Gorodets – the Centre of Craft
Text and photos by Larissa Franczek
Gorodets is an ancient town on the banks of the Volga. It was founded by Yuri Dolgoruki in the 12th century. The town is famous for its wood carving, painting, golden embroidery and gingerbread.
The town is situated in the midst of a forest where many smiths, weavers, dyers and other craftsmen used to live. As there was an abundance of woods around the town, becoming a wood carver or carpenter was always considered the best thing to do. Towns and settlements along the bankfs of the Volga were very favorable from the point of view of trade because one of the biggest Russian fairs, Makariev, took place in the vicinity. The forest and the close proximity of the Makariev fair, were the two main reasons for the rapid development of crafts in the town.
Wood carving is one of the most ancient kinds of Russian decorative arts. The Gorodets folk-style is a peculiar phenomenon in the architecture of a rural dwelling. Originally only the front of boats and barges were decorated with carving. It was called ‘ship carving’. Gradually this style was used in peasants’ houses where window aprons, platbands and gates were carved.
There are two types of Gorodets wood carving: ‘openwork’ and ‘house’ or ‘indistinct.’ Openwork carving is very light and looks like lace. Methods of doing this are very simple and less labourintensive than in the second type which is called relief carving. In this kind of carving, designs typically feature floral pattern and depictions of mermaids, fairy-tale birds, lions and mythological creatures. Even now in Gorodets you can find houses marvellously carved from the roof to the cellar. You see pliant branches with leaves, beads, rhombs, ribbons, lace, grapes, rays and many other designs. You stand motionless outside such a house as it looks so rich, festive and merry.
Beside houses, Gorodets craftsmen carved dolls and boards to bake gingerbread in. Boards were an integral tool to mould the front side of the gingerbread. Thus, the name in Russian «печатный пряник» – moulded gingerbread. Only in Gorodets did carving of such boards turn into a real art. They were carved from mature birch, pear or lime wood and were of a different size and complexity. The pictures used on them were extremely diverse: palaces, horsemen with sabres, peacocks, fish and, later, ships and locomotives. In the 19th century, Gorodets gingerbread sold at the Makariev fair was delivered to the farthest corners of Russia and thus known all over the country. In Gorodets they baked up to 10,000 puds (a pud is equal to 16 kg) and 30 types of gingerbread, varying in size and flavour. On the occasion of tsar Nicholas II’s coronation Gorodets’ merchants presented him and the Tsaritsa with a special 16 kg piece of gingerbread.
Among the abundance of wooden goods produced at Gorodets, spinning-wheels were the best known. Peasants grew flax and women were involved in weaving in a big way. A spinning- wheel accompanied them all their lives. It was often a gift. A bridegroom gave it to his beloved girl, a husband to his wife, a father to his daughter. It was a symbol of work with a special domestic significance. People treated their spinning-wheel carefully, kept it nicely and used it as an heirloom.
Usually spinningwheels were cut out of a solid piece of timber. Those from Gorodets were different. They consisted of two parts: a hackle (the top part) and a removable lower part, which was really nothing but a wide plank, narrow at one end, where there was a hole in which the hackle was inserted. The lower part was painted, and when a woman wasn’t using her spinning-wheel she separated its two parts and hung the bottom on the wall like a picture.
Before the 18th century, craftsmen used an in-laying technique in order to decorate the bottom parts. They carved figures and inserted them into prepared niches. It was a difficult and labour-intensive process. The figurines were usually made of dark fumed oak, while the surface of the spinning-wheel was lightcoloured. Thus, using only two types of wood, and using simple tools, craftsmen managed to turn a bottom into a picture or even a decorative panel.
The in-laying eventually evolved into painting because the latter was simpler and less time-consuming. For a short period, the change to painting from carving brought about a new type of folk painting which became a unique phenomenon in Russian national culture. Soon Gorodets painting became one of the brightest examples of so called naïve art, one of the most famous Russian craft traditions.
