Lapti (bast shoes) used to be traditional footwear of Russian folk for many centuries, dating as far back as the Stone Age, according to some researchers. Braided from tree bark, oftentimes birch, and sometimes even from thin leather belts, lapti were usually made by the man of the house for the whole family. Besides the Slavic tribes, some Baltic and German nations used to have bast shoes in their wardrobe as well, and the Swedes even had a term – “a bast shoe mile” - which referred to the distance that a person could walk while wearing one pair of bast shoes. Being favorite footwear of the Russian peasants, lapti are a subject of many Russian proverbs and sayings, and can be found on Russian paintings and in other expressions of folk art.
Khokhloma is a style of decorative painting on wooden articles that was born in the northern Nizhniy Novgorod region around the end of the 17th century. It got its name from one of the villages where it first appeared and to which craftsmen from around the region brought their works for sale at a bazaar. Each true Khokhloma artifact should be lightweight, very strong, well proportioned and hand-painted with a unique ornate design that may have irregularities which only confirms that it was not made by a machine. The main colors used in Khokhloma painting are black, golden yellow and red, and the main motif is usually grass leaves braided in exquisite curls and bursting into flowers, which is reminiscent of the lush grass fields and meadows of the Nizhniy Novgorod province. Although all Khokhloma items follow these original staples, each is a unique expression of the artist’s creative fantasy.
Gzhel is the name of a village and a major ceramics center located about 50 miles southeast of Moscow. Although pottery had been the main craft in the area for centuries, Gzhel became famous only in the 18th century, after local artists mastered the technique of making majolica. By mid-19th century the majority of Russian porcelain was produced in Gzhel and it was sold not only in Russia, but in other countries as well. Every Gzhel item requires hours of moulding, finishing, glazing and firing. Each white and blue piece of Gzhel porcelain is unique as it is meticulously painted by hand, and bears the stamp of the artist’s individual creativity.
These two names are well known all over the world. Colorful hand-painted and lacquered Zhostovo trays and gorgeous Pavlov Posad shawls are very popular buys among tourists visiting Russia, and connoisseurs of Russian art and culture. One cannot help but notice the similarities in the ornamental designs used in both of these handicrafts. It is not surprising, as both Zhostovo and Pavlov Posad crafts were born around the same time, in early 19th century. A rose was a popular motif among artists of that time. It was chosen for its symbolic nature as an interesting complex flower with special philosophical meanings attributed to it through the ages. By decorating their trays and shawls with bouquets of fantastic flowers, Zhostovo and Pavlov Posad artists were trying to figuratively prolong the summer blooming season, which is relatively short in Russia. With all the heart and labor that masters put in them, true masterpieces of Zhostovo and Pavlov Posad art delight your eye, warm your soul and invite your mind on a journey into a beautiful fantasyland.
The most popular Russian souvenir around the world, Matryoshka was born in the 1890’s, when a wooden nesting doll from Japan was brought into a toyshop in Moscow. Russian woodcraftsman Vasiliy Zvezdochkin and artist Sergei Malyutin liked the idea of dolls that fit inside one another, and made their own version of a nesting doll where a figurine of a girl with a rooster opened to reveal a boy, followed by a girl, and a boy, and so on – 8 pieces in all. The doll got its name Matryoshka from a then-popular female name Matryona that was symbolic of a mother of a big family. When the original toyshop closed in 1900, the handicraft moved to the town of Sergiev Posad in the Golden Ring known for its gifted woodcraftsmen, and developed into a major industry with orders coming in from France and Germany and other countries. Today, you can learn the history of this popular Russian souvenir in the Museum of Toys in Sergiev Posad or the one-of-a-kind Museum of Matryoshka in Moscow.
Born as an icon painting school in the small Russian village of Palekh, Palekh art is better known nowadays for the beautiful lacquered boxes, trays and other items that have won admirers all over the world. As a style of lacquered miniature painting, Palekh completely formed only by mid-18th century. It inherited the main features of ancient Russian painting and folk art, but also acquired some elements of fresco painting and has kept the artistic peculiarities introduced by the first Palekh masters. A lot of the 20th-century Palekh lacquered miniature works depict scenes from fairy tales, stories and poems by the famous Russian writer and poet Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature. Even with the competition from Fedoskino, as well as Kholui and Mstera, Palekh has always been, and still remains the quintessential symbol of lacquered miniature production in Russia.
A purely Russian invention, samovar grew from a practical household item into an element of Russian folk art. It began as a “samovar kitchen” in the 18th century, a device that was heated by coal or kerosene and used to make shchi (traditional cabbage soup), kasha (another dinner staple) and tea. Later on, when tea became more affordable and therefore more popular, samovars were made specifically for the purpose of making tea. The first samovar factory opened in Tula in 1778, and since then this town of gunsmiths became known as the center of samovar production in Russia. The best samovar masters expressed their creativity through ornate designs making each samovar into a masterpiece of applied art. Today, samovars are still used in many Russian households, but the most exquisite ones can be found in museums and private collections all over the world.
