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"PALEKH" PLAYING CARDS BY PAVEL BAZHENOV

Eugene Grigorenko* / The Russian Playing Card Society, 2017

In 1937, the World Exhibition of Arts and Technology was held in Paris. This exhibition went down in history not only as a review of technical achievements of mankind but also as a competition between the Soviet Union and Germany both having the largest pavilions. Among the showpieces visitors could find playing cards, namely the pack of playing cards called “Palekh” (Palekh miniature is a Russian folk handicraft of miniature painting, which is done with tempera paints on varnished articles made of papier-mache) which turned out to be one of the best in the history of the national card industry of all times.

The author of the “Palekh” pack of cards was Pavel Dmitrievich Bazhenov (1904-1941) born in the village of Podolino near Palekh in the family of an icon-painter. Pavel also started to learn icon-painting but he never painted an icon. After the revolution he came back to his native land, worked as a shepherd though never giving up painting. In 1926, P.D.Bazhenov became the first pupil of the Artel of Ancient Painting established in Palekh. His mentors I.I.Go-likov and I.M.Bakanov were the eldest masters of Palekh.

Pavel Dimitrievich Bazhenov

P.D.Bazhenovs early works are called “expressive primitives”. The basis of these miniatures could be traced back to the Russian folk popular prints. Though in the mid 30-ies of the XX century, the artists technique acquired virtuosity and daintiness. Probably due to the originality of his skill P.D.Bazhenov got a very important order to design a new pack of cards. The sketches of cards for the exhibition were chosen during the specially organized contest. A great number of sketches were submitted for the competition; artists dressed their card kings and jacks in smart clothes of the East and national costumes of peoples of the USSR. However, P.D.Bazhenov defeated his competitors with his pack designed according to Palekh motifs. The most significant feature of the “Palekh” pack of cards is its unusual background colour. Big images of kings, queens and jacks in the black background depicted in the traditional technique of Palekh lacquer miniature are aptly proportioned to the size of cards. These cards are very beautiful: an impressive combination of bright red, deep-blue, faded mustard-yellow and green shaded by imitated gold leaf lace. Delicate, almost filigree representation of costumes, weapons and attributes joins all the artistic images of a fairy-tale card suite and the ornament around pips and indices in a harmonious ensemble.

This pack is unique in its multicoloured (up to 36 colours) illustrations made by the lithography technology with perfect registration of colours and without any overlap of colours. To achieve such perfection a special set of lithographic printing stones was produced for each pack of cards. The technology of lithographic printing requires an individual stone for each colour. That is if 36 colours were applied to a card, it required to produce 36 stones. In the mid of the 30-ies of the XX century only one print shop in the USSR could implement such a complex technology - Moscow Printing Factory a.k.a. “Goznak”. It is here that these truly unique cards were printed. The high quality of paper and flawless technology of multicoloured chromolithography make the “Palekh” pack of cards a masterpiece of the Soviet printing. Today the sketches of this pack are kept in the special fund of Goznak along with the diploma of the World Exhibition of Art and Technology in Paris.

Palekh, 1937

P.D.Bazhenov continued his painting career after the “Palekh” pack of cards had been designed. He decorated theatrical performances, painted porcelain, drew caricatures and friendly jests; in 1936-1937, he even participated in the production of the animated cartoon called “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”. In 1941, P.D.Bazhenov died on his way to the battlefront during the bombing of Rybinsk station.

 

Manufacture of high quality playing cards for import and export developed at the Card Factory in the 30-ies of XX century was accompanied by significant technical and economical challenges including challenges typical of the card industry.

First of all, in May 1928, the USSR government completely prohibited activities of gambling institutions which had been the largest consumers of card goods for many years. The subsequent first Five-Year Plan for the Development and Reconstruction of the Economy of the Soviet Union in 1929 considerably increased the need for special technical sorts of paper for radio and electrical engineering, Bristol board, light-sensitive paper manufactured at the Card Factory. The challenge of manufacturing consumer goods in very short supply was also steadily increasing. In this regard, the Five-year Plan stipulated a considerable reduction of card manufacture from 690,000 to 500,000 dozens. Besides, the change of departmental subordination of the Factory negatively influenced the supply of high quality raw materials necessary for the manufacture of cards resulting in constant wrecking of the plan. Even wooden crates for the shipment of cards were made right on the spot.

Under these conditions, the assortment of cards changed in favour of cheap and simple to manufacture types of packs: “Atlas”, the 1st and the 2nd sorts. With the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War the manufacture Of high quality cards completely phased out.

In 1967, to its 150th anniversary, the Leningrad Combine of color printing produces a "Jubilee" deck. Pavel Bazhenov's drawings were reworked under the offset printing by Eugene Pashkov. New cards have some differences from the original: a yellow frame appears at the edge of the card, and the deck has a completely new joker. The new edition contains an extra-card, indicating the anniversary edition and the authors of the deck.

It should be noted that since 2007 the Austrian card company PIATNIK has issued a full reprint of the anniversary deck "Palekh" (version of 1967) with 36 and 55 sheets.

 

In 1982, Yury Ivanov, an artist of the Сombine Color Printing, substantially reworked Bazhenov's "Palekh" once more. They became beautiful white cards with thin lacy gilding, at the same time preserving features of their prototype and having unique features typical of Yu.P.Ivanov. For example, P.D.Bazhenov’s queen of spades, which was almost spitting hateful arrogance, turned into a whimsical flibbertigibbet. The kings and jacks lost their “lacquered” box appearance acquiring more mundane card features instead.

Anyway, it will be unfair to say that the apparent changes of the original “Black Palekh” pack of cards decreased the level of artistic imagery. These two packs of cards should rather be considered separately without any comparison with each other. The replacement of the black background with the white one made the “White Palekh” pack of cards less pompous, the perception of face cards much lighter, giving space for background drawings on the pip cards. These cards display gilded ships in sea foamy waters, fortresses on rocky mountain slopes, brave young men, floral ornaments and fairy-tale creatures. The aces are decorated with pictures of “white-stone chambers” which probably had a special status in the new card state.

The pack of cards turned out to be pleasant to look at. The initial variant of the “White Palekh” pack of cards of 1982 was printed with frames and gilding on the face cards. Later, during the last years of existence of the Colour Printing Factory, the quality of these cards decreased. They were printed without any frames; gilding was replaced by silvering. Nowadays, some samples of low quality with thin gilded lace of the author’s design replaced by yellow or grey typographic paint can be found.

Palekh, 1967

White Palekh, 1982

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1984-1992

* E.Grigorenko. Russian Playing Cards. History and Style / Stavropol, 2014