The Workers Behind Kasli Cast Iron Sculpture

Molding of an Artistic Casting at Kasli Iron Works, photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii
Molding of an Artistic Casting | Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1910)

Taken in 1909 by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, this image—Molding of an Artistic Casting—depicts men working at the Kasli Iron Works Factory. The town of Kasli—in present day Chelyabinsk Oblast—is located in the Ural Mountain region about 100 miles from the border of Kazakhstan. Many factories can be found in this region as it was well known for its iron ore deposits. Kasli’s cast iron works were renowned for their artistry throughout the 20th and late 19th centuries. The factory was one of the few in this region that was kept operational by the Soviets when they took power and it is still in use today. Items from the factory were first displayed internationally at the 1867 Paris exposition and would continue to be presented at many domestic and international expositions. In 1900, works from the Kasli factory won the grand prize at the Paris exposition for its cast iron pavilion.

In the image, the foreground figure can be seen cleaning a cast object that has been created through precision casting—also known as lost wax casting. This method of casting metal dates to ancient Mesopotamia. The process uses a wax model of the desired metal form around which layers of sand and ceramic glazes create a mold. The wax is melted out of the mold. This step gives the casting process its name as the wax model is lost in the mold’s creation. Metal is then poured into the ceramic mold to create the item. This method of casting produces high quality metal artifacts with smooth finishes and allows for intricate details in the design. An open mold with a wax model sitting inside can be seen on the table next to the main figure. A second man wearing a hat sits working next the first figure and the legs and hand of a third figure can be seen on the left hand side of the image.       

At the time of this image, the Kasli factory employed a highly skilled workforce numbering over three thousand workers. The factory produced high quality artistic and architectural cast iron pieces. The workers were master craftsmen whose skill had been cultivated over generations since 1747 when the foundry was established. These artisans passed their knowledge down to younger generations just as they had learned from those before them. (Heller, p.53-55) The appearance of Kasli works at international exhibits came six years after the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861. The new—if limited—freedom from the emancipation would have allowed for an increase in peasants moving to skilled factory work rather than farming. The success of Kasli’s cast iron works at the 1900 exhibition also align with social and economic changes in Russia. This international recognition of artistic excellence came near the end of the ‘Witte era’ with the promotion of domestic industries and industrial growth. Government policies under the Minister of Finance Sergei Witte would have been beneficial for factories such as Kasli Iron Works in increasing production and international recognition.     

Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel by Vasilii Torokin
“Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel” | Vasilii Fedorovich Torokin

Molding of an Artistic Casting is a fascinating image as it shows highly skilled labor and artistic expression at a time of industrialization and social unrest. In most western countries, increased industrialization led to the decrease in skilled labor jobs; however, the Kasli factory was able to flourish while maintaining traditional techniques during periods of industrialization in Russia. Some artists of the Kasli factory, such as Vasilii Fedorovich Torokin, were cognizant of the social injustices in Russian society and used their craft to express these views—often through the depiction of the peasant class. (Mezenin) An example of this is Torokin’s sculpture “Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel.” At the time, Torokin’s work was remarked upon as having “democratic tendencies.” (Mezenin) Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph gives a glimpse into the techniques of the Kasli Iron Works factory and allows the viewer an understanding of the lives of the people who worked there.

Sources

Castings made by Kasli masters, using their own models. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://izi.travel/en/8741-castings-made-by-kasli-masters-using-their-own-models/en

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heller, A. A. (2010). Industrial Revival in Soviet Russia. Place of publication not identified: Nabu Press.

Mezenin, N. (1979). Wonders of Kasli. Metallurgist23(6), 425–427.

Mikhaĭlovich, S. (1970, January 1). Formovka khudozhestvennago litīi︠a︡. [Kasli]. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018679475/

Precision Casting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.investmentcastchina.com/precision-casting/

Prokudin-Gorskii. (1970, January 1). Molding of an Artistic Casting. Kasli Iron Works. Retrieved from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5255/#q=Prokudin-Gorskii&page=4

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