Made in Slutsk
Silk men’s sashes woven by belarusians were a true fashion hit in france during the reign of ludovic XV; there were attempts to fake them all over Europe. Collections began in the late 19th century
On visiting Minsk’s National Art Museum in June, Louvre Director Henri Loyrette surveyed the elegant fabrics carefully and asked Director Vladimir Prokoptsov about their origin. He explained, “These Slutsk sashes are a national symbol of our country.” Mr. Loyrette was very much surprised to hear that the French had tried to copy them and was keen to acquire one for his Parisian gallery. Of course, in ancient times, it was impossible to leave home without a sash, as people would laugh. A Slutsk-made sash was more valuable than a state award for 18th century noblemen. Woven from golden thread, they were expensive yet popular.
The trend of the epoch. Slutsk sashes appeared during the early 18th century crisis (economic problems occur in every century) when Belarusian masters copied Persian and Turkish sashes as a form of import substitution. Their manufactures were cheaper and proved just as popular as the bright sashes from Muslim countries. “Experimental workshops faking eastern sashes initially began in Nesvizh. Later, they sprang up in Slutsk. Both cities were owned by the prosperous Radziwills,” notes Yelena Karpenko, who heads the Old Belarusian Art Department at Belarus’ National Art Museum. “An international team worked with the Belarusians, managed by Armenian Yan Madzharsky, who arrived from the Ukrainian city of Stanislavov (now known as Ivano-Frankovsk). The Madzharskys and the Radziwills never imagined their idea would be such a success. Their ‘factory of Persian sashes’ had no hint of Belarusian national colour at first but Madzharsky and his local masters later began designing their own patterns, being bored of copying the eastern sashes. The local versions wove national motifs into the traditional style and the Slutsk sashes proved popular at home and abroad. Some time later, the Slutsk sash became an international brand and trend.”
Poetry of camomile and carnation. Belarusians created a unique product which was later copied in workshops near Warsaw and even in France’s famous weaving centre of Lyon. The Latin label of ‘Mefecit Sluciae’ translated as ‘made in Slutsk’. Belarusian fabrics were as popular as Italian fabrics are now! “The Slutsk sash stands alongside the Damascus blade, Utrecht velvet, Meissen porcelain, Bohemian crystal and Vologda lace in its fame,” stresses Irina Zvaryka, the leading research associate at Belarus’ National Museum of History and Culture.
By the late 18th century, there were so many ‘foreign’ fakes of Slutsk sashes that today’s art historians have trouble telling them apart. Ms. Karpenko asserts that true Belarus-made pieces are more delicate and ‘warm’, with embroidery so vivid it seems to come from a flower meadow. Roses, camomile daisies and carnations decorate these expensive accessories — reminding us of the summer sun, as well as of Turkey and Persia.
Belarusian poets have written many poems about Slutsk sashes. Every modern schoolchild knows Maxim Bogdanovich’s Slutsk Weavers, written in 1912 and inspired by the masterpieces. Naturally, the sashes are a symbol of Belarusian culture. In the late 18th century, 48 weavers worked on 24 looms at Madzharsky’s factory; the enterprise operated until 1818, creating sashes for each noble family which were passed down through the generations.
Where are these treasures hidden? “In the 19th century, sashes became less fashionable and collectors were able to buy them from noble families. Piotr Shchukin, a Moscow merchant and lover of eastern artefacts, was one of the first collectors,” continues Ms. Karpenko. “On hearing about the Belarusian rarities, he initially thought them to be Persian — his area of passion. Later, he realised their origin and began purchasing the best sashes in Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, bringing them to Moscow. Eventually, he donated his collection to the Moscow State Historical Museum; it boasts the largest collection of Slutsk sashes in the world.”
Belarusian collectors and museums have always loved the sashes, with pieces going on show since the early 20th century in Minsk and Vilnius. However, many exhibits were lost during WWII. Ms. Zvaryka tells us that just 11 sashes are kept in Belarus — in addition to numerous fragments. Meanwhile, the Moscow State Historical Museum has 80 of the treasures.
For the second year, Minsk’s National Art Museum is showcasing exhibits from Shchukin’s collection — brought from Moscow for a temporary (yet termless) display. This year, Russian Culture Minister Alexander Avdeev opened the show.
Mr. Loyrette is hoping to organise a Louvre exhibition of arts from our three eastern Slavonic countries of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, keen to show the French sashes from ancient Slutsk …which they tried to fake two centuries ago.
Meanwhile, the National Art Museum continues to search for those 47 sashes which disappeared from Minsk during the 1941–1944 fascist occupation. It seems likely that they exist in a private collection somewhere and may yet return to their homeland…
By Viktar Korbut