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Tracing the Roots of Russia’s Renowned Khokhloma Art

Russia has gifted many folk arts to the world, most notably the Matryoshka doll or the Russian doll. Amongst its other assortments, the next in line would undoubtedly be the Khokhloma handicrafts. Rich in gold with intricately drawn botanical motifs all across, Khokhloma is a traditional Russian art form developed over 300 years ago. 

The Origin of Khokhloma

The art of Khokhloma originated during the mid 17th century near the river Volga in the city of Nizhni Novgorod. Historians attest that Old Believers (Eastern Orthodox Christians) fled to remote villages near the Volga river due to religious differences. They were proficient in icon painting, and some were terrific miniature artists. Additionally, local inhabitants of the Volga region were skilled in turning articles. The combination of the two resulted in the conception of Khokhloma ware. 

Kitchen utensils from Russian khokhloma. Traditional wood painting handicraft style and national ornament. First appeared in the second half of the 17th century in the Nizhny Novgorod.

“The abundance of wood allows some villagers to manufacture by turning various dishes, cups, plates, and other similar wooden articles, which are then varnished and decorated all over with golden ornaments and bright flowery patterns”, states the geographer Evdokim Zyablovsky regarding his visit to the Nizhni Novgorod province in the 1790s.

Momentarily, the demand for these exquisite handicrafts surged. They were traded it to different parts of the country and the world from the nearby Khokhloma village. The village, its distributing center, thus became the namesake due to its association with the craft.

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Khokhloma: The Craft and its creation

It is said that in 1659, a certain boyar issued a letter to his bailiff which stated – ‘One hundred painted dishes polished with powdered tin, both large and medium, of the very same kind possessed by us earlier, not forgetting twenty large painted wine bowls, twenty medium and twenty somewhat smaller’. Believably, this led to the creation of Khokhloma wares.

Despite its affluent gold tones, the product is not made from real gold. Rather, its metallic tint is achieved from tin powder. Here’s how it goes – Wood is turned on a lathe into any desired shape. The turned wooden product is first covered in clay soil. It is then boiled in linseed oil, after which the product is coated with tin powder (or aluminum powder). Once dried, the item is baked in a kiln wherein the silver hue turns to gold!

Post baking, seasoned artisans paint sinuous motifs on the surface. The gold background is occasionally painted over with black paint, over which motifs of red, green, or brown are illustrated. On most occasions, carefully curated patterns decorate the golden background. They represent floral or botanical designs such as stems, flowers, leaves, raspberries, mountain ash, currants, strawberries, gooseberries, and more.

Until the 19th century, Khokhloma hugely remained as a household item in Russia. Cups, plates, jugs, and spoons were some of the most favored products. Coats of lacquer and varnish sustained their durability through any temperature or time. But by the 19th century, Khokhloma wares were distributed beyond Russian cities – to Persia, India, Central Asia, America, and Australia. Their emphasis shifted from its usage as a household product to a keepsake of Russia’s celebrated folk art.

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Feature Image Via MeetRussia, EnglishRussia, WallpaperFlare, Olenkadesign, Pinterest, Artist.

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All things Arts & Culture, novel and elusive. Editor at The Ticket Fairy. (She/Her)

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