There is a group of about thirty villages located not far from Moscow bearing the name of Gzhel, which has long been famous for its white-burning clay. Gzhel must have been the name of one of these villages.
The origin of this name is somehow connected with the verb zhech - "to fire, to burn". The place has always been the center of folk pottery and has played an important role in the history and development of Russian ceramic arts. Traditionally, Gzhel has supplied clay to many factories and produced excellent pottery famous all over the country.
The history of Russian pottery begins with Gzhel majolica of the eighteenth century, which was followed in the nineteenth century by half-faience, porcelain and thinly wrought faience. It took Gzhel only about fifty years to take up all principal types of earthenware.
The most appealing among the wares of Gzhel are masterfully performed koomgans, kvassniks (pitchers for kvass, a kind of traditional Russian non-alcoholic beverage), diverse and original in form.
Moreover, almost all the population of Gzhel participated in producing majolica pottery, plates, pitchers, bratinas (loving-cups), wine scoops, mugs, ink-pots and other, more decorative festive wears, such as dishes, jugs shaped like a two-headed eagle.
Minor sculptural forms also were of interest in Gzhel ceramic works.
Pottery-painting on Gzhel majolica is close to the folk style of "lubok". Each painted object is a creation of a potter, who was often a simple, illiterate peasant; but his simple practice didn't come into contradiction with a high degree of artistic accomplishment which combined the master's experience of nature, of town and country life, of artistic impressions from architecture, iconography, tile-painting and "lubok" with his own imagination and fantasy. There are two peculiar compositional trends in Gzhel pottery decoration, a three-unit composition with the emphasized central motif under the spout and a panoramic composition with rhythmical arrangement of designs around the vessel body.
The developed specific system of Gzhel majolica painting was conventional and frontal-flat, with further expansion of stylistic drawing of the new art. Alongside of traditional technique of minor plastic, the art of Gzhel sculpture was created.
The old traditions were influenced by new trends of Soviet decorative art, which shed the traditions of easel-painting and turned to idiosyncratic means and to its conventional decorative idiom. However, during the Soviet period most attention was paid to national folk traditions.
In the 1980s Gzhel art was, as always, based on traditional artistic principles inherited from old masters and formulated in the time of Soviet rule. On the whole, Gzhel art includes stylistic uniformity and individual variations, which helped to create various styles and diverse artistic manners developing in the frame of a common artistic system.
An important feature of Gzhel pottery is integrity of form, which is emphasized by painting. However, time and development of artistic styles change the character and themes of painting. Initially, the potters produced mainly utilitarian works, but at present artists feel entitled to artistic creations which are emotionally strong and imbued with sophisticated associations, which are able not only to beautify our life but also to transform it.
The modern art of Gzhel is an active artistic trend with its ups and downs, and with the search of new ways. We may expect its flourishing and success if the masters continue to turn to the heritage of the old times and preceding periods, to find it in the source of education and inspiration and to treat it with deep respect.