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Images and Ideas in Russian Peasant Art

  • Anthony Netting


A close look at Russian peasant art yields two divergent impressions. The profusion of styles and techniques is amazing, testimony to the ready creativity of peasant craftsmen. But throughout this wealth of invention, a constant tone prevails: the images portrayed are few and everywhere much the same.

Two images predominate: the sun, at times accompanied by flowers, birds, and animals; and a flowering tree (drevo zhizni) or a woman raising her arms, with two figures, often armed men on horseback, at either side. Most designs in peasant art involve one of these persistent images. The concern of the present paper is to explore what they may have meant.

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1. Voronov, V. S., Krest'ianskoe iskusstvo (Moscow, 1924), p. 43; I. la. Boguslavskaia, “0 transformatsii ornamental'nykh motivov, sviazannykh s drevnei mifologiei, v russkoi narodnoi vyshivke,” Report to the Seventh International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences held at Moscow, 1964, p. 8.

2. The primary material for this essay was the decorations on articles of wood, bast or bark formerly used by the peasants of north and central Russia—notably some six hundred prialki (distaffs) examined directly or through photographs and descriptions. Some use was also made of peasant designs in other materials: weaving, embroidery, woodcuts (lubki), enamel and metalware, bone carving, and so forth.

3. See the seminal essay of Gorodtsov, V. A., “Dako-sarmatskie religioznye elementy v russkom narodnom tvorchestve,” Trudy gosudarstvennogo istoricheskogo muzcia (Moscow, 1926), pp. 7–36 ; and the later studies of Rybakov, B. A., “Drevnie elementy v russkom narodnom tvorchestve,” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1948, no. 1, pp. 90106 , and his “Prikladnoe iskusstvo i skul'ptura,” Istoriia kul'tury drevnei Rtcsi: Domongol'skii period, vol. 2: Obshchestvennyi stroi i dukhovnaia kul'tura (Moscow-Leningrad, 1951), pp. 396-464; L. A. Dintses, “Drevnie cherty v russkom narodnom iskusstve,” ibid., pp. 465-91; Ambroz, A. K., “O simvolike russkoi krest'ianskoi vyshivki arkhaicheskogo tipa,” Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1966, no. 1, pp. 6176 , translated in Soviet Anthropology and Archeology, 6, no. 2 (1967): 22-37.

4. Rybakov, “Prikladnoe iskusstvo,” p. 399. In the peasant art of neighboring Poland, some similar images appear, but much subdued, obscured by Christian and secular urban themes. See Gantskaia, O. A., Narodnoc iskusstvo Pol'shi (Moscow, 1970). But neither image was limited to the Slavic cultural area. Ambroz (p. 69) notes the goddess motif on archaic Greek vases. I came across a similar design in the folk weaving of modern Bihar, hardly surprising since the mother or tree goddess has been prevalent in Indian art as far back as Harappan times. See Lannoy, Richard, The Speaking Tree (New York, 1971), pp. xxv, 9, 22, plate 7, and passim. The image appears most conspicuously in the art of the ancient Fertile Crescent as far back as the earliest Babylonian dynasties. See d'Alviella, Goblet, The Migration of Symbols (New York, 1956 [Reprint of 1894 ed.]), pp. 118–76. Whether the goddess-tree with her acolytes came to Russia from the Near East or arose indigenously is a moot point. Clearly she appealed to a wide range of agrarian cultures.

5. Compare this insouciance in peasant art with formal Christian symbols, and especially with the official conventions of icon painting and the rigid mestnichestvo of the ikonostas.

6. Childhood and Society (New York, 1950), p. 121. Both the obvious freshness of the ancient images in later peasant art, and the impossibility of their surviving as mere habits without meaning, have been recognized by recent Soviet researchers. See Razina, T. M., Russkoc narodnoe tvorchcsti'o (Moscow, 1970), pp. 136–38 . But even Razina, hampered by an outlook more aesthetic than historical, slips back into the groove and concludes that the peasants were overcoming the old images, transforming them into decorative motifs or into more realistic designs (ibid., pp. 138-42, 146).

7. Zhegalova, S. K., “Khudozhestvennye prialki,” in Zhegalova, et al., Sokrovishcha russkogo narodnogo iskusstva: Res'ba i rospis’ po derevu (Moscow, 1967), D. 137 .

8. For another example of this process, compare the “artistic folklorization” of the rnsalki in the nineteenth-century Volga housecarving. Vasilenko, V. M., Russkaia narodnaia rez'ba i rospis1 po derevu XVIII-XX w. (Moscow, 1960), pp. 44–46 .

