Thursday, 28 October 2010

Embroidery Design by Natalia Davydova

Illustration: Natalia Davydova. Embroidery design, c1899.

Across much of Europe the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth saw major efforts to restructure and reenergise traditional crafts and those who worked with those traditions. The industrialisation of Europe had replaced many of the hand skills that had lasted centuries, with cheap and mass produced merchandise, that although satisfying a general public who were clamouring for ever more products at increasingly cheaper prices, it did little for any form of skills base.

Many attempts were made to both rival or even limit the industrial sector, but most had little if any effect. However, some initiatives were perhaps more pragmatic in their approach towards the craft market and therefore were more effective due to those practical concerns. One such was the Kustar movement in Russia which has been likened to the Arts & Crafts movements in other parts of Europe, but has to be tempered by a number of fundamentally ideological differences between Kustar and the traditional Arts & Crafts movements.

The Kustar movement in pre-Revolutionary Russia did have the traditional craft system at its centre. Individuals in the movement wanted to both save as many aspects of the craft system as possible before major areas of work disappeared altogether, while at the same time creating an environment whereby traditional crafts could be set on a course of commercial success. It was hoped that this financially based success would help to maintain traditional crafts in a contemporary world that was on a course of ever continued industrialisation of human skills.

This attitude of commercial success which often seemed to be placed before the traditional craft itself was an uncomfortable stand for many. Those interested in the ideology of the European based Arts & Crafts movements particularly that of Britain with its twin foundations of Morris and Ruskin were particularly alarmed at the nakedness of the commercial enterprise. To some, no amount of commercial fostering of traditional craft skills could replace the joy of the craft itself, even if that meant that hand craft was doomed to oblivion.

Illustration: Natalia Davydova. Embroidery design, c1899.

Among those involved in the Kustar scheme was Natalia Davydova. She was particularly interested in textile based craft skills, which by its definition also meant that she was concerned with the traditional skills base of women. Many women had lost creative ground due to mass production as their skills were replaced by machinery. Davydova specialised concern, though by no means the only one, was with Russian embroidery. She was involved with the embroidery workshop set up at Solomenko village in 1891. Solomenko was one of a number of Arts & Crafts inspired initiatives across Russia, the most famous of which are probably Talashkino and Ambratsevo.

Davydova produced a new range of design work to both add to and bolster the traditional design work of Russian embroidery. It was believed by many involved in the Kustar movement that only through commercially viable and contemporary work could traditional hand skills hope to compete in the modern world. With this in mind Davydova produced a range of design work that was aimed at attracting customers to Russian embroidery. The three illustrations shown in this article are Davydova embroidery pattern work from about 1899.

Kustar work sold well initially outside of Russia and was particularly well received in Europe where it was quickly identified with the romantic peasant world of a mythical Slavic Russia. However, inside Russia itself the commercialisation of traditional Russian hand skills was criticised as being too focused on the market and financial gain, than that of the integrity of the history of the decorative work. Some even questioned the output of individuals such as Davydova, likening her work to a patchwork of cultures, many of whom were well outside the traditions of Russia.

It is sometimes hard to reconcile the purity of traditional hand craft and that of commercial pressure. Many craft disciplines have had to bend and manipulate their own craft history in order to maintain a meaningful presence in the market place. It is difficult to say whether this is a truly positive or negative effect as, although the craft may well survive, in what state does it truly survive.

Illustration: Natalia Davydova. Embroidery design, c1899.

Eventually Kustar work became popular in Russia itself and although the export market to Europe was still important, the home market expanded rapidly in the years leading up to the Revolution of 1917. This general rediscovery of Slavic roots by the domestic population was not always as focused on the true aspects of the culture as perhaps it should have been. Therefore, many pseudo-styled Slavic interpretations were generated, including design work that had been specifically styled and produced for the Kustar market by such artists and designers as Davydova.

However, it should also be remembered that Europe leading up to the First World War was an extreme example of nationalistic rival states. Most nations had stylised and largely fictitious interpretations of both their history and culture, so the Russian interpretation of itself that sold so well in the market place, should be seen as only one European example among many.

Much of the commercial Kustar market was swept away after the Bolshevik Revolution, being seen as part of a reactionary process, particularly when considering the Soviet fascination with the progression of humanity and its unfailing belief in the promise of rich rewards from industrialisation, most of which never materialised.

The craft traditions of Russia are long, rich and diverse as are its peoples and regional cultures. In order for those hand crafts to maintain a presence many individuals took it upon themselves to reinvigorate and in some cases reinvent a style. That these reinventions were to eventually be incorporated into the craft was expected and in many cases was. To purists this was certainly a disaster, but to many a living and working craft was infinitely preferable to a dead but purist craft that could only be identified through museum collections.

Individuals such as Davydova wanted to both help sustain a domestic hand craft market that would employ and prolong the skills base of hand crafters, along with extending and indeed expanding the repertoire of those traditions. The Kustar movement might not have been as ideologically sound as some would have preferred. However, there was a general feeling of integrity and a level of far-sightedness behind the movement, which was perhaps a little more pragmatically based than those movements in other parts of Europe and in that respect somewhat more successful for that practical approach.

Reference links:
Russian Folk Arts and Crafts
The Art of the Russian Matryoshka
Russian Decorative Painting: Techniques & Projects Made Easy
Rostov Enamels (Maststerpieces of Russian Folk Art)
Russian Peasant Design Motifs for Needleworkers and Craftsmen (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Russian Punchneedle Embroidery
Russian and Other Slavic Embroidery Designs
Early Russian Embroidery in the Zagorsk Museum Collection
Russian Embroidery 17th-Early 20th Centuries
Early Russian Embroidery in the Zagorsk Museum Collection
Russian embroidery patterns
Russian Embroidery and Lace
Antique Russian Embroidery

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