Mstera, a village in Vladimir Province, stands on the banks of the Klyazma River. The first written references to the village (then the Bogoyavlensky Sloboda) date from 1628—1630. By the middle of the 19th century, the village was known for its art-related goods: fine whiteon-white embroidered cloth, hammered ware in copper and silver, icons. Mstera's icon painters, experts in the ancient techniques and styles, were famous countrywide.

The principal distinction of the Mstera style is its greater liveliness, compositions developed on colored backgrounds rather than the black backgrounds of Palekh. Whitener is employed under almost all of the painting. The entire surface is treated as a color field. Traditionally, Mstera work has reflected two contrasting color tendencies: cold blue-grays and ochre yellow-cinnabar reds, the former conveying space and depth, the latter for flat and ornamental designs.

Nikolai Klykov, a great specialist in the various "styles" of icon painting, was one of the most outstanding representatives of the first tendency. He brought landscape to the Mstera miniature, and his landscapes have local characteristics. At first, he used the familiar blue-silver pallette for his scenes of everyday peasant life. Later, he used multiple colors but always with effects that are cold and restrained. The second tendency is less realistic and uses a great many of the traditional elements of icon painting. It was the road taken by A.I. Bragin and A.F. Kotyagin.

The late 1930s through the end of the 1950s was a time of great difficulty for Mstera. Every liberty taken by an artist was branded as formalism and denounced. The basic output now became sentimental and saccharine naturalistic copies of paintings. Themes from the marketable rugs of the 1920s began to show up in the work of Mstera's masters. Many artists felt at a dead-end and gave up. In 1960 the artel became a factory.

This article was published on 14 November 2010.
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