Journey to Bolshiye Bezdeli, or Worshipping Russian Venus

Journey to Bolshiye Bezdeli, or Worshipping Russian Venus

It's not Khokhlo'ma, but 'Khokhloma is the first lesson that everyone who comes to Nizhny Novgorod needs to learn. The right location of stress is on the first syllable. This is the opening point of a traditional painting workshop at the City Press Center.

"This style of painting originated in villages located in the area of the modern Koverninsky District," begins Yury Filippov, General Director of the Nizhny Novgorod State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve. "Two of them had very exotic names: Bolshiye and Malye Bezdeli [loosely translated as Big and Small Doodles — Ed.], because from a tiller's perspective, running a brush over a piece of wood is flagrant idleness. The local people were engaged in folk crafts, and took their products to the trading village of Khokhloma, which still exists — with the stress on the first syllable."

The workshop focuses on painting a Matryoshka doll in Khokhloma style, which is a doubly Russian traditional folk craft. The instructor was Svetlana Semerikova — an experienced artist, graduate of a professional lyceum in the city of Semyonov.

"The main thing here is the colors. Yellow, black, red, and green — the nature color, and nature is very bright in itself. Gold is the color of wealth; red is the color of beauty, and green, the color of nature. The patterns include flowers, berries, leaves, buds, birds, fish, and even small insects such as butterflies. Now they are introducing dragonflies, and we've had customers who wanted bumblebees — the painting style is developing," Svetlana says.

The journalists are only using paints, without gilding because the chemical process it requires is too complicated. Incidentally, Khokhloma artists never used real gold. Nizhny Novgorod residents are the only artists in the world who have come up with a way to achieve the "precious" effect on wood in the oven.

"The product is first primed, then dressed, then covered with aluminum powder. Previously, they painted on the aluminum powder. That is, the original product was silver, and when covered with varnish and hardened in the ovens, it acquired the golden color. Now, after tinning, we cover the products with colored varnish," the artist explains.

According to Svetlana, the brighter shade is what distinguishes the genuine Khokhloma painting from handicrafts — the latter are always more faded.

"Any foreigner seeing this riot of colors involuntarily falls in love with it. I am sure that everyone will take home a piece of Gorodets painting, or a Khokhloma product, or Matryoshka, or maybe a silver filigree," Yury Filippov said.

As for the familiar doll, a symbol of Russian culture, his next words take everyone by surprise — it turns out that the invention is not Russian at all.

"In Japanese art, there is a traditional portrayal of the wise Kukuruma — one figurine inside of another. Legend has it that in the 19th century, a two-piece figurine was brought to Russia. But a Russian artist would not be Russian, had he not perfected it his way," Filippov explains.

So instead of two pieces — one inside the other — Russians began to produce ten, and twenty, and the record Matryoshka consists of 126 figurines. Filippov also has an explanation for the shape of the folk toy.

"Even with Christianity, Russians still had a cult of the Mother Goddess, a cult of fertility. Recalling the Paleolithic Venus with her hypertrophied feminine curves, it does look a bit like a Matryoshka if you look from a distance," he says.

Khokhloma painting workshop