There is a story that shortly after the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin, inspired by the triumph and hungry for every possible manifestation of grandeur, ordered to have one set of Soviet ceremonial military uniforms decorated with a special axelbant made of twisted gold thread – as was the custom in Tsarist times. His minions rushed to implement the order, but quickly realised that in the whole country there was not a single artisan capable of crafting such a complex object. State-controlled workshops had not done any work of this kind for a long time, and private ownership of gold was prohibited by the Communist Party – anyone capable of working with it was either dead by firing squad, serving their term in a Gulag, or simply hiding.
Nonetheless, Stalin’s order was an order one could not refuse. His men rushed to comb through the concentration camps, where, miraculously, they found the last surviving master goldsmith. They brought him back to Moscow, procured the gold from a special Kremlin storeroom, together with an ancient machine for spinning thread – and in due time Comrade Stalin was presented a line of ceremonial uniforms bearing the Tsarist axelbant he so desired. The proletarian leader graciously nodded his head in approval.
It is possible this story never took place. The historical record remains silent on the fate of this remarkable goldsmith.
But problem at the heart of this story is absolutely true to life. Private ownership of gold was, in fact, strictly forbidden and mercilessly punished in the Land of the Soviets. The state did, in fact, have a monopoly on working with it, and state artisans would indeed have lacked the skill and experience required for twisting gold thread. The 1928 publication of The Dictionary of Moscow’s Gold, Silver and Diamond Masters of the 18th Century was already met with dark humour and irony. In 20th century Russia, one could hardly dream of such a profession.
The disappearance of precious metalwork as a profession led to the extinction of the craftsmen themselves; they had no one to learn from, and nowhere to refine their skills. The figure of the goldsmith became mythical.
Fast forward to today, and the work of Maria Ruzaikina is already considered something of a miracle. Born into the family of Alexander Ruzaikin, one of the country’s finest bookbinders, Maria’s first steps as a craftswoman came at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, when the free market was reintroduced in the former Soviet Union – and with it the trade in gold.
Ruzaikina’s natural gifts, as well as the lessons learned in her father’s workshop, have allowed Maria to become one of the foremost artisans of our time. She studied the craft passionately while living in London, widely considered the world’s capital when it comes to decorative art. “Communicating with fellow professionals is an unforgettable experience,” Maria says. “An artisan never isolates herself from the flow and trends of her time. It is necessary to capture the air of one’s era, the changing tastes of generations. The master must be seen, heard, and displayed in galleries and exhibition halls.”
Ruzaikina spent several months at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as the British Library, studying ancient folios for insights into the art of gilding and design. England offers an unparalleled wealth of learning resources for bookbinders. One encounters a seemingly endless stream of specialists, and is able attend lectures on all aspects of of craftsmanship. Likewise critical is the availability of specialised tools and materials required for the level of work Ruzaikina is famous for.
But Maria is not only interested in centuries long gone. She is also passionate about the 20th century, which gave us phenomena such as the so-called “artist book” (the legacy of William Blake), and masters including Paul Bonet and Pierre Legrain.
The end of the 19th century was something of a tragedy for high-level artisans and connoisseurs of bookbinding. The emergence of massive print runs during this period led to the creation of a gigantic market, and with it the expansion and cheapening of the bookbinding profession. Lower standards and lower-quality materials pushed gold to the margins, replacing it en masse with simple yellow foil. Clients wanted the look of “the real thing” at the price of pennies. Bibliophiles today know very well the fate of such production: tarnished embossing, crumbled lettering on spines, and so on.
Cold in its natural state, real gold becomes warm in the hands of a master, obedient and malleable. Ruzaikina works with so-called gold leaf – gold that has been pounded into sheets as thin as 0.1 micrometers, which can fly away or tear at the slightest breeze. Gold leaf is a fragile and, at the same time, elastic material. It can only be worked by hand, and applied carefully to specially prepared surfaces. Unlike its “democratic” cousin foil, real gold produces unique colour, creating a sense of peace, history, and contact with the past.
Although Ruzaikina’s interests go beyond the antiquarian – she remarks that the fashion of our time is rich with examples of marvellously integrating gold with the latest styles and forms – the past remains her preferred medium. A major reason for this, of course, is that the further back in time we go, the more objects we find that call for her craftsmanship. Gold is a constant presence in antique tabletops and escritoires, armchairs and balustrades, jewellery boxes and bookbindings.
But even though the ornamental use of gold has shrunk considerably, Maria continues to find joyful expression in contemporary art: she produces miniature gold sculptures as well as installations that make use of the water gilding technique.
Naturally, Ruzaikina works with a professional eye on her predecessors. Lately she has been drawing particular inspiration from architecture; she sees a strong connection between the work of architects and book designers. This is probably no accident: the title pages of Renaissance books were styled like portals of churches and palaces. Still, Neoclassicism, Art Deco, and Suprematism remain her favourite styles.
What brings Ruzaikina’s work such high critical acclaim is the fact that she creates unique designs that are inspired by the great achievements of bygone eras, yet refracted by our own time. She also takes on a wide range of challenges: a Spanish collector desperate to recreate the binding of an antiquarian publication that has been reduced to a stack of crumbling pages; a French collector with ambitions to dress up a modern book in an extravagant new outfit. And, of course, she is a master of the ultimate craft: the edge gilding.
For whatever reason, commissions involving books from the first two-thirds of the 19th century land on Maria’s desk most frequently. She enjoys it, as she possesses the most sophisticated embossing resources from this era. And by the way, she says, the European market in this field is in steady decline now: the best master engravers have left, leaving her lonely at the top and worried about the future of our bookbinding heritage.
Ruzaikina’s work has been on display at museums around the world; in the UK, she has exhibited in London and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
It may sound strange in many circles, but the craft of a master gilder remains very much in demand today. Every year, more book collectors quest for external effects, investing more in the beauty of a great binding. The book does not cease to fascinate us as an an art object. In the 21st century, we want something beautiful on the shelf as much as our ancestors did in the 15th.
Autor: Ivan Tolstoy