Folk art. What is the first thing to come to your mind? Matryoshka dolls? Russian folk songs? Balalaika? Khokhloma? Indeed, these are all elements of folk art and there are quite a lot of them, in fact. It includes folklore – songs, tales, bylinas, proverbs, and sayings; it includes poetry, music and dance, theater, visual and applied arts. In 2022, we will learn even more about the traditions and folk art in Russia, because the President of Russia proclaimed this year the Year of Folk Art and Intangible Cultural Heritage. And this means that festivals, concert programs, and much more will take place in the regions of Russia that preserve the traditions of their predecessors. Let's try to figure it out – what are the unique features of folk art and how Russian folklore was formed.
Folk art has always been associated with ