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William Morris and Elena Polenova in the UK

During the exhibition International Arts and Crafts held in the V&A in London in 2005, Abramtsevo’s arts and crafts movement was represented by just one object by Polenova: a wall cupboard. As similar ideas and artistic practises occurred in the UK and Russia at about the same time, the question raised if William Morris could have inspired Abramtsevo’s revival of the arts and crafts in Russia. Today, the London based Russian scholar, dr. Natalia Murray, made up the neglect, and showed the complete oeuvre of this remarkable Russian artist, Elena Polenova, at the Watts Gallery in Surrey (2014) and in the Polenov Museum in Polenovo (2015-16).
William Morris in the UK
By the 1870s the decorative arts in the UK were considered as ‘the lesser arts’ while architecture, sculpture and painting were classified as ‘the greater arts’. The British designer William Morris (1834-96) challenged this idea regretting the separation of the fine and the decorative arts. He read it as a telling sign of the contemporary condition of all the arts. According to Morris the arts had sank low in modern society and people were not able to enjoy labour anymore; ‘handicraftsmen’ had forsaken their task ‘to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life’.

During a lecture given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London in 1877 Morris called the craftsmen to awaken from their dulled state of mind, to aim to become excellent workmen, artists and to create a new art, an art that would be made ‘in accord with Nature’ and could be characterised by beauty. For that reason Morris propagated an all encompassing art education: the study and reflection of the history of ‘all great art’, drawing classes, continuous observation of nature, dedicated art practice and the general cultivation of the powers of the mind, the eye and the hand. Morris dreamed about an era of new ‘great art’, which could be achieved, he believed, in a society where freedom, equality, simplicity, hygiene, decency and wisdom were highly valued principles. Since he realised that society did not pursue his ‘utopia’ he involved himself in politics and fought for it as an ardent socialist.
In Morris’ time, in the whole of Europe, artists’ colonies emerged in the countryside as a reaction to the new modern city life. They often shared Morris' interest in saving the traditional handicrafts from extinction in an increasingly industrialising Europe. The most important artists’ circle in Russia was established in Abramtsevo (near Moscow) on the estate of Savva and Elizaveta Mamontov. It researched, preserved and furthered the traditional peasant crafts in depth as part of Russian culture, contributing to a national identity in the arts in the late 19 century. In this article I want to argue that the Mamontovs and the artists of Abramtsevo realised the ideals championed by William Morris, blurring the boundaries between the fine arts and the decorative arts (and its historic association with gender) and raising the aesthetic level of the handicrafts by providing education to all.
World Exhibition in Paris, 1867 
In Moscow the theories of William Morris and John Ruskin were widely discussed and published in several journals in Russia by the 1900s. However, no evidence have been found yet as to whether they could have provided a direct stimulus for the establishments of the crafts workshops in Abramtsevo as early as the 1870s and 1880s. Interestingly the highly respected scholar of Russian Art, Elisabeth Valkenier recently revealed that Dmitri Grigorovich - the ‘commissar’ of the Russian Department the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867- discussed William Morris’ ideas as early as 1868. Furthermore, the Russian art historian Elena Paston has recently stated that Vasily Polenov - an artist of Abramtsevo’s circle - referred to these ideas in his dissertation of 1871.
Although Morris’ name is not mentioned once in Grigorovich’s report of 1868,  (ill. 5) his booklet could have provided its readers and the Mamontovs with an impetus to stimulate art education and set up new workshops in the crafts in Russia after the English model. As Grigorovich informs us in his report, half of Paris’ oval exhibition space at the Palais du Champ de Mars in 1867 had been dedicated to art education systems in the decorative arts of different countries.



In his extensive account on the English section Grigorovich praises the South Kensington Museum for its ‘educational environment for students’ and its accessibility for all classes of society. (ill. 6) He quotes its opening speech in 1851 in which the British concern with the improvement of the artistic quality of the crafts (a la Morris) was vividly expressed. This could be achieved through ‘cultivating the artistic perception in society as a whole’, by educating and enlightening the people. Everyone could profit form the artefacts and models exhibited at the Museum, which in their turn were often donated by enthusiastic British citizens.

