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Iron Casting at Mining Museum

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Art iron castings became a trademark of the Ural in the late 19th century and thereupon gained wide recognition globally, with a real triumph coming in shortly. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, the world-famous Kaslinksy cast-iron pavilion won the highest award - a gold medal and a grand prize.

Mercury, Bison, and Joan of Arc's sculptures, along with the paired candelabra Flora, executed in Art Nouveau style and posing a female figure among the iris flowers, were cast at Kaslinsky Plant, specifically for the fair. Smaller-sized exhibits are showcased at the Mining Museum's halls, too. Sculpture of the Capuchin Fox, busts of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna are among them.

Cast-iron products become known in Russia in the 18th century upon establishing the iron founding industry. Interestingly enough the Ural casting is considered a traditional Russian craft, although initially masters, who passed on their experience and knowledge to Russian casters, were being taken from abroad. First items were made from German castings which were brought from Berlin.

Why cast iron, though? Such a heavy and rough metal used to found cannons and other weapons would seem a wrong choice for crafting delicate art objects. The art community did not favour pig iron either, at first rejecting its use as a material with unique plastic properties, suitable for creating decorative items. However, stunning art pieces may emerge if enabling and adhering to ironmaking technologies. At the time, ornamental objects were produced from metal leftovers that had not been used to manufacture weapons. Yet not all means of cast iron were good enough for founding thin objects - only those of most malleable grades. Neither the procedure could be performed at just any factory. The master started by forming a casting box from the moulding sand and then filling it with molten metal. The liquid metal would permeate void spaces and through this allow to shape the cast as desired. Since molten pig iron has a very high temperature, the casting form should be made of the refractory sand.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

The peculiarity of the art casting manifests itself through how realistic the products look, how malleable they are, in the level of detail and accuracy, and finally in the extraordinarily black colour. The latter adds depth to the artwork and enables seeing the items even at a great distance, which is achieved using carbon black paint. There is a unique recipe for it, and at Kaslinsky Plant, the paint composition is kept as a secret, just as it was two hundred years ago.

By the early 20th century the Plant had become the most popular among Russian metallurgical works, but it was no longer the only one to manufacture artistic castings. The others worthy of particular mention are Kusinsky Plant and Nizhny Tagil Metallurgical Plant. Kusinsky iron foundry was known for casting as small items as magnificent pieces of openwork furniture. The most complete collection of such objects is nowadays housed at the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. In Nizhny Tagil, the cast iron production did not become widespread, as it was considered less profitable than bronze casting.

Fine openwork cast-iron jewellery sparks the most interest nonetheless. It became surprisingly fashionable first in Europe, and then spread to Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. European states needed to finance war efforts against Napoleon I and his armies. Princess Marianne of Prussia appealed to the country's women asking them to give in their gold jewels in turn for an iron ring or brooch. Each had an inscribed message stating either "I handed in gold for iron" or "For the welfare of our motherland". Alternatively, there could be a portrait of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm on the jewel's reverse side. The campaign aimed to raise money for the uprising against the French Emperor. In Russia, necklaces, bracelets, and other jewellery of this type gained popularity in 1820-1830. They were showcased in Moscow and St. Petersburg at Russia's first manufactory exhibitions. Soon the cast-iron jewellery fell out of fashion, proving the metal could not replace gemstones with their lustre.

The contemporary collection of iron casting in the Mining Museum is home to over 150 showpieces manufactured at foundries of Russia, Ukraine, and Germany in the XIX-XX centuries. This is one of the most comprehensive and fascinating Russian expositions, with most of the display items being the rare ones and thus not presented anywhere else.