The art of russian enamels
Over the period of more than five hundred years, various artistic centers developed in Novgorod, Moscow, and in towns of Northern Russia, either in succession or simultaneously. These centers made splendid works in gold, silver and various non-ferrous metals, including tsarist and grand-ducal regalia, liturgical plate, frameworks for Gospels and icons, and different items of daily use.
In ancient times, the glass-like glaze of enamel was suggestive of precious stone; according to ancient Arabic tradition dating from Al Biruni, the stones were thought to possess protective powers. They were also considered to be ornamental due to the purity of their colors, the character of their facets and their exceptional hardness, rarely equalled even in nature. Although losing the power of its ancient legend, enamel remained one of the most expressive materials in the art of jewelry-making. Their multicolored brilliance met the ideals of Russian artists, the masters of gold and silver desings. Technical methods have contributed to the vitality of enamel art, which is exemplified by the success of many important enamel centers in Eastern and Western Europe and in the East, e.g. Isbagan and Gerat in Persia, Limoge in France or Augsburg in Germany, all of which have now became obsolete. After these centers ceased to exist, the national school of enamel died out. If reborn, it will exist in another part of the world and on a different technical and artistic level. Unlike foreign enamelling schools, the Russian school was distinguished by its exclusive stability and by its various paths of development. Having inherited this unusually festive and vivacious art from the great masters of Constantinople, Russian gold and silver masters maintained the skill, even in their long period of subjugation to the nomads of the Asiatic steppes. Despite the disappearance of «hard-baked» enamelling from jewelry-making at this time, artists assimilated the methods of relief enamelling.
Even those few enamel works from the 14th century preserved until today demonstrate the outstanding influence of multicolored varnishing on carvings and engraings. Before having exhausted the formulative possibilities of this method, experience was simultaneously pained by combining enamel with filigree work. Striving towards a multicolored piece of jewelry, the artist left no method untried in his search for a broad palette of quality enamel alloys. (These alloys, in the 15th and 16th centuries, were, at times, changed for self-prepared colored pastes.) Searching for various original combinations of enamelling technique, the master craftsmen modified the use of those means which augmented the decorative effect of their work, creating the impression of complexity and the colorful variation of enamel varnish. In the Classical Period of Russian enamelling (ca. 17th c.) when enamel completely governed the technological manufacture of alloys, the artist, as if to emphasize the technical excellence of his work, sometimes would use three or even four methods of enamelling in the decoration of one object. This special technical expertise surpassed the work of European and Asiatic master.
By the Middle Ages two ways of manufacturing home-produced metal goods had been developed. Firstly, there were the distinguished Grand Prince and Patriarchal masters who possessed professional organization with division of labor. There were also the smaller, cottage industries, working for monasteries, in estates of the nobility, in provincial towas and even in villages.
Court artists were well-disposed with a wide range of jewelry-making materials and a stable technical base; they were up-to-date with the innovations of their foreign contemporaries (even collaborating with first-class European masters). They were innovators of new technical and artistic methods, were sensitive to changes in style and paid tribute to the short-lived vogue, but their work was always somewhat cosmopolitan.
The art of the cottage-industry craftsmen was the most closely linked to the long standing, domestic method of production, even with religious and aesthetic ideals which had evolved over an unusually long period of time. The craft of enamelling was perfected
gradually, gathering professional experience which had been handed down from generation to generation. The main source of new inspiration was folk art, for instance, the use of elements of design employed in wood and bone carving, lacework and embroidery. As well as using traditional technique, masters of the provincial schools assimilated their own individual methods of enamelling which «sparkled» at the Tsars' court and at the estates of aristocratic foreign artists. Over a long time, these innovations acquired such a personal interpretation that they were accepted as inherent local artistic phenomena in their own right.
Particular attention should be paid to the role of folk art in the evolution of the craft of enamelling. Masters boasting of a wide range of local traditions, lent a vibrant atmosphere to the Capital schools. Indeed, artists from Novgorod, Pskov, Veliky Ustiug, Yaroslavl, Kostroma and many other towns were known amongst professional craftspeople. Even after moving to St.Petersburg, the court masters retained a broad representation of enamelers from local art centers. It is specifically credited to their participation in the creation of almost all the prominent works of the Metropolitan school that these items were distinguished by such noticeable freshness, expressiveness and variety, both in decoration and form. A strong link to traditional work meant that although the art of enamelling in Russia was influenced by foreign artists, it preserved its national originality during the whole of its development. In those periods, when, owing to economic and political reasons, court workshops in gold and silver artifacts declined, rural enamel centers took the leading role. The extensive creative base which they made for the Capital schools provided the stability for the accumulation and realization of the artistic experience, which distinguished the national school of enamelling in Russia from the majority of European and Asiatic schools.
In the early 19th century, works of enamel from St.Petersburg and Moscow schools became more and more individualized. They lost their immediate link with the process of creating objects for utilitarian purposes. Miniatures in enamel came into vogue at that lime and became noticeably widespread. They were created, as a rule, by professional artists, including graduates of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Each one of their creations was a unique portrayal on enamel plates, medallions or ammunition pouches. Now and again, these medallions were intended for the decorations on some kind of gold and silver artifact: panagias, frameworks of Gospels and icons, chalices and other liturgical objects and even everyday things, like powder cases, snuff-boxes and caskets (however, these did not possess the aesthetic value of the rest of the decorated work).
Towards the middle of the century, an industrial form of enamel production appeared, as if to balance the unique made-to-order works as well as the inefficient methods of manufacturing home-produced enamel. For instance, the mass-produced wares of the Popov factory not only filled the markets of Northern towns but were also well-known in St.Petersburg and Moscow. However, the quickly following fall in demand for production possibly-suggested an inverse relationship between the large-scale production of enamels, the standardization of decoration and mechanization of a significant part of the manufacturing process on the one hand, and their artistic quality on the other. This could be one explanation for the Popov's refusal to renew their business after the fire.
In Russia, the manufacture of enamel goods was only resumed many decades after the closure of the Veliky Ustiug factory, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Business at this period proved to be more successful, as they managed to harmonize both the artist's individual creativity and the technological realization of his designs. In spite of the fact that enterprises belonging to Fabergc, Sazikov, Ovchinnikov, Klubnikov and others were stated in the documents of the time as being factories or even firms, the principal role was played by the creative works of the artists; the business' success was due to both their inspiration and the technical realization of their ideas. Only the purely technical and subsidiary operations were carried out with the help of machinery. A similar organization allowed both the display of the artistic originality of the master, and the maintenance of technical perfection. Artists of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries widely used all the various types of past technical and artistic experience. Enamel art of this period was distinguished by its special originality. Artists turned to the richest heritage of the 16th and 17th centuries artistic metalwork and to contemporary national works, as well as to separate motifs of decor used by foreign, jewellers over the centuries. These artists, through their experimental work, have made a substantial contribution both in Russia and Western Europe.