Demonstrating it with factual numbers Grigorovich underlines the British achievement: ‘action is taken in order to achieve the objective set by Mr Koll in his opening speech – to develop artistic taste and an understanding of art in all classes of the English society.’ Grigorovich concludes his booklet by expressing his hope that Russia will move in the same direction and set up more art schools and museums: ‘The Moscow Arts and Industry Museum is already in place, as well as two Art Schools (…) But this is only the beginning, only the first steps… We should not stop here, we should go forward.’
Since members of the Abramtsevo circle travelled a lot and were familiar with artistic tendencies and ideas from abroad, there can be no doubt that Grigorovich’ report was discussed amongst them. They seem to have answered Grigorovich’ call: the Mamontovs set up various educational workshops and established the first Museum of Folk Art in Russia. The museum functioned as an ‘educational environment for students’ and as a cultivator of the public taste, just as their English equivalent was aimed for. Enthusiastic Russian citizens in their turn donated objects to Abramtsevo’s Museum just like the British to the South Kensington Museum.
Mamontova and Polenova in Abramtsevo
In 1873 the Mamontovs commissioned the architect Viktor Hartman to build a Studio with carved wooden decorations typical of the crafts revival on their summer estate. Three years later Elizaveta Mamontova set up an art-carpentry workshop for peasant children in that building. She provided them with crafts education free of charge, a set of tools and job opportunities, simultaneously hoping to deter them from migrating to the city.

In 1885 Mamontova appointed the artist Elena Polenova, a rather well-educated woman and all-round artist for her time, as the artistic director of the woodworking workshop. Under Polenova, the joinery became a huge success. Many items were sold in Russia as well as abroad. Polenova set up a four-years training program, familiarised herself with the ins and outs of furniture making and designed furniture herself, while actively collecting authentic peasant art from the different regions (Vladimir, Tula, Kostroma, Vologodsky regions and other provinces of Russia) as examples for her pupils. In order to house this collection of furniture and utensils an Etnographic Museum was established in Abramtsevo.

Eager to preserve the beauty of traditional Russian peasant art, restore and uplift its aesthetic quality and cherish its national spirit, Polenova came to have an impetus on the crafts as Morris had in England. As a specialist in ceramics, Polenova furthermore became the driving force behind the establishment of a ceramic workshop at Abramtsevo and a short lived embroidery workshop also.
Elena Polenova to Elizaveta Mamontova, 27 September 1886, writes that they should ‘with all power try to save the precious remains of folk art.’
It is interesting to note that Polenova, being trained outside the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg in ceramics and watercolours, blurred the boundaries between the fine and decorative arts and its historic association with gender by starting to experiment with painting in oil, while her male collegues did the same in the opposite direction. Although graduated (male) artists usually did not desire to work in the crafts, in Abramtsevo professionally trained painters such as Vasily Polenov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov, Michael Vrubel, Konstantin Korovin, Alexander Golovin became more or less occasionally involved with woodworking, ceramics, theatre design or illustration work. Their spontaneous experiments not only raised the artistic level of the crafts, but paved the way for future generations of artists to come and work in these disciplines. One needs only to think of the dynamic theatre sets of avant-gardists such as Natalya Goncharova and Lyubov Popova or the ceramics of Ilya Chashnik and Kazimir Malevich.
World Exhibition in the Kensington Museum, 1862
Remarkably, neither Grigorovich’s article from 1868 nor Polenov’s dissertation from 1871 were the earliest foreign stimuli for the Mamontovs to set up craft workshop at their estate. If they did not visit the highly successful International Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1862 in London themselves, the influential Russian arts critic Vladimir Stasov certainly did. The exhibits of Morris’ firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co caught their attention receiving two golden medals, while the Russian section at this exhibition received a stinging critique from the English critic Francis Taylor: Russian art was of an inferior level lacking an identity of its own. This criticism fuelled the search for a Russian identity in the arts for certain. Both the Mamontovs and Stasov began propagating ‘Russianness’ in the arts and succeeded in establishing the beginnings of ‘great Russian art’. Inspired by the adventure of exploring Russia’s cultural heritage painting, watercolour, sculpture, carvings, medieval church architecture, theatre designs, book illumination, furniture, ceramics and embroidery with a Russian flavour started to flourish at Abramtsevo. The circumstances of production seemed to have been ideal at this peaceful place near the big city of Moscow, where artists shared similar ideas as Morris, whether they knew about them or not.                     



