily with the ruralist strand to arts and crafts ceramics and its attitude to the authentic treatment of materials. He lived, and still lives in a rural area; however his understanding of nature changed radically through his MA.

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‘The Art of Propagation’ by Tim Willey, 1992

He confronted the implications of considering nature as a culturally determined construct. Because his work clearly related to the landscape he investigated the landscape tradition, analysing representations of nature as an idealised space. He related this to his experience of the social forms and objects related to contemporary habitation and use of landscape.

His enquiry centred on objects. He analysed their meaning using semiology and notions of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ cultural forms to describe the way the landscape is consumed. He argued that the landscape is represented and consumed through commodities – the things you can buy to service your leisure consumption of the outside, to master nature. He concluded that nature is consumed in the specification of these bikes, clothing, tents, etc. By the end of his MA modernism. This fits easily with the ruralist strand to arts and crafts ceramics and its attitude to the authentic treatment of materials. He lived, and still lives in a rural area; however his understanding of nature changed radically through his MA.

He confronted the implications of considering nature as a culturally determined construct. Because his work clearly related to the landscape he investigated the landscape tradition, analysing representations of nature as an idealised space. He related this to his experience of the social forms and objects related to contemporary habitation and use of landscape.

His enquiry centred on objects. He analysed their meaning using semiology and notions of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ cultural forms to describe the way the landscape is consumed. He argued that the landscape is represented and consumed through commodities – the things you can buy to service your leisure consumption of the outside, to master nature. He concluded that nature is consumed in the specification of these bikes, clothing, tents, etc. By the end of his MA he had abandoned ceramic material entirely and developed a series of pieces in which he replaced materials with connotations of authenticity -wood, clay, earth, water, plant fibre – with materials borrowed from what he named the ‘Performance Landscape’ – rip stop nylon; PVC tube;, rubberised cord; carbon fibre.

Practitioners in any discipline in art and design need to develop attitudes to their work that enable them to operate with agility, to make tactical decisions that relate to the context in which they are operating. At the same time, they need to be able to distinguish between such tactical strategies, and routines that relate to their particular view of the world. That view in turn needs to be sufficiently clearly formulated to be accessible to their intellect. Through theoretical work they can become practitioners with attitude.

(Tom Fisher)


Reformulating the two attitudes referred to above by setting instability and change against apparent absolutes can illuminate ‘what it feels like to be a practitioner now’. Baudelaire characterised modernity as the ‘transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ in tension with ‘the eternal, the immutable’. This tension appears in current practice. Some work appeals to ‘archetypal myth’ and magic, some relates to the fleeting and contingent qualities of information technology. Because our common sense unhelpfully suggests that the world really is stable, it is more rewarding to attend to the fleeting and contingent. The present, the point at which practice happens, is literally fleeting and contingent, characterised by change and reinterpretation. Arguments that suggest a ‘return’ to an eternally true, primitive golden age appeal to romantic preconceptions. The crafts have been here before. Ruskin’s medievalism reflected a desire for absolutes in the face of chaos. The dogma of authenticity which we owe partly to him betrays a deep insecurity over immutable value. It delineates the tension which Baudelaire described.

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The Art of Utility by Tim Willey, 1992

Craft practice is locked into changes such as the implications of developments in the global economy and information technology. The economic facts of global production mean that handwork is invariably cheap in the third world. Craftspeople in the Pacific rim can make for pennies what costs pounds in northern Europe. The first world equivalents to their handwork are numerically controlled machine processes. To understand the full implications of this, students need to be introduced to basic political economy, to understand their practice in the global arena.

Information Technology has other implications. Those who do it call 3D computer modelling ‘a craft activity’. Making in virtual space contradicts the ethics of material and process behind much craft thinking, but it cannot be ignored. It certainly does not go untheorised -some take it as a symptom of the condition called post-modernity. A ‘craftsperson’ with these tools can extend their reach far beyond what they can actually manipulate. Students must be given an intellectual framework to fit these facts into, and it is clear from the interests behind the work that craft students make that these facts are live for them.

