Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main (1976): Paleckh Lacquer Miniature According to Marxism, Social History of Art and Semiotics.

Alyssa Ovadis

Palekh; its history is a striking example of how wisely the revolution can link the past with the present. Palekh will always represent poetic images of the people.
—M. Gorky [1]

Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main (Fig.1) [2], a 1976 Palekh lacquered miniature box painted during the time of the Soviet Union, could be regarded as a “striking example of how wisely the revolution can link the past with the present” [3]. This work shows a typical Soviet subject matter; however, Palekh art is not specific to the Soviet era. In fact, the village of Palekh is known for its miniature paintings from as long as the 17th century. Kuznetsova’s lacquer box is therefore part of a larger scope of works, which could be described as a “miniature painted on a box or case with a dynamic composition and distinctive coloring, in which vermillion fused with exquisite gold patterns … heightened by a black background” [4]. Palekh art could arguably separate into three distinct time periods: the pre-Soviet era, the Soviet era, and the post-Soviet era, each reflecting the socio-political state of Russia at its time. A clear pattern of this sociopolitical reflection emerges through comparison of Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main (the Soviet era), with works of its past (the pre Soviet era) on the one hand, and works of its future, (the post-Soviet era) on the other hand. In order to get a better understanding of this pattern, it is essential to analyze Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main from a sociopolitical perspective. It would therefore be useful to discuss the work first through semiotics, then through social art history and finally through Marxism.

A semiotics approach presupposes an understanding of a work’s meaning through a deciphering of its signs, “semioticians share an interest in understanding how people and societies utilize signs to embody meanings and values and to communicate them to one another” [5]. A semiotics approach of Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amar-Main therefore assumes a clear visual description of the work. The general theme of this miniature seems to be construction and the work itself appears to be separated into four distinct parts: construction of a bridge, construction of a railroad, cutting of trees, and protest or celebration. In terms of color, this lacquer painting is typical of Palekh miniature art, it has a black background and vermillion colors that stand out. The clearly equal proportion of trees, machines and people in this work may suggest the feeling of a thematic that focuses on the transformation of landscape (nature) into construction, a transformation that alludes to the economic revolution. And so the train, at the very center of the miniature, seems to travel at high speed, as if embodying, in and of itself, the tone of this revolution. Green appears to prevail, being the color of the trees as well as the train. However, the color red also plays an important part in this miniature. At first, it may seem somewhat hidden within this prevalent green, yet it clearly plays its ideological role in details. In fact, the red flag is a central communist symbol of this miniature. According to Morel, red is the color of revolt, violence and revolution [6] and flags permit identification of individuals to a community. It has a rallying role, one of federation and even propaganda [7]. The star on the train may be a symbol of extraversion, production and dynamism, while the train itself suggests a vector of evolution, as well as a pathway towards good [8].  The groups of people working together refer to kolkhozes, a Soviet installation that regroups individual farmers into small communities that work and share everything together. A semiotic analysis of this painting therefore suggests a communist iconography and can be seen within a series of other Soviet Palekh art, which includes other fundamental communist imagery as well. A vocabulary of ritual was in place. It included such concrete symbols as the worker’s hammer and peasant’s sickle, and the more abstract forms of spotlights, red bunting, and futuristic designs evoking the striving and utopian ambitions of the new state [9].

Interestingly, however, a semiotic analysis of Kuznetsova’s work may perhaps not only be based on what signs are present, but also, seemingly, on which signs are absent. In fact, this miniature completely lacks religious symbolism. This is important because religious symbolism was once essential to Palekh art and its exclusion is an equally important symbol in and of itself, it shows the Soviet abstinence to religion, and thus implies a change in the government‟s agenda, from a pre-Soviet to a Soviet era. The exclusion of symbols is telling of Pierce‟s discussion on semiotics, “a sign cannot be defined in terms of the system to which it belongs, say gestures or dance steps, but must be interpreted in the light of the way it has previously been understood” [10]. Arguably, the signs of communism that are integrated into this miniature (the actions, the objects, the colors) are propaganda. It idealizes communism through the people, who are depicted in relation to their happiness. Hilton mentions this idealization of figures as being typical to Soviet art, “healthy bodies, plentiful food, colorful garments, bright sunlight, and happy faces also supported the optimistic propaganda of Socialist Realist depiction of holidays” [11].