Polenova’s wall cupboard
One of the items shown in the South Kensington Museum in 1862 was a wall cabinet designed by Morris’ friend Philip Webb and decorated with pictures of the legend of St. George on its doors by Morris. Webb’s wall cabinet was exhibited in London at the same venue as a wall cupboard designed by Elena Polenova, 142 years later, the venue presently called the Victoria and Albert Museum. The earlier mentioned critic Stasov would have been proud of Polenova’s contribution to the recently held exhibition in the V&A, but highly disappointed that by now the Russian arts and crafts are still not merited in a so-called ‘international’ contextual presentation of the Arts and Crafts. Its obscure presentation and underrepresentation highlights the low priority given by the curators of the V&A to present the Russian Arts and Crafts in that bigger context.
However, Abramtsevo’s sole representative, an item from the Victoria and Albert’s own collection, shines like an eye catcher in the small Russian section. It is a wall cupboard designed by Elena Polenova, (ill. 7) As the most popular item of Abramtsevo’s furniture workshop, it is a good and frequently copied example. Several members of the Russian artistic intelligentsia such as Pavel Tretyakov, Vladimir Stasov and the artistic ‘couple’ Marianne von Werefkin and Alexey von Jawlensky as well as two French families purchased a Polenova wall cupboard similar to the Victoria and Albert exemplar. Yet another example can be found in the State Museum in Abramtsevo itself.

Polenova designed this wall cupboard on the basis of sketches that she had made during her collecting trips throughout Russia. One sheet in her album clearly demonstrates that in the final design she combined sketches of several parts of the wall cupboard made in different villages. (ill. 9) She even noted the names of the villages and provinces where they could be found: the column- in Bogoslov in the Yaroslavl province, the lower box- in Komyagin near Abramtsevo and the handle- in Valishchevo in the Podolsky district. She did not incorporate the tile with a rose in a vase in her final product. Instead, she replaced it with a carved stylized strawberry plant with two strawberries and flowers. The flowers look like tulips (often depicted on tiles) and the other two flowers seem to have been taken from ornaments on an 18 century carved casket found in the north of Russia of Abramtsevo’s Folk Museum. (ill. 10) Above it twinkle gilded stars against a blue background, just like the golden stars in a blue heaven in the Byzantine churches of Ravenna. The central white circular motive, a rosette with clockwise curved grooves seems to whirl. It might refer to the wheel of life, or did Polenova celebrate Russia’s nature as she did in her numerous studies from details of nature in the surroundings of Abramtsevo? (ill. 11) If this wall cupboard is the ‘meadow wall cupboard’ Polenova was referring to in a letter to Mamontova, the circular motive should in fact be read as the moon: ‘The door of the column cupboard with stars, moon, wild strawberries, and flowers represents uncultured nature.’

Familiar with Morris’ ideas about crafts education via her brother’s dissertation, Polenova provided her students with authentic peasant artefacts of the newly established Folk Museum in Abramtsevo and artistic designs of her own hand.
By so doing Polenova succeeded in Morris’ call ‘to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life’, to raise the crafts to the status of (fine) art, to provide education and job opportunities for the lower classes and to enjoy work while striving for equality in the Russia of her time. Her watercolours and furniture were made in accord with Nature and beautified the domestic interiors of many Russian and European consumers. The floral decoration of Polenova’s popular wall cupboard reflects that Morris and Polenova shared their respect for Nature.

NOTE Until 14 April 2016, the Elena Polenova retrospective can be seen in Polenovo. For more information, click here.

1. William Morris, 1877, Photo: Ellis & Fry
2. Dmitri Grigorovich’ report, 1867
3. The South Kensington Museum, 1862/ V&A, 2005 London
4. Studio for the crafts in Abramtsevo, 1873, Architect: V.A. Hartman, Photo: Inge  Wierda
5. Elena Polenova, Wall cupboard, c. 1885-93,Painted birch, V&A Museum, London                          
6. A page from Polenova’s album compiled by N.V. Polenova, 1921
7. Detail wall cupboard (5)         
8. Casket, End 18 century, Abramtsevo Museum  
9. Polenova, At the edge of the forest, 1885, Abramtsevo Museum

* This article was written in 2005 and is firstly published here. It has not been my intention to offend anyone involved in the exhibition. It arose from a genuine disappointment that the flowering Russian arts & crafts under Polenova and Mamontovo were still neglected in an exhibition dedicated to the International Arts and Crafts in the V&A in London. 