The roots of such painting go back to the middle of the 18th century when monasteries and hermitages grew up around Gorodets. Icon-painters and book-copyists worked together with monks at these places. Their activities infl uenced peasant crafts. Whilst inlaying the lower part of a spinning wheel, a craftsman often referred to an icon.
At that time, many Old Believers were living in the area. Old Believers were known to long intellectual and spiritual enlightenment and education. Their beliefs spread widely among the locals, and mingled with superstitions and pagan beliefs. That all gave rise to the development of symbolism in folk art.
Ancient symbolic motifs such as The Tree of Life and the horsemen, because they relate to a specific quasi-philosophical/ religious ideas, were artistically interpreted in Gorodets painting.
For wood carvers, horseman embodied their favourite image of St. George and meant light, warmth and the sun. His horse was riding in the sky, thrashing away at evil with a sword-ray of light. The depiction of The Tree of life on top and the horseman below was a woodcarver’s idea of how the world was organized.
On almost every item of Gorodets painting you notice an abundance of flowers. While the horseman was connected with agriculture, a flower meant the blossoming of the earth. Sometimes flowers are combined in a magnificent garland.
Gorodets painting was at its peak in the 1880s. It was a time when in the Old Believers’ villages, with their conservative way of life and rapt search for truth, there was a hustling and bustling, multicoloured life along the Volga.
Selling their items in its towns and cities, craftsmen were surprised with locals’ unusual, merry and rich life. There they came across Tatars, Kalmyks, Greeks, Armenians - different faces, costumes and goods. Craftsmen were impressed, stunned and struck with their revelry. All these observations turned into images of a world of happiness and dreams.
Demand required more and more items to be made. Paintings became real, live, quick and more pictorial. Content changed, too. Plots, genres, portraits and new motifs appeared. Instead of former idealized images, artists started painting courtly cavaliers and ladies in splendid clothes, groups of women, town residents and scenes of tea drinking. Their rich interiors were full of details, depicted in a very precise way: columns and clocks, high windows and beautiful curtains, magnificent staircases and a kitten playing on the floor.
The painting technique used in Gorodets was not complicated. First they made a background that also served as a priming coat. A few rough brush strokes were enough to slap blotches of colour onto the wood. Then they worked flowers and figures into them.
When both an ornamental pattern and a central scene were completed, they were toned up with a white colour, and the whole thing was given a coat of drying oil. A finished composition was usually framed. In the past masters used tempera, then they painted with oil.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the whole world was falling apart, politically and socially. World War I and all three Russian revolutions had yet to take place. The artistic world, being a mirror image of the real world, reflected its instability. The Gorodets artistic painting system also started falling apart.
Carvers’ colours began to lose their liveliness and depth, painting became dryer and pictorial characters more dominant. As a phenomenon of collective folk art, Gorodets painting soon ceased to exist.
A revival started in 1937 when on the basis of a collective workshop, they set up the “Stakhanovets” cooperative. In 1960 it was reorganized into “Gorodetskaya Rospis” factory.
Nowadays, it is a privately-owned enterprise with 300 employees. Painters are highly qualified specialists, many of them are members of the Russian Union of Artists whose works are shown at both Russian and foreign exhibitions, purchased by museums, private galleries and collectors.
The factory produces a wide selection of traditionally ornamented, painted and carved items. Among them are bread boxes, cutting boards, kitchen and tea sets, boxes, chests, wall panels and children furniture. Within a short period of time, an icon-painting shop was organized. The craft has not only preserved its traditions, it has further developed them, making the famous patterns more colourful and contemporary.
Beautiful examples of Gorodets painting and carving are kept in the State Historical Museum, the State Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts (Moscow), the Russian Museum (St. Petersburg), and museums in Nizhny Novgorod.
Whilst in a souvenir shop of the Art Museum in Gorodets I was so happy to find a bell for my collection painted in this technique. I didn’t need a bread cutting board, but as soon as I saw one I couldn’t resist it. I approached it and went away, back and forth and finally gave in. The decision to buy it was the right one as the board was a beautiful piece of work that I now gaze at, enjoying and remembering that amazing little town on the Volga.