The signs in this specific miniature can be regarded as object symbols, defined as “material things or representation of material things of special significance, which are transported by members of the group to the demonstration” [12]. Within Kuznetsova’s work, object symbols would thus include the red flag, the star, and all the symbols of construction. However, upon looking at other Soviet Palekh art, the other two types of symbols emerge: time symbols, defined as “dates, which commemorate events of special importance to protest groups and which occur at least once a year (that is, on anniversaries) thereafter” [13], and place symbols, defined as “specific locations at which events of special importance to the protest group took place or which are expressly dedicated by the group to such experience” [14]. An example of time symbols would be Soviet Palekh miniature lacquer boxes depicting the holiday of May first, such as Yermolaev’s 1975 Palekh celebrates the First of May (Fig. 2) [15], and an example of place symbols would be Soviet Palekh miniature lacquer boxes depicting revolutionized Moscow, such as Smirnov’s 1960 Moscow Kremlin (Fig. 3) [16]. The idea of utopia, often linked to Communist thought, is also present in Soviet Palekh art. According to Bloch, the fairy-tale aspect of these lacquer miniatures functions as an allegory to suggest the underlying propaganda of Communism as a Utopic regime [17]. Interestingly, a semiotics analysis of these works is not unusual for the Soviet Union since it seem as though the creation of these works of art was itself based on semiotics. In fact, Volosinov writes on the subject of ideology, language and semiotics, arguing that “the domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too. Everything ideological possesses semiotic value” [18].

A socio art historical approach presupposes an understanding of a work’s meaning through the tracing of changes and evolution of the beliefs and values of a society and its people during a certain time. Analyzing Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main in such a context presupposes an understanding of Russia’s evolution into the Soviet Union as well as the Soviet Union‟s evolution into Russia. The Soviet Union should therefore be regarded as a middle ground between the pre Soviet era and the post-Soviet era. It will therefore be necessary to see in which way Palekh art, an art of the people, is able to reflect the status of its country. With a look at past and future works, it will be possible to identify these pieces with social realism, the intertwining between art and society, since “all genuine art leads us by a detour, which may be longer or shorter, back to reality in the end” and since “a work of art is communication” [19]. Likewise, it will be important to note that this lacquer miniature is an artwork that becomes an active piece of culture; it is itself “part of a historical process” [20]. Palekh miniatures, which have always been an art of the people, are here again directed towards popular mass, as propaganda within a familiar framework.

Historically, the artistic history of Palekh began with icon painting. And in fact, up until the revolution of 1917, which instated secular art, religious subject matter was central to Palekh art. This can be seen in an eighteenth or early nineteenth century Palekh icon, Transferring the Relics of St.Nicholas (Fig. 4) [21]. Russia of that time was highly religious, “the lively market for icons … suggested a profound religiosity among the Russian people” [22]. After the Revolution the demand for religious iconography fell “but despite the change from religious to secular themes … the artists of Palekh have preserved a continuity of style” [23]. Interestingly, a similar but inversed process occurs in 1991, at the fall of the Soviet Union. The secular Russian government of the USSR dives into a religious rebirth, bringing Church and State back to proximity. These changes can be seen through Palekh art as well, with miniatures such as Smirnova’s 2001 Bible Stories (Fig. 5) [24]. While prior to the Soviet Union Palekh produced icon painting for a Russia that was highly religious, post Soviet Union Russia seems to be doing the same. In fact, post 1990’s, the Soviet ideology has been replaced by a religious ideology. Keeping the original Palekh style, Palekh artists now focus on a new subject matter, a new propaganda, that of religion. Interestingly, however, the style of Palekh art itself does not seem to have changed from these ideological shifts. In fact, the style remains identical from nineteenth century icon painting to twentieth century representations of Stalin and partisans. Instead, there is only a change of subject matter, a change which embodies a whole new propaganda: “stylistically close to seventeenth-century icons and manuscript miniatures, the lacquer paintings of the 1920’s and 1930’s and later also reflected current events” [25]. They had the “ability to convey contemporary propaganda and at the same time retain its traditional elegance” [26].