Kobuz, also called kobyz, is a 2-stringed musical instrument played with a bow. Once popular among most Central Asian nations, nowadays it is used mostly in Kazakhstan. In the past, shamans used the kobuz to make deep gloomy sounds during their sacred rituals, always improvising on the spot. In the ancient city of Khiva, kobuz was played by musicians in the royal courtyard. It was also the instrument of choice for many traveling poet-singers who sang tales of the great heroes and events of the past. When listening to this instrument, you can almost hear the winds blowing through the endless steppes, or picture hordes of warriors on horseback, or shepherds moving their flocks of sheep – this is how much kobuz music is a reflection of the Central Asian history and cultural heritage.
Clay pottery has always been a popular handicraft in Central Asian countries. It is not surprising, as clay is a natural part of many Central Asian landscapes. Historically, clay was used in Central Asia for building dwellings, making stoves and household artifacts, such as tableware, as well as toys and decorative items. Ceramics glazing techniques were adopted by Central Asian artisans during the advance of Islamic culture in the region, around the 8th-11th centuries. Being situated in the midst of the famous Silk Route network greatly influenced the design and techniques used in Central Asian ceramics and pottery. The multi-cultural legacy of the Silk Route and the traditions of the enigmatic nations of the Orient find reflection in the clay artifacts produced at different times in history and displayed in museums of Central Asia and other countries.
Artistic metalwork in the Caucasus is over three thousand years old with its roots in the ancient arts of Svanetia. Archaeologists have discovered many stamped and engraved metal bracelets, necklaces, rings, pendants and even book covers that were made many centuries ago by local masters. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the most popular metalwork artifacts among the nobility in Georgia were silver wine jugs and drinking glasses, usually with hunting scenes and scenes of folk festivities engraved on them. Talented local metalworkers employed the techniques of stamping, chasing, filigree, and granulation in producing articles of exquisite beauty and decorative value. Besides jewelry, ceremonial silverware and armor are the items that artists put their heart into most often. This speaks for the two qualities for which the people of the Caucasus are best known around the world – their fun-loving nature and hospitality, and their bravery and hot temper.
Being about 40-60 million years old, Baltic amber is oftentimes referred to as “the window to the past” due to its ability to encapsulate and preserve small plants and insects from countless centuries ago. It has been treasured for its decorative qualities and used in jewelry production since as far back as the Paleolithic Era. Ancient amber trade routes connected the nations between the Baltic and the Black seas and served as a means of communication. The quality of amber is determined by the level of succinic acid contained in it. Having the largest content of succinite, Baltic amber is the most highly valued form of amber on the planet. Amber is lightweight and warm to the touch, in contrast to other gems, and may vary in color from nearly black brownish-red, orange, yellow, green and, very rarely, even blue. Baltic and Slavic nations always attributed magical qualities to this gem, and in some countries an amber necklace is still a popular gift to a child, and is believed to protect from an evil eye and misfortune.
Being a region of many forests, the Baltic countries have always had abundant resources for the woodworking industry. Historically, woodworking has been one of the main trades that local folk practiced for centuries. During the winter months, when there was no work in the fields, peasant men tried to make all the necessary agricultural tools, household utensils and even furniture by hand. When the more serious items were completed, many craftsmen moved on to the fun stuff, carving out children’s toys and decorative items. In the old times, woodwork was a kind of a science, with the phases of the moon, the direction of winds and other signs of nature guiding the masters in selecting timber and choosing the right time for different stages of their work. Today, you can view the woodwork artifacts made in the centuries past in several museums of applied art and regional studies in the Baltic countries, as well as buy more recently made wooden souvenirs in multiple gift shops.
The Chinese Dragon is a mythical creature that symbolizes auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art. It is the embodiment of the concept of yang, and was favored by the Chinese emperors as their imperial emblem. The Chinese people consider the dragon to be a symbol of good fortune and wealth, and the bringer of much-needed rain for crop fields. The dragon is present in all New Year celebrations, as it is believed to ward off the evil so that it does not spoil the coming year. Recent archaeological discoveries confirm that the dragon’s association with the Chinese culture has lasted for at least six thousand years, but its presence in the nation’s conscience today is as strong as ever.
Intricately decorated incense burners of various shapes and designs are not only frequent archaeological finds, but a staple of modern-day life in China, and many other Asian nations as well. Over centuries, incense burning played an important role in religious ceremonies all over the world, but the connection between fragrance and religion is the strongest in Asia. When visiting a temple in Asia, one is sure to find oneself in a cloud of fragrant smoke coming from the altars. The burning of incense is an integral part of almost any religious ceremony in China. It is considered a means of communication with the spirits. When a person is holding a burning incense stick in their hands while praying in front of an image of a god, it is believed that their soul becomes transparent and the god can see what they are thinking. The custom is said to have begun when disciples listening to Buddha found they could concentrate better and stay awake in the summer heat if they burned sandalwood. Originally used in special burners, incense is more widely known nowadays in the form of sticks, and can be bought in stores almost anywhere in the world.