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Metalwork of the Urals: An Art Born of Fire
The metalwork of the Urals is one of Russia’s brands. The roots of this tradition go back to the eighteenth century, and to this day collectors highly value the works of Urals craftspeople. In recent decades the standard-bearer of this craft, the legendary Kasli factory, has run into certain difficulties. Nonetheless, the tradition of artistic metalworking in the Urals remains alive.
An Arrival from the Celestial Empire
Cast iron is, according to the encyclopedia, the name for an alloy of iron and carbon. The Russian word for cast iron (chugun) derives from Chinese, and this is significant: it was the Chinese who in the seventh century B.C.E. started making cast iron, and to this day most cast iron is indeed produced in the Celestial Empire.
The Demidov Estate on Tolmachev Alley in Zamoskvorechye
The first blast furnace appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century. Cast iron has been known in Russia since the second quarter of the seventeenth century, and it was used primarily for molding cannons, which were significantly cheaper than bronze. With the beginning of the eighteenth century, it found an entirely peaceful application. When Peter the Great built Saint Petersburg, the new houses and palaces wouldn’t have been complete without fences, gates, and especially lattice gratings. The most beautiful of them may have been one made by at the factories of the Demidov family in the 1760s for their estate outside Moscow. It is quite deservedly regarded as one of the wonders of Russian cast iron molding.
The molding of cast iron for specifically artistic reasons came to Russia from Prussia, where cast iron was first recognized as a material for sculpture. The students soon overcame their teachers: in the nineteenth century there was already nowhere else in the world where artistic molds from cast iron were as widespread and popular among buyers as in Russia. The main center of production was, of course, the Urals, where over thirty factories were making cast iron molds: Zlatoustovsky, Verkh-Isetsky, Kamensk-Uralsky, Nizhnetagilsky, Votkinsky, Verkhne-Ufaleisky, Permsy, and others. But two were always considered the leaders: the Kasli and Kusa factories.
Cast Iron Wonders in Paris
A kind of high point, or apotheosis, in the development of artistic cast-iron molding in the Urals came in 1900, when the whole world saw the wonders that could be created from this seemingly lowly material. Incidentally, most people don’t know that the “native” color of cast iron is either white or gray, though there’s a tradition of treating it with carbon black.
A Medal Depicting the Grand Prince Konstantin Pavlovich. Verkh-Isetsky Factory, 1810s
At the Worldwide Exhibition in Paris, one could see—in addition to a variety of sculptures, ornamental candelabras, and dishes with lacelike designs—a one-hundred-link cast iron bracelet that looked like it weighed nothing and a cast iron watch chain that only weighed 20 grams. Talented artists such as Pyotr Clodt, Evgeny Lanceray, and Robert Bach took part in making molds for the Ural cast iron. “If these castings were made in France or Germany, they would be on everyone’s table, or they would have mass-marketed every kind of sculptural work, especially ancient and contemporary, so that bronze pieces would have to give up much of their share to moldings like those of Kasli,” wrote Dmitry Mendeleev in those days.
But the Parisian public was really amazed by a work that earned the Grand Prize and has miraculously survived to this day: the Kasli Pavilion—the only architectural object in the world made entirely of cast iron. Today UNESCO lists this pavilion as a World Heritage Site. It was built according to a design by the architect Evgeny Baumgarten and made from over 1500 carved components.
The Kasli Pavilion
In the years immediately following the revolution, this wonderful pavilion almost perished: the director of the Kasli factory at the time decided to use it to meet his quota of scrap metal… But the Kasli craftspeople saved this masterpiece, though not without losing some parts. It was later carefully restored and now stands in a special museum hall in Yekaterinburg.
The Tradition Continues
In the 1990s this remarkable craft endured a period that was difficult in every way. “At that time one or another piece of Kasli metalwork was in just about every house, and the owners practically didn’t value these works at all,” recounted one collector at a recent round table dedicated to the metalwork of the Urals. “One could buy up pieces—including prerevolutionary works!—for hardly anything and carry off literally tons of cast iron.”
Female Athlete. Kasli, middle of 20th century
At the turn of the twenty-first century there were entirely serious discussions about repurposing this famous factory (which is located in Kasli, a small town in the Chelyabinsk Oblast with less than twenty thousand residents)—or closing it entirely. But this enterprise, which will mark its 250th anniversary this year, managed to stay afloat: It was acquired in 2004 by one of the largest Russian mineral extraction and metallurgic companies, which produces coal, iron-ore concentrate, steel, and iron plating.
Significant sums were invested in renovation and development, and today the factory isn’t doing badly at all, even judging solely by economic indicators: The factory is continually expanding the assortment of products it releases, and the hundreds of workers involved in its manufacturing produce tens of millions of rubles each year.
The time has long past when collectors could travel through cities and towns, gathering tons of Kasli molding for themselves—for instance, the current price of a prerevolutionary statuette, small bust, candelabra, or serving tray can reach thousands of dollars or more.
Saint George. Kasli, 1990s.
Like the price, the demand for Kasli metalwork rises every year. Of course, as yet this demand continues to be confined to within Russia: foreign collectors are still more interested in European metalwork, especially German.
Of course, popularity has its downside: the number of forgeries is growing, especially since a casting mold can be created fairly easily with the help of a computer and 3D printer. On the other hand, a more or less complete catalog of Kasli metalwork was published for the exhibit “An Art Born of Fire: Artistic Metalworking of the Urals in the 18th-21st Centuries” at the Kolomenskoye museum park. Experts hope that this will help correct the situation to some degree.