Marx identified the fetishistic quality of commodities, suggesting that aside from having use value commodities become ‘something transcendent.,(2) They hold associations that are nothing to do with their physicality. This idea is crucial to an understanding of craft objects, which in the West are defined by their status as commodities – their exchange value – not by their use value. What Marx called this ‘metaphysical’ aspect of craft objects is what is most important about them. Therefore, students need knowledge that deals with, such slippery issues as meaning and desire, through a study of psychoanalytic models of interaction between meaning in commodities and the individual psyche. This is pragmatic, as they need to be able to manipulate aspects of their work likely to induce sufficient desire in a potential customer for them to give money for it. This understanding of craft objects will not develop if students exclusively study a craft history concerned with the inheritors of Ruskin’s desire for authenticity.

Tim Willey came to his MA aware that the tradition from which his practice derived was not appropriate to his situation. The course enabled him to develop his practical work and to interrogate the ceramics tradition in which he was caught up. The theoretical resources that he drew upon to do this were: psychoanalysis; the picturesque tradition; modernity and modernism; semiology; concepts of nature; deconstruction; .theories of the commodity; postmodernity and post-modernism.«

(Tom Fisher)


The first of these attitudes often coincides with our ‘common sense’ understanding of the way the world is. Enquiry based on the second attitude reflects a desire to understand the complexities behind the common sense view of what is ‘natural’ – the way things are.

Creativity is often seen in terms of the first attitude, when it is more usefully understood in terms of the second. Students often think creativity is the property of a special group of ‘chosen’ people, with access to a separate realm of absolute value. This Romantic conception of the artist-genius is part of the cultural landscape – common sense suggests that creativity is just that. The ‘oppressive’ outcome of this idea appears in students who, when asked to account for their decisions, deny that it is necessary or appropriate to do so. This is a vulnerable psychological situation and they risk total personal annihilation when their work encounters criticism. If they are ‘truly creative’, then their work must be exceptional. If their work proves not to be exceptional, this is proof that they lack the creative nature they supposed they possessed. Their basis for action is thus removed.

An introduction to the history of creativity can exorcise this demon of romanticism, exposing it as a construct, not a given. Taking students through history without the stress on styles that some art history offers can show that this idea of creativity grew up alongside economic and social changes. This means that ideas must be covered as ideas – using particular practitioners and schools of art and design to illustrate key points.

This suggests a particular approach to history. It is fascinating to study schools and styles of art and design. It is also useful to learn habits of visual analysis. However, an art history based on connoisseurship, does not serve many of the needs of craft students. The social history tradition within recent art history can help students to place their practice within the culture in which they work. This tradition considers artefacts or institutions through the culture that produced them, notin isolation.

Craft practice is part of culture – part of the whole way of life of a society. Practitioners need to understand the way in which their work fits within culture, its relationship to markets and hierarchies of cultural production. They therefore need theoretical models of culture. These models can draw from fields that have nothing to do with the study of craft objects – such as sociology, economic history, radical geography or literary criticism.

The most useful theoretical models are those which explain the most. Studying modernity and post-modernity enables students to name what it feels like to be a practitioner now. It is modernity that should be the object of study, not modernism, and post-modernity, not postmodernism. I have heard the complaint from students that they are annoyed at having to ‘do the Bauhaus again’. Presumably they have looked at the objects and characters associated with the Bauhaus ad nauseam, without being shown the importance for current practice of the forces that generated it.

(Tom Fisher)


Crafts students need knowledge that enables them to build a clear and rigorous understanding of where their practice fits within culture.

Tim Willey, the subject of this case study, started an MA as a ceramist. Having completed his MA, he no longer uses ceramics, and challenges the ‘craft tradition’. He draws from traditions as he feels necessary and makes choices about his practice, liberated from what he understands as the intellectual dogma associated with the crafts.