This information and subsequent quotations are taken from a lecture by Morris which is reprinted in: News from nowhere and Other Writings, (London: Penguin Books, 2004; first edition in 1993), pp. 231-254. It was followed by an artists’ circle on Princess Tenisheva’s Talashkino (near Smolensk) in the 1890s. At these places the crafts were both preserved and researched in depth as part of Russian culture. William Craft Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 425 and in Wendy Salmond, Arts and Crafts in Late Imperial Russia: reviving the Kustar Art Industry, 1870-1917, (NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), p. 213: note 2. In various Russian and English texts on Abramtsevo the possible influence of William Morris’ ideas has always been mentioned in passing: in one line and without reference or comment. Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier, Valentin Serov: Portraits of Russia’s Silver Age, (Evanstone Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p. 37, note 7. Eleonora Paston, Der Künstlerkreis von Abramcevo inmitten der europäischen Künstlerkolonien’, in  Künstlerkolonien in Europa: Im Zeichen der Ebene und des Himmels, (Nürnberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, 2001), p. 182. This information and the following quotations can be found in: Dmitri Grigorovich, Obzor, Parighskoy vsemirnoy vistavke: Kudoghestvennoe obrazovanie v priloghenii k promishlennosti, (St. Petersburg: Obchestvennaya Polza, 1867). With many thanks to Elena Nesterova who provided me with the full title of this booklet and Katerina Zvyagintseva for her support in translating this text accurately. Allison Hilton, Russian Folk Art, (Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 232. Polenova was among the first Russian women to study history and archaeology at the University. She further attended a course in pedagogics and studied watercolour and ceramic at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and Paris. She also experimented with painting in oil as one of the first female artists at the time. Andrei Mamontov, the second son of the Mamontovs attended Polenova’s ‘ceramic salons’ in Moscow and begged his parents to establish a ceramic workshop in Abramtsevo. I.V. Plotnikova, ‘Abramtsevo’s joinery and collection of folk art’, Abramtsevo: chudostvennyi kruzhok zhivopis, krafika, skulptura teatr masterskye, (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1988), p. 149. Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, (London: Pandora Press, 1981), p. 50. Being excluded from academic training as a woman, Polenova attended watercolours and ceramics classes -subjects considered appropriate for women- at the Society of the Encouragement of the Arts in St. Petersburg and in Paris. She started to experiment with oil painting in Abramtsevo. Her male collegues enjoyed official education in the fine arts at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg and started to experiment with the decorative arts at Abramtsevo, something not done for male graduates. Vrubel’s and Polenova’s work respectively in the ceramic and the woodworking workshop became a serious artistic endeavour for a longer period of time. For domestic stimuli to revive the crafts see Boris Lossky, ‘The Popular Arts in Russia and their revival, Apollo, December 1973, vol. 98, no. 142, pp. 454-459. Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier, Russian Realist Art: The State and Society: The Peredvizhniki and Their Tradition, (Michigan, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977), p. 57. Ibid. Philip Henderson, William Morris: His life work and friends, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), p. 70. Stasov was exited about Abramtsevo’s furniture indeed. He purchased Polenova’s wall cupboard with two columns for his own office. See in: Nina Belaglazova, 1980, p. 50. The wall cupboard with column was copied widely in Abramtsevo’s woodworking workshop. Therefore Elizaveta Mamontova called the workshop jokingly ‘The workshop of the wallcupboard with column’. See in N. V. Polenova, 1922, p. 57. Bernd Fäthke, ‘Abramcevo-Möbel: Kostbarkeiten aus Jawlenskys Atelier’ Welkuns: aktuelle illustrierte Zeitschrift für Kunst und Antiquitäten, vol 72, September 2002, pp. 1258-1260. The artists Viktor Vasnetsov, Ilya Repin, and the singer Fjodor Shalyapin also purchased furniture from Polenova’s woodworking workshop. N. V. Polenova, Abramtsevo: Vospominania (Moscow: Izd. M.i C. Sabashnikovich, 1922), p.58. I presume Polenova’s familiarity with Vasily’s dissertation as they were closely connected, living together in Moscow for years. Unfortunately I did not read this dissertation yet. Before Polenova arrived in Abramtsevo, she collaborated with her elder sister Vera Polenova and Nadezhda Stasova, leader of the feminist movement in Russia and sister of the art critic Vladimir Stasov, in educating all classes and both men and women.
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