Stunning cast-iron sculptures: 7 facts about Kasli casting

The Kaslinsky Cast Iron pavilion created one hundred and ten years ago was opened after the renovation at the Fine Arts Museum

The Kaslinsky Cast Iron pavilion created one hundred and ten years ago was opened after the renovation at the Fine Arts Museum

Anton Butsenko
Established as an iron foundry in the early 18th century, the Kasli plant began producing cast-iron sculptures in the 1820s and quickly became famous all over the world. Yulia Maslova, the head of the Department of Metal and Stone at the All-Russia Museum of Decorative, Applied and Folk Art, told RBTH about artistic cast-iron traditions.

1. The idea of cast-iron sculptures grew out of industrial plants

The Kaslinsky Cast Iron pavilion created one hundred and ten years ago was opened after the renovation at the Fine Arts Museum. Source: Anton Butsenko / TASSThe Kaslinsky Cast Iron pavilion created one hundred and ten years ago was opened after the renovation at the Fine Arts Museum. Source: Anton Butsenko / TASS

In 1747, industrialist Yakov Korobkov bought land in the settlement of Kasli in the Chelyabinsk Region (about 1,100 miles east of Moscow), where he built several factories. Initially, the bulk of the orders were for the military, but the Ural plant also produced fine cookware, such as pots, cauldrons and other utensils.

The famous artistic castings appeared later, in the 1800s, first as copies and then as original works. 

2. German castings provided the first models

Worker of the Kasli Plant of Art Casting pour cast iron into foundry moulds. Source: Alexander Kondratuk / RIA NovostiWorker of the Kasli Plant of Art Casting pour cast iron into foundry moulds. Source: Alexander Kondratuk / RIA Novosti

Factory manager Grigory Zotov brought the first model sculptures for art castings from Berlin in 1820. It was from these models that the Russian masters made their copies. In 1855, Mikhail Kanayev, a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts, began to work in Kasli as the factory’s first professional sculptor. The famous Kasli indoor sculptures were based on his designs, and later, on designs by other famous sculptors. Sculptures with their own distinctive style and subject matter appeared, and they later became quite well-known: Wood-sledge, Old Woman at a Spinning Wheel and others. 

3. The assortment of sculptures has grown from 20 to 800

Cast iron sculpture "A Pointer dog" by N. Liberikh. Collection of the Sverdlovsk Arts gallery. Source: RIA NovostiCast iron sculpture "A Pointer dog" by N. Liberikh. Collection of the Sverdlovsk Arts gallery. Source: RIA Novosti

Subsequently, Zotov's work was taken over by Grigory Druzhinin. A passionate collector, he was the factory's manager and de facto art director for 30 years. Druzhinin added to the collection of model sculptures used by Kasli masters for their own work.

The models included about 20 sculptures by Peter Klodt von Jurgensburg, the sculptor of one of St. Petersburg's most recognizable landmarks, The Horse Tamers on Anichkov Bridge. Today, the plant's model collection includes 800 artistic castings, as well as about 400 architectural and other castings. 

4. Kasli castings are still made according to old techniques

Yelena Janson-Manizer. "Ballet Prima Galina Ulanova". 1940s. Source: Knyajunskiy L. / RIA NovostiYelena Janson-Manizer. "Ballet Prima Galina Ulanova". 1940s. Source: Knyajunskiy L. / RIA Novosti

Over the years, the basic technical aspects of casting remained unchanged. It was believed, for example, that the best cast iron is obtained using charcoal. In turn, models are manufactured using the method of dry molding: a model made of wood, clay or wax is pressed into the molding material and then molten iron is poured into it.

The finished sculpture is preceded by the creation of a sketch, model, casting, stamping and coating with a special compound of carbon black and varnish, which gives the sculptures a special black velvety tone. 

5. Cast-iron as mass art

Figurine "Cariage-anf-three in winter" designed by Y.Nans. Source: Knyajinsky L. / RIA NovostiFigurine "Cariage-anf-three in winter" designed by Y.Nans. Source: Knyajinsky L. / RIA Novosti

Kasli cast-iron sculptures were cheaper, but in no way inferior to more expensive bronze ones. Such interior decorations were affordable not only to nobles, but also to officials and merchants. Ashtrays, paperweights, inkwells and chandeliers were all produced at the Kasli plant.

The egalitarianism of the cast iron is striking, as it can be made into utilitarian objects or fine works of art. When the Russian imperial court placed orders with Italian architect Carlo Rossi, he entrusted the casting of the architectural details to Kasli masters.

6. Kasli masters refused to sell ‘Russia’

A worker of the Kasli Plant for Architectural and Art Castings covers the surface of a sculpture with a paint. Source: Alexander Kondratuk / RIA NovostiA worker of the Kasli Plant for Architectural and Art Castings covers the surface of a sculpture with a paint. Source: Alexander Kondratuk / RIA Novosti

In 1900, Kasli participated in the World Exhibition in Paris. When designing the Kasli pavilion, architect Yevgeny Baumgarten used elements of Russian modernist style as well as Byzantine and Scandinavian motifs. This work glorified Kasli not only in Russia but also abroad.

There was also an amusing episode during the exhibition. A sculpture called Russia by Nikolai Laveretsky stood in front of the pavilion – an allegorical image of a woman in armor and with a sword in hand, which personified Russia. Many inquired about buying it, but after long negotiations a reply came from the plant: "Russia is not for sale!" Today, the restored and reconstructed pavilion can be seen at the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts.

7. Casting is a family business

Wax moulds for producing art products at Kasli Plant of Art CastingWax moulds for producing art products at Kasli Plant of Art Casting. Source: Alexander Kondratuk / RIA Novosti

As happens in many other crafts, Kasli has had masters who learned their skills from their fathers, and this tradition continued into the 20th century. Semyon Gilyov was in charge of the reconstruction of the pavilion in Paris beginning in 1957. His son Alexander worked at the factory for more than 30 years, including 10 years as the head sculptor. Thanks to him, Kasli was able to uphold its high standards during the Soviet era. Gilyov's great-grandson also works with cast iron in the Kasli tradition.

Even now, when the raw materials are brought from the Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant, the art-casting workshop still maintains its traditions. Last year, the Kasli masters even conducted an experiment, producing a small number of brooches, pendants and earrings made of cast iron. All of these items are quite small: no larger than a matchbox and no thicker than the lead in a pencil.

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