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The Crystal “Object” by Tim Willey, 1994

‘Liberation’ presumes ‘oppression’. Some preconceptions do oppress practitioners, limiting the ways in which they can think about the objects they produce and the ways they produce them. These preconceptions can be transcended using theory. One of the commonest of these, to do with creativity, can be illuminated by describing two attitudes to the world.

One attitude has it that there are facts and qualities that are absolutely true and are separate from the affairs of people – the sphere of culture. They are autonomous – not connected to economics, markets, etc. This attitude considers scientific fact to be absolutely true; the ego to be given and stable; that art operates autonomously.

The other attitude has it that there is no absolute autonomous truth, that all knowledge, either of the world or of ourselves, refers to a parade of shifting, culturally dependent, relative constructions. Because these constructs are dependent on specific cultures they therefore embody political prejudices and social values.

(Tom Fisher)

Metal Work (Part 3)

The present-day creations of the leading artists of the factory, such as Zinaida Medvedeva and Valentina Shvetsova, show a solicitous respect for traditions, accompanied by a search for new artistic devices. The bowls, platters and bowls for sweets made by Liudmila Zhestkova resemble silvery chrysanthemums turning their petals to the sun. Zinaida Vilesova’s vases emphasize the dynamism of the image: their curved surfaces recall the movement of waves, and the intricate designs with fans seem to be woven from whirls of ocean foam. Liubov Shiliayeva is also inspired by nature motifs of her homeland. Her box Rowan Tree is remarkable for its poetic treatment of the twigs which seem to be tossed by a light breeze. The design, spreading over the walls and lid of the box, is enlivened with the relief pattern of clusters of berries made of large metal balls. In Rimma Babyshova’s decorative objects, natural impressions are transformed into fantastic images; her star-flowers with sharp petals are adorned with sweeping scrollwork.

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Vase: Violet. 1981. By Galina Blotskaya

Galina Blotskaya designs decorative trays in the shape of swimming swans, ladles, narrative panels and jewellery sets. Her austere, refined style and ability to find the most expressive silhouettes is seen in the screen-like compositions The Rider, The Girl Went to Fetch Water, in the circular wall panel Nizhny Novgorod, and in the set of napkin-holders Round Dance, where the walls of the vessels are formed by figures of dancing girls holding hands.

Kazakovo jewellers are searching new decorative effects. The techniques of oxidizing metals and of combining filigree with enamel are being mastered. In Nikolai Borisov’s decorative vases, the noble, restrained dark metal lace sets off the festive colouration of the enamel medallions. In elegant sets of German silver tableware, Pavel Duka emphasizes a play of filigree by contrasting elegant details with smooth spherical surfaces of polished metal. While uncovering new potential in traditional materials, Kazakovo artists put great efforts to raise the aesthetic value of filigree work.

Revealing the poetic world of traditional images and retaining the creative experience of past generations, folk art is the memory of history and at the same time the living, developing phenomenon of the present.

(Aurora Art, 1988)

Metal Work (Part 2)

The mastering of enamel work, now widely used at the factory, was associated in the 1970s with the names of Alexei Kravchuk, the creator of the vivid poetic panel Firebird, and Stanislav Blotsky, who produced a series of decorative plates with graceful birds pecking at berries. Blotsky also designed a set of toilet articles, consisting of a small mirror, miniature boxes and a casket with intricate flower patterns painted in soft shades of blue, with white and pale-rose star-like flowers and lush green leaves.

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Presentation box. 1982. By Galina Blotskaya

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Jewellery box: Spring Motifs. 1982. By Liudmila Suskova

Charming jewellery has been made by the young artists Larisa Labutina, Galina Martyanova, Galina Fariseyeva and Nina Vinogradova. Their pendants, hair clasps and brooches in the form of birds, butterflies and flowers can be used as delightful accessories to the contemporary woman’s costume.