The idea of using Palekh miniature lacquer painting as a ground for propaganda is a strategic one in itself. The government plays on the familiarity of this genre (Palekh), on the one hand, and the camouflaging of ideology, on the other: “familiar styles were intended to make the propaganda accessible and acceptable” [27] since a “nostalgic image reassured viewers that traditional patterns of life would continue under the new regime” [28]. In fact, the use of art as propaganda in the Soviet union, has been explicitly discussed by the government. “Krushchev has declared that art will be “directed in a planned way ‟as one of the most important intellectual weapons in the fight for communism” [29], with the goal of inspiring people by the “heroic struggle […] towards a new life” [30]. To answer the question of who such art is for, it can obviously be said that icon painting of the seventeenth century was for the people who acquired icons for their own spiritual use. While art is inevitably based on the government’s agenda, the Soviet era nevertheless directed its art to the people and in one of Lenin’s memorable speeches he declared that “art belongs to the people” [31]. Thus, in the same way as Clark’s books “served to bring out the political implications of the work of Courbet and Manet within the historical horizons in which they were produced” and in the same way as they “suggested that the painting of these artists may have served an active role in the creation of social and political attitudes” [32], it could be argued that Palekh art also expresses the political implications of its time and, through propaganda, serves as an active role in the creation of social and political attitudes.

The question of the artist also emerges through a social study of the history of art. In fact, according to Plato, “the artist is an eccentric element in a well-ordered or egalitarian community … because he is an exception he becomes in some sense a parasite – but a not of the people, but of the elite whom he can flatter and amuse, and who will, in return, give him the means of subsistence” [33]. According to Read, such a parasite-artist process is clearly demonstrated “in Soviet Russia, where the artist is dependent for his very existence on the approval of a political minority” [34]. Such a dependence of the artist can thus be seen with Soviet Palekh miniature lacquer painting, which expresses the artist’s uneasiness to this new subject matter. However, the artists have clearly no other choice but to adhere to this new political ideology in order for them to survive.

A Marxist approach presupposes an understanding of the artwork’s meaning in relation to commodity. Tangherlini speaks of commodities as having “use value and exchange value. The use value of a commodity stems from its ability to satisfy human needs, and the exchange value stems from its fixed sum distribution” [35]. Palekh lacquer miniatures are part of popular art, art that is sometimes not considered as art, however, its relation to commodification went through important changes as the pre Soviet era evolved into the Soviet era, and as the Soviet era evolved into the post-Soviet era. In fact, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Palekh art was precious and more importantly it was an “author work”. A limited amount of artists produced art in the village of Palekh, and they each had their own recognizable style associated to their work. The signature of the artist therefore played an important role in Palekh art. With the Soviet Union, however, a shift occurs. This shift affects not only the subject matter and ideology of Palekh art, but it also affects the status of the artist, making him less visible behind the work of art, “neither its place of origin nor the specific techniques of that time and that particular art form, nor imitation of or influences by preceding works, … nor the biography of the artist … none of this interests Idealist aesthetics”. Thus, the work of art becomes, “to this way of thinking … truly a windowless monad, closed off in its … insularity” [36]. The Soviet era brought about the transition of art for art’s sake to strictly a commodity.

With the post-Soviet era, that is, with the arrival of capitalism, the transformation is complete. Palekh lacquer miniature boxes have become commodities in the modern day capitalist Russia. They are now mass-produced and almost completely alienated from any authorship. They are disconnected from their authors as nothing is known about the production process. Interestingly, it can usually be said that a commodity evolves into art (such as Warhol’s Campbell Soup); however, in this case, it can be said that art has evolved into a commodity. This is mainly seen through tourism and the purchase of souvenirs since Palekh miniature lacquered boxes are one of the main products to be seen in Russian souvenir stores. They have become kitsch and it is the trajectory from pre-Soviet to post-Soviet era that traces the evolution from seventeenth century icon painting to twenty first century kitsch art.  Wood argues this specificity of commodities, which are now governing what was once known as Russian art and has now become a product.[37] Once again, the issue of the artist as creator recurs. In fact, in the same way as ideology and propaganda are often inevitable rules by which artists survive, commodity also seems to have this survival aspect attached to it.[38] Another problem of the commodified Palekh lacquered miniature boxes is the concept of reproduction. Since most of these works are being mass produced, they are no longer hand painted. Likewise, they may carry the name of Palekh, but they are actually produced in Moscow, in St-Petersburg, or in factories of Siberia. The commodity therefore has a problem with aura and authenticity, or rather, with the lack of it.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one elements: its presence in time and space, is unique existence at the place where it happens to be … The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity [39]. Palekh art is thus entering a new age, the age of mechanical reproduction, and age in which the aura of the work of art is what withers, “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” [40]. Another characteristic of commodities is that there is always an immediate pleasure of looking at them. With Palekh art, there is this same visual attraction. In fact, it is once again this visual, colorful, attraction, the beauty of these boxes, which attracts viewers and buyers, and which camouflages the stranger (the political ideology) in the work. Propaganda therefore works as a commodity by visually attracting the buyer (with colors, familiarity, allusion to previous Palekh art) and then swallowing him with subtle allusions to politics and economics.

