A facelift for the beauties: Restoring sculptures of Friendship Among Nations fountain

A facelift for the beauties: Restoring sculptures of Friendship Among Nations fountain
Restoration plans for sculptures and decorative elements are in the works in the run-up to the 2019 fountain season. The city is implementing this ambitious project for the first time in 65 years. This mos.ru story updates readers on the work planned on the golden female sculptures at a workshop and the most sensational details of this sizable effort.

In October 2018, the city launched a comprehensive restoration of the Friendship Among Nations fountain (a VDNKh landmark) that has been decorating the exhibition’s main alley for almost 65 years. Its water-supply systems and structure have fallen into decay since then. The sculptures along the fountain pool’s perimeter also have to be restored.

“This is the first scientifically sound comprehensive restoration project since the fountain was opened in 1954. Of course, it was also renovated in the past, but workers mostly focused on accident prevention and fragmentary facelifts; this helped keep some of the elements intact,” Head of the City Department of Cultural Heritage Alexei Yemelyanov noted.

The Department’s specialists are overseeing the restoration of the Friendship Among Nations fountain because it is a federal landmark, he added.

The original fountain had 16 gilded female figures symbolising the Soviet republics. Last fall, all of them were removed from the pedestals and taken to a restoration shop. Once there, the statues were placed inside special two-tier boxes. Today, the four-metre high sculptures are standing vertically, and specialists are preparing to gild them again step by step. They will coat the statues with seven different layers, eventually covering them with gold leaf.

Older gilding has been removed, and the bronze statues have been scraped clean of all decorative layers. The figures have been meticulously analysed to determine which elements are either missing or broken.

A sunflower from a sculpture of the Ukrainian SSR was found to be missing, and we had to rebuild it from scratch, said Dmitry Stadnik, the Deputy Director General of the Naslediye (Heritage) Restoration Workshop. The sunflower was restored using archive photos and blueprints.

“Other elements include smaller details that cannot always be seen from a distance: little flowers, leaves and buds. We have copied them completely. First, we found their previous locations, created dies using similar elements and cast new ones,” he explained.

Ten of the sculptures have already been restored. The remaining six are now covered with red-lead paint and varnish to protect the metal from corrosion and to prepare it for gilding the statues. The workshop employs six restorers, including Olga Pronina who says that it takes about seven days to gild one sculpture.

“This is a very painstaking process. We need to cover the sculpture’s entire surface with ultra-thin gold leaf, eliminating any cracks. If the leaf sheet cracks, we cover it with smaller pieces. We eventually cover the entire statue, later polishing it and filling in any remaining holes. This is a very lengthy process; you could walk around the statue for a day or two, turning it into a completely perfect masterpiece,” Ms Pronina noted.

Gold leaf is usually stored and measured in books; each section of gold leaf is covered with paper and each of these “books” has its own binding. One gold-leaf book, used to gild these fountain sculptures, has 60 “pages” of gold leaf, with each leaf weighing 4 grammes. So the sculptures will be coated with almost 1,000 gold-leaf books weighing four kilogrammes.

Gold leaf sheets are pasted onto a primed layer using oily mordant varnish. The leaf takes between one and seven days to dry onto the surface, depending on the type of varnish.

“The sculptures are complicated and very interesting; each girl has her own national costume and unique facial features. It is hard to notice all this when they are mounted on the fountain, but we can see their unique details, decorations and pretty pieces here today. Small elements are the most difficult to gild. For example, the Tajik girl has many plaits, and each of them has to be carefully gilded. It took a specialist two days to gild her plaits alone,” Ms Pronina added.

Gold, the final layer, does not oxidise and requires no extra protection. According to the specialist, high-quality gilding can last for decades. But any attempt to coat the gold layer with varnish would cause it to degrade.

VDNKh’s main gold

The Friendship Among Nations fountain sculptures are the only ones that were gilded, according to VDNKh restoration projects supervisor Yulia Loginova.

“There are no other gilded sculptures, including pavilion decorations or separate statues, at VDNKh today. A detail of the Tractor Driver and Collective Farm Woman sculptured composition on the main-entrance arch is the only exception: they are holding a gold-leaf copper sheaf of grain ears in their outstretched hands,” she explained.