9. Zhegalova, p. 136.

10. See the 1863 Yaroslav prialka in the State Historical Museum, depicting a train chugging out of a station, or the mid-century series by an unknown master, with fashionable “classical” scenes elegantly carved in low relief (for example, the 1868 prialka in Sokrovishcha, illus. 137-38).

11. Zvantsev, M. P., Nizhegorodskaia rez'ba (Moscow, 1969), p. 14 .

12. The contact between Romantic and peasant art is more than tangential (as the Romantics themselves divined). The Romantic artist, intellectually and emotionally, was trying to escape the walled city, which shut the peasants out. But the Romantic, beginning with his individual consciousness, sought a transcendent fusion with the universe which would leave his self unimpaired. That was one worry Russian peasants were free of; they would not have understood the regret in Shelley's “stains.”

13. Popova, Z. P., “Raspisnaia mebel',” in Sokrovishcha, pp. 5O and 52 ; Rice, Tamara Talbot, A Concise History of Russian Art (New York, 1963), p. 1963 .

14. See the decorations on the Church of St. George (1120-28) at Yuriev-Pol'skii (Rice, p. 33), and on the gates of the Church of the Resurrection in the Forest (na Dcbrc) at Kostroma (1652) in Ivanov, V., Kostroma (Moscow, 1970), pp. 8486, 98-101.

15. Rovinskii, D., Russkiia narodnyia kartinki, 5 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1881), 1: 484–87, 5: 140-41; Arbat, Iu., Puteshcstviia za krasotoi (Moscow, 1966), illus. following p. 48.

16. The Greek sirens were originally birds. Those portrayed beguiling Odysseus on a fifth century B.C. vase from Vulei look almost exactly like the Russian ptitsy (Grant, Michael and Hazel, John, Gods and Mortals in Classical Mythology [Springfield, Mass., 1973], p. 367). For classical representations of the sirens, see Pollard, John, Seers, Shrines, and Sirens: The Greek Religious Revolution in the Sixth Century, B.C. (South Brunswick, N.Y., 1965), pp. 137–41.

17. For an indication that the ptitsy-siriny and rusalki were related, the writer B. V. Shergin recalls from his native Arkhangelsk province gingerbread (prianniki) depicting either ptitsy-siriny or rusalki, there called beregini (recounted by Vasilenko, p. 40). They were also called faraonki, from an obscure but tenacious pseudo-Biblical legend, which identified them with the Pharoah whom Jehovah had drowned in the Red Sea, or with the Pharoah's daughter. It is hardly possible to trace the twists of popular imagination which resurrected the persecutor of the chosen people as a mermaid. Possibly the association was with the compassionate princess who had found the baby Moses floating in the rushes, or conceivably the Russian peasants felt some affinity between their own river nymphs and other pagan spirits submerged by the mighty Judaeo-Christian God, particularly since the story, according to Vasilenko, “arose in Old Believer circles” (Vasilenko, p. 36).

18. Zvantsev, pp. 14-16, illus. 63-86, and especially Vasilenko, pp. 35-52. On the classical derivation of the word rusalka and the solstice ceremonies associated with her, see Tokarev, S. A., Religioznye verovaniia vostochno slai'ianskikh narodov XlX-nachala XX v. (Moscow, 1957), pp. 87–94 ; Propp, V. la., Russkie agrarnye prazdniki (Leningrad, 1963), pp. 77–81 .

19. Propp, pp. 68-77, 81-89. All these ceremonies except Lent fell in the solstice period between the week before Troitsa ﹛rusal'naia nedclia) and the end of June (Petrov den’). It should not be supposed that they were all observed eveiywhere. Each locality, even each village, elaborated its own unique seasonal festivals.

20. Propp, pp. 77-81; Tokarev, pp. 90-91; Vasilenko, pp. 49-54.

21. Ovsiannikov, Iu., Lubok: Russkic narodnye kartinki XVII-XVIII w. (Moscow, 1968), p. 81 .

22. Propp, pp. 81 and 88.

23. Ovsiannikov, p. 80: “Vremenem vyletaet i na zemliu k nam.”

24. Belov, A, “Kon'ki: Istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk,” Zhivopisnaia Rossiia, 1902, no. 98, pp. 556–58; Stasov, V. V., “Kon'ki na krest'ianskikh kryshakh,” Sobranie sochinenii, 3 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1894), 2: 105–14.

25. Zhegalova, S. K., Russkaia dereviamiaia rez'ba XIX veka: Ukrashcniia krest'ianskikh isb Verkhnego Povolsh'ia (Moscow, 1957), p. 38 .