All three art historical methods: the semiotics, social history of art and Marxist approaches, appear to meet into one single interpretation. They all seem to arrive at the same conclusion. A conclusion that deals with the notion that Kuznetsova’s Building of the Baikal-Amur-Main is a work of propaganda, which introduces the ritual vocabulary of communism into the stylistic framework of the Palekh tradition. An overview of this work, as it is placed within a wider range of Palekh art, implies the idea that it mirrors Russia’s socio-political state at a given time. These three art historical methods thus appear to be complimentary in revealing the underlying connections between politics and art in Russia.

Through them emerges a clear view of the manner in which on one hand, a nation’s traditional artifact (such as Palekh art) skillfully adapts to the needs of the current regime in order to survive in this very regime; and on the other, how that regime uses and abuses of this very artifact in order to implement an ideology of its own in a context, familiar to the nation.

1. Vitaly Kotov and Larisa Taktashova, Palekh: The State Museum of Palekh Art, Trans. Nadezhda Burova.  (Moscow: Izobrazitelnoye
Isskustvo, 1981), p. 7.
2. Black Lacquer Co-operative, 1999. 10 March 2006.
3. Kotov and Taktashova, p. 7
4. Tatyana Razina, Natalia Cherkasova and Alexander Kantsedikas, Folk Art in the Soviet Union, Trans. Ruslan Smirnov.  (New York: Harry N. Abrams; Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1990), p. 78
5. Folklore : An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Ed. Thomas A. Green. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, c1997), p. 760.
6. Corinne Morel, Dictionnarie des Symboles, Mythes et Croyances. (Paris: L‟Archipel, c2005), p. 780.
7. Ibid.,p. 341.
8. Ibid., p. 874.
9. Alison Hilton, Russian Folk Art. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1995), p. 258.
10. Keith P. F. Moxey, “Semiotics and the Social History of Art,” New Literary History. Vol. 22, No. 4 (Autumn, 1991), p. 989.
11. Hilton, p. 278.
12. David Kowalewski, “The Protest Uses of Symbolic Politics in the USSR” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 42, No. 2. (May, 1980), p. 444.
13. Kowalewski, p. 444-445.
14. Kowalewski, p. 445.
15. Vitaly Kotov and Larisa Taktashova, p. 101 (plates).
16. Black Lacquer Co-operative.
17. Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary, Ed. Maynard Solomon. (New York: Knopf, 1973), p. 583.
18. Moxey, p. 989.
19. Berel Lang (comp.) Marxism and Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism. Ed. Berel Lang and Forrest Williams (New York: McKay, 1972), p. 270-271.
20. T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973).
21. Vitaly Kotov and Larisa Taktashova, p. 15 (plates).
22. Andrew Jenks. Iconography, Power and Expertise in Imperial Russia. Seattle, (WA: Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, 2004), p. 15.
23. Alexander V. Riasanovsky “A Fifteenth Century Russian Traveller in India: Comments in Connection With a New Edition of Afanasii Nikitin’s Journal”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. (University of Pensylvania, 1961), p. 129.
24. Black Lacquer Co-operative.
25. Hilton, p. 266.
26. Ibid., p. 267.
27. Ibid., p. 260.
28. Ibid., p. 270.
29. Leo Teholiz, “Religious Mysticism and Social Realism: The Soviet Union Pays Homage to Icon Painter Andrey Rublev,” Art Journal (1961-62), p. 78.
30. Ibid., p. 78.
31. Ibid., p. 72.
32. Moxey, p. 985.
33. Herbert Edward Sir Read, Art and Society. (London: Faber and Faber 1956), p. 72.
34. Ibid.
35. Folklore : An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art.,  p. 532.
36. Lang, p. 161.
37. Paul Wood. “Commodity”, in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. R. Nelson and R. Shiff (University of Chicago Press, 1996) 257.
38. Read, p. 74.
39. Lang, p. 283.
40. Ibid., p. 284.