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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gzhel Goes Versace for New Russians




Dazzled by the glitzy Versace and Tiffany's boutiques in the new shopping mall at Manezh Square, an elderly woman walks into a shop where at last she feels comfortable.


She sees Gzhel ceramics, Palekh lacquer boxes and wooden khokhloma pitchers along the glass shelves. Her eye is drawn to a couple of flowery trays hanging on the wall. "That's a pretty unusual pattern for the Zhostov style," she says, with the confidence of a connoisseur. "Is that maple or nettles?"


Sales clerks exchange puzzled looks. The tray actually features a blurry marijuana leaf in a wreath of poppy flowers.


At closer look, all of the objects of seemingly traditional folk art have a distinctly modern touch. The sun emblem of the Gianni Versace label adorns red-and-gold khokhloma kitchenware. Palekh boxes are painted in a number of unorthodox designs. Some feature a Mercedes 600. On others, a fat-bellied man plays tennis while speaking on a mobile phone, or relaxes in a banya in the company of nude beauties as his bodyguards stand by. He wears a pager on his naked body.


The pieces in a white-and-blue ceramic Gzhel chess set also poke fun at contemporary characters. Russian and Caucasian-looking mafiosi are the pawns, gangsters' molls take the place of queens, Jeeps serve as knights, and fortified dachas are the rooks, or castles.


Welcome to New Russians' World, an unusual souvenir store designed to appeal to Russians rather than foreigners.


"Can you imagine a Russian giving a Zhostov tray to a friend? That's nonsense. It would be seen as a gibe," said Grigory Baltser, the shop owner. "Only foreigners buy Russian [folk] art now."


Baltser, 34, a former student of the Stroganov Art School, now calls himself "a classic case of a New Russian." He got tired of receiving the "de-personalized, imitative, conceptually outdated" presents that rich people usually exchange.


"I've got 12 Du Pont lighters, 10 identical leather wallets and enough Cartier pens to write three "War and Peace" novels by hand," he said Thursday. "A contemporary gift should look original.


"I'm not making fun of the New Russians themselves," said Baltser, who also owns six furniture stores around Moscow. "I'm making fun of the cliched way they spend their money."


Updating traditional themes has precedents, for instance in the Palekh school of painting, said Larisa Solovyova of the Institute of Arts Industry. It was created by Old Believer icon painters who were excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church and had to support themselves by painting secular scenes of troika-driving lads with their rosy-cheeked lassies. In Soviet times, Palekh masters depicted revolutionary and factory themes.


"Some of these works were real masterpieces and certainly a sign of their time," said Solovyova. "Contemporary subjects are essential for the commercial boost [of folk crafts]."


Baltser said he was especially eager to document the notorious lifestyle of stereotypical New Russians, who apart from a few bad movies and a healthy number of jokes have left little imprint in the arts.


Also, their era seems to be fading. Since the character first appeared around 1993, it has gone through dramatic changes. Five years ago it evoked a picture of a rough, bull-necked man with a shaved head, wearing a burgundy jacket and a gold chain, and with a small leather bag tucked under his arm. Later came the overwhelming preference for flashy Versace clothes.


In recent years, though, the new rich have become more sophisticated. They have improved their manners and started dressing in tasteful, understated designer clothes. Showing up at highbrow events at the Conservatory and Bolshoi Theater are now a matter of pride, according to Baltser.


The logo of New Russians' World is a flying bull called Bykas, modeled on Pegas, or Pegasus, the mythical flying horse. ***Byk***, or bull, was the nickname given to the original New Russian, who tended to look like his favorite pet, the pit bull. But the bull also has a lot of good qualities, the shop owner said, adding that the logo's wings signify that New Russians have a spiritual life, too.


Most shoppers seem to find the shop's wares amusing, and not only those stricken by their own resemblance to the Gzhel statue of a New Russian speaking on a cellular phone, which carries a 1,300-ruble ($215) price tag. An old woman came in recently to buy a Gzhel takeoff of a Danone yogurt container for her grandson.


There are some, however, who are turned off by the folk art created in honor of New Russians.


"I don't sympathize with this category of people," said painter Yevgeny Monin, 65, who created his own series satirizing New Russians' customs. The series includes Killer and Dealer Planning the Future, and Middle Class Starts From a Burglary.


"Some accuse us of spoiling great traditional art, but you have to have a sense of humor," said shop clerk Ivan Alyokhin, 22, sporting a garish $600 Versace V2 uniform. "In a couple dozen years they will be precious antiques, just like Soviet porcelain now."