26. See, for example, Arbat, pp. 64ff, pp. 176ff.; Mil'chik, M. I., Po bercgam Pincgi i Mezeni (Moscow, 1970), pp. 21, 35, 108, 120, 135 ; Dintses, pp. 467-68; Prosvirkina, S. M., Russkaia dereviamiaia posuda (Moscow, 1957), p. 143 .

27. See especially the numerous icons of Flor and Lavr, and of St. George and the Dragon; Smirnova, E. M., Zhivopis1 obonezh'ia XIV-XVI vekov (Moscow, 1967), pp. 72, 88, 174.

28. Dintses, p. 475.

29. Tokarev, p. 55.

30. The finest early representation of this legend is the elegant sun chariot from Trundholm (ca. 1300 B.C.) now in the Danish Museum. The conveyance of the sun by chariots and bird-ships is abundantly represented in rock carvings and metalwork from the Scandinavian Bronze Age. See Gelling, Peter and Ellis Davidson, Hilda, The Chariot of the Sun (New York, 1969). For additional evidence on prehistoric sun worship see Anati, E., Camonica Valley (New York, 1969). By comparison, occasional references to sun chariots in classical mythology, though well-known, are much less compelling; in the Mediterranean, such ideas were “swamped in a sea of Hellenism” (Gelling and Davidson, p. 123). Still, in the irrepressible idolatry of Palestine, sun chariots were prominent enough to provoke Jehovah's wrath (2 Kings 23: 10-11).

31. Vasilenko, pp. 48-51, 97-99; Prosvirkina, pp. 32-33.

32. See also the bowls illustrated in 0. Kruglova, V, “Severodvinskie rospisi,” in Russkoe narodnoc iskusstvo sevcra (Leningrad, 1968), p. 32 ; Voronov, pp. 50-51; Razina, p. 47.

33. Dintses, pp. 479 and 482.

34. Ibid., pp. 470-71, 473.

35. Compare the deliberately asexual quality of Christian art, in Russia and elsewhere.

36. See the brilliant description of the fall ceremonials in Chicherov, V. I., “Zimnii kalendar',” in his Zimnii period russkogo narodnogo zcmledcl'cheskogo kalcndaria XVIXIX vekov (Moscow, 1957), pp. 25–63 .

37. The horsemen were often shown impregnating a female symbol or trampling their enemies (Anibroz, pp. 69-72). Thus the whole design stressed male sex and power, within the social and natural balance.

38. Dintses, pp. 472-73; Ambroz, p. 75.

39. Kievan figurines, dressed like the Scytliian-Sannatian earth goddess, suggest that the Slavic peasantry was long aocustomed to putting on the costumes of its rulers (Dintses, pp. 483-84).

40. In the few instances where Christian themes enter peasant art, they are all but submerged, as in the needlework where an onion-domed chapel is deftly transformed into the familiar goddess (Dintses, pp. 488-90). In peasant art the substitution of Christian symbols never took hold. In pre-Petrine Russia, when cultural communication between peasant and high culture was still vigorous, the influence was more the other way: the artisans who made fine objects for the elite came mostly from the peasantry, and used peasant themes in their decorations (Rybakov, “Prikladnoe iskusstvo,” p. 416).

41. See Bol'sheva, K. A., “Krest'ianskaia zhivopis’ Zaonezh'ia,” in Krest'ianskoe iskusstvo SSSR (Leningrad, 1927), pp. 53 and 57; Reformatskaia, M. A., Severnye pis'ma (Moscow, 1968), p. 16 .

42. Peasants did not sharply segregate Christian and folk practices. In the spring ceremony of kumlenie, girls kissing through wreaths of braided birch also exchanged the crosses they wore as tokens of loyalty (Propp, pp. 129-32). But crosses and blessings by the priest served only to add additional authority to non-Christian beliefs. Christianity also had no more than a toehold in the intricate marriage ceremonial, with which peasant art was closely connected. Kolpakova, N. P., “Otrazhenie iavlenii istoricheskoi deistvitel'nosti v svadebnom obriade Russkogo Severa,” in Slavianskii jol'klor (Moscow, 1965), pp. 259–83 .

43. “A living fossil,” as Treadgold put it. His essay “The Peasants and Religion” articulates the prevailing pejorative attitude toward the Old Belief ( Vucinich, Wayne, ed., The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia [Stanford, 1968], pp. 72107 ).

44. Peasant designs and symbols soaked into Orthodox Christian art too. See Ambroz, pp. 65-67. But Ambroz errs in stressing roundabout borrowings from “Eastern” art via Byzantium, and discounting the direct impact of folk images through peasant artisans.

45. Ovsiannikov, p. 78.

46. Popova, pp. 59-60, illus. 58-59.

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Slavic Review
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