The statues of the Tractor Driver and Collective Farm Woman are covered with gold smalt. According to Ms Loginova, concrete sculptures or decorations were most often covered with smalt originally, using a process suggested in 1954 by sculptor Sergei Orlov.

“Other examples of this process at VDNKh include the Central Pavilion’s cartouches, as well as decorative elements at the base of the spire with a star, a female statue on top of the Belarus pavilion, statues on top of the Space pavilion, some decorative elements of the Environmental Protection and Nuclear Energy pavilions, as well as the Stone Flower and Golden Ear fountains,” Ms Loginova added.

The restoration project is scheduled for completion this spring, and the Friendship Among Nations fountain is to start shooting water for fountain season.

The legend’s history

The Friendship Among Nations fountain, a federal cultural landmark, is the largest VDNKh fountain. It was opened 1 August 1954 along with VDNKh’s forerunner, the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKHV), after the first reconstruction.

In 1939, that place accommodated a children’s café and several small pavilions. Under the first planned post-war reorganisation (1949-1954), it was intended to build the Friendship Among Nations fountain – called the Main Fountain during the design stage and later renamed the Golden Sheaf – near the Ukraine pavilion where the Stone Flower fountain now stands.

The Friendship Among Nations fountain and the main VSKHV pavilion  Photographer unknown  August 1954  Courtesy of the Main Archive Department

A monument to Joseph Stalin was to have been installed in place of the Stone Flower fountain’s flower parterre. The architects wanted to build an octagonal square between the monument and the Central Pavilion. Resembling a Roman amphitheatre, the square was to have hosted various rallies and official demonstrations.

But members of the exhibition’s artistic council decided that it would be inappropriate to use this site for such events and preferred to build another fountain instead. The Friendship Among Nations fountain was eventually relocated towards the Central Pavilion, with the Stone Flower fountain emerging at the initial location.

The fountain consists of an oval cup with a golden wheat sheaf towering above the central section; the sheaf is surrounded by sculptures of women representing the Soviet republics. In 1954, the Soviet Union had 16 republics; in 1956, the Karelian-Finnish SSR was included in the RSFSR as the Karelian ASSR. But the girl symbolising this stayed on, holding a bouquet of flowers in her hands and with a small coniferous tree at her feet.

Zinaida Bazhenova, Alexei Teneta, Joseph Chaikov and Zoya Ryleyeva created the sculptures, with models posing for them. For example, actress and ballerina Virve Kiple-Parsadanyan posed for a sculpture of the Estonian SSR. Pianist Gozel Annamamedova posed for another sculpture representing the Turkmen SSR. And the image of Rodam Amirejebi, the wife of poet Mikhail Svetlov, was used to symbolise the Georgian SSR.

In front of the Friendship Among Nations fountain at VDNKh  Photo: A. Shagin  The late 1950s  Courtesy the Main Archive Department

How VDNKh changes

Russia’s largest exhibition facility and grounds have been under restoration since 2013. Pavilion No 18 (Republic of Belarus), Pavilion No 34 (Space), Pavilion No 58 (Agriculture), Pavilion No 62 (Environmental Protection), Pavilion No 13 (Healthcare) and Pavilion No 84 (VDNKh House of Culture) have all been restored since 2016. Fourteen Central Alley fountains, and the Golden Ear fountain have come alive, and the flower parterres have been rebuilt.

Pavilion No 27 (Physical Fitness and Sport), Pavilion No 28 (Beekeeping), Pavilion No 47 (Pig-Breeding), Building No 421 (Marriage Palace) and Building No 516 (Books Pavilion) were also upgraded and reopened. Pavilion No 36 now houses the Cinema Museum; VDNKh has also received the Russia My History historical park, the City Farm and the Handicrafts Park, as well as a pavilion with an interactive model of Moscow and a summer cinema/lecture facility.

Today, almost 40 historical buildings and structures are being restored at VDNKh; the entire exhibition park is to be rebuilt by 2020.