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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Fired Up in Gzhel

MT
When you hear the word "Gzhel," what most likely comes to mind is Russia's blue and white painted pottery, a popular souvenir.

This decorative style is actually named after a village and an area to the southeast of Moscow, where pottery was historically produced.

The name "Gzhel" is associated with pottery in texts dating back to the 14th century. It was only logical that Gzhel would come to be known as the Russian Staffordshire. The 23 Gzhel villages all had family workshops producing ceramic ware and spying on each other's secrets, hoping to discover porcelain and become rich. In the 18th century, scientist Mikhail Lomonosov praised Gzhel's clay as "the purest white in the world."

It would be a misconception to think of the trademark blue-and-white floral design as traditional, however. This style was mostly conceived in the 1950s, when post-war economic realities left blue cobalt as the main painting material. To this day, the blue-on-white plates, vases and figurines are only one of several lines of pottery produced at the Gzhel factory near the village of Novokharitonovo, just over 40 kilometers from Moscow. Visiting it, seeing the artisans at work and buying their wares is easily done in a day trip from the capital.

Matvei Kuznetsov, the "Father of Russian Porcelain," founded a small business in 1810 in Novokharitonovo. Eventually the workshop developed into a monster that monopolized the industry: two-thirds of all Russian porcelain was fired in its furnaces across the Moscow region. The age of mechanization obliterated smaller Gzhel artisans, and the folk tradition was all but lost, to be resurrected only after World War II by two artist enthusiasts.

The potters and artists who carry on the reborn tradition of Gzhel are now part of "Obyedineniye Gzhel," a group of workshops housed in a large building just off the main road.

The salon is on the first floor of the factory, offering anything from tiny saucers and giant wall clocks to icons and menorahs -- and even such oddities as a bust of General Georgy Zhukov. Catalogs list more special items, such as tiles for fireplaces and Chekhov character collectibles. Prices are much lower than in Moscow, starting from as little as 20 rubles, and there is no risk of ending up with a fake. Counterfeit Gzhel pottery is a huge problem for the factory -- ironically, the craft's popularity is turning into a financial disaster for the original makers.

The museum on the third floor of the workshop shows the evolution of pottery and painting styles. Various artists have their own displays. Visitors will learn that "Gzhel" is a team of artists, engineers, potters and painters; artists develop form and design, and a committee decides whether an item is suited for mass production.


Maria Antonova / For MT
Although Gzhel's blue-and-white pottery is best-known, it is just one among several different styles produced in the factory.


The entire production process can be reviewed: forms are cast and fired, checked for cracks using special pink-colored water, decorated by painters with cobalt, and re-fired for that signature, sparkling white-and-blue look. Master classes are held by artists-in-residence.

Many of the region's ceramic producers, including the Kuznetsovs, were Old Believers, but didn't hide their faith despite years of persecution. Religious debates were often held in a church beside the factory. In 1910, the Kuznetsovs sponsored the construction of a unique Old Rite church in an Art Nouveau style. The church is located in Novokharitonovo and is open and functioning, although its original porcelain iconostasis was not preserved.

For an altogether different experience on your way back to Moscow, drive by the holy spring called Kunai-kolodets. Prior to the revolution, people came here and bathed, believing the water had healing powers. After taking a dip, they dressed in brand-new clothes and burned the old garments. The local priest from the nearby Cathedral of the Dormition frowns upon such pagan rituals, but spring is still there, and brave souls can use the new private bathhouses to keep the custom going. The spring is located near the village Gzhel -- go around the Dormition Cathedral, cross the river Gzhel and the smaller river Karpovka. The spring is on the left bank.

How to Get There

By car: Drive along Yegoryevskoye Shosse (R105) past Gzhel to Novokharitonovo. Take a right turn at the 41st kilometer from Moscow, and follow the signs to Gzhel factory and the museum-salon.

By bus: Take bus No. 325 from Vykhino to Novokharitonovo's "Militsia" bus stop. Take a right turn and follow the signs.

By train: From Kazansky Station, take a local train to Gzhel, then bus No. 36 or 51.

Activities

Museum and production tours are offered daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., costing 500 rubles per person for foreigners and 200 rubles for Russians, with group discounts. To request a translator, call ahead.

A five-hour package including a tour, master class and lunch costs 700 rubles for Russians and 2,000 rubles for foreigners.



For more information call

8 (496) 47-507 or see http://gzhel.ru