Filigree is one of the most ancient types of artistic metalwork. Designs of twisted wires set with tiny metal beads were already known to jewellers in Kievan Rus. The village of Krasnoye near Kostroma was an important centre of Russian filigree on the Volga. In 1938, at the initiative of the newly-arrived artist Olga Tarakanova, a filigree department was organized at the Metalworker artel in Kazakovo (Vacha District, Gorky Region). Thus the first Kazakovo filigreed articles were produced.

Over time, new workers have been trained for the handicraft industry, and the artel has grown into a factory. The Kazakovo filigree acquired its own style, distinct from the technique of contouring the design used in the village of Krasnoye. The main filigree motif consists of a large rosette with long petals and sprouts spreading out in steep spirals. Made of thick wire, they form the body of the article. The spaces between these structural details are enclosed in lace of small scrolls of very fine twisted wire.

Filigree objects from Kazakovo are mostly lacy openwork, although some articles, such as decorative panels, table screens or caskets may require the filigree to be soldered to a solid metal base or fastened to wood. Filigree made of copper wire is often coated with silver, and the silvered designs gleam like hoar-frost on trees on a sunny winter day.

(Aurora Art, 1988)

Metal Work (Part 1)

The city of Pavlovo on the Oka River, founded in the sixteenth century, is an ancient centre of metalwork. The 1666 census records 40 smithies, at which 70 blacksmiths worked. Foreign travellers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were delighted with tiny Pavlovo locks. The Swede Stralenberg in his account of his travel to Russia, The Russian State (1730), wrote the following about Pavlovo: “The whole population of the town are practically blacksmiths. Their apprentices carry various metal ware for sale throughout the whole region, and among them are tiny locks the size of a pea and others a little bigger like white Turkish beans. They all have keys and are very neatly turned out and fitted, so they open and close.”

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Jewellery box: Little Chest. 1982 By Liudmila Suskova

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Jewellery box. 1979. By Stanislav Blotsky

At the end of the eighteenth century, Pavlovo masters were turning out locks in the shape of birds and animals, and fine guns with walnut stocks embellished with armorial bearings and gold decorations. Miniature rifles and pistols, small enough to fit into a matchbox, had an amusing character and in this respect are comparable to the tiny flea shoed by the dexterous master of Leskov’s story The Left-handed Smith. In the nineteenth century Pavlovo produced “table knives and penknives with handles made of mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, ivory or mammoth and walrus tusks or deer, buffalo and cattle horn or wood.” Mother-of-pearl handles of the knives had relief portraits carved on them, and metal handles bore intricate engravings.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the metalworkers’ artels in Pavlovo were united into the Pavlovo Souvenir Factory. Since the 1960s it has been specializing in the production of souvenir clasp-knives. At present the assortment includes over 100 items, from tiny key-ring knives to large, universal types with multiple sets of blades and various accessories. Pavlovo souvenirs are made by experts in many fields. As soon as an experimental model has been approved by the artistic and technical councils, the life of the article begins in the forging-and-pressing shop, where metal punches for stamping the rough details are produced. The latter are then tempered in special furnaces, polished, sharpened and sent off to the assembly shop, where the article assumes its final appearance. Pavlovo knives are decorated in a variety of ways. The craftsmen use the techniques of engraving, carving of bone and metal, as well as hot and cold enamel and filigree work to cover the decorative plates for knife-handles with geometric and floral ornaments, figures of birds and animals or representations of the emblem and architectural monuments of Nizhny Novgorod (now Gorky).

(Aurora Art, 1988)

Ivory, Bone and Stone Carvings (Part 3)

As of old, the favourite motifs of Bornukovo artists today are birds and animals, such as a ruffled-up owl or a pecking hen, a majestic lion or a playful tiger cub, a graceful sable or amusing fox cubs. The stylistic traits of these small figures — a certain spareness of composition, generalization of form and decorative expressiveness of silhouette — are determined by the properties of the soft stone. The craftsmen Yury Dolgov, Fiodor Rubtsov, Pavel Kuryshev and Piotr Mineyev are skilled at conveying the individual features of the animals, using the natural tracery and colour of the stone — soft grey or milky-white, golden or pale rose, some smooth and of one colour, others spotted or veined.

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Jewellery box. 1981 By Piotr Mineyev

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Bear with a bast basket of fruit. 1978 By Pavel Kuryshev

The talented artist Pavel Kuryshev often portrays the bear in his works. Mishka, as he is amiably called by Russians, is shown sucking his paw, inspecting curiously a fish he has caught, hugging a little barrel of honey or playing with his cub. As in Russian fairy-tales, the bear is apparently humanized. We can feel Kuryshev’s warm, affectionate attitude towards his clumsy, simple and comical hero.

Piotr Mineyev, one of the leading artists in this field, represents animals quite differently. His romantically elevated images — a proud swimming swan stretching its snow-white neck, a watchful slender deer or a fast stallion captured in a free headlong dash — give us a feeling of delight at their beauty. A dynamism of composition, an elastic plasticity of decorative generalized form, and a striving for emotional expressiveness distinguish Mineyev’s sculptures.

Articles of turned anhydrite, framed in thin strips of gilt bronze, also have high artistic qualities. These are vases, toilet articles and ash trays of simple and austere forms, which are enriched by the natural design of lacy veins of the stone.

(Aurora Art, 1988)

Ivory, Bone and Stone Carvings (Part 2)

In recent years the group of Varnavino carvers has grown; many artists have mastered the difficult techniques of lacy, relief and three-dimensional bone carving. Yuri Mishukov’s art objects give a good idea of their creative advance — a casket with creeping fantastic animals and a decorative souvenir ensemble, Boldino.

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Small deer. 1984 By Ivan Yevstifeyev

The works of the young artist Nina Mikhailova draw one’s particular attention. Her casket Evening Gathering attracts the viewer with its lyrical intonation and the skill of narrative carving. The silhouette of the group of singing girls is precisely ascertained. The figures, delicately outlined in smooth contours, fit neatly into the rectangular shape of the lid. The carefully modelled low relief is set off by the engraved design of the flat ground, and a typical Volga ornament with lush flowering branches, strewn over the side walls of the casket, emphasizes the festivity of its carved decoration. Mikhailova has also used images of the traditional characters of Nizhny Novgorod evening gatherings in her series of crochet hooks, where the heads are shaped as miniature figures of spinners or balalaika or accordion players.

In the 1970s, a group of Bornukovo stone carvers joined the Kazakovo Jewellery Enterprise. They specialize in small animalistic sculptures made from soft anhydrite, which is mined in quarries of the Bornukovo caves, located in Buturlino District. Named for the nearest village, the cave on the bank of the Pyana River even in the last century interested travellers, who wrote of the beauty of the “marble” halls within the fifty-metre hill as of a rare and exciting natural phenomenon. Before the Revolution of 1917, anhydrite was worked only in the village of Kolkovitsy near Bornukovo. The stone was used for making small table-tops and window-sills, vases, butter dishes, ash trays, paper weights and statuettes. Some art objects made of anhydrite were shown at the Exhibition of Art and Industry in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896.

The initiator of the artel of stone carvers was Shalnov, a craftsman who came to Bornukovo in 1930 from the Urals. His samples, as well as those by Balandin, a young sculptor from the Moscow Research Institute of Art and Industrial Design, were adopted by the artel. These were statuettes of workers and Red Army men, figures of animals and desk sets. Soon Bornukovo could boast of carvers of its own: Alexander and Pavel Yegorushin, Alexander and Ivan Dolgov, Vasily Pelesov. Their articles, such as ink stands and ash trays with tiger sculptures, milk-white pelicans, and bear families of bluish stone, were successfully shown at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937. Animal statuary of the ’30s became the main trend of stone carving at Bornukovo.

(Aurora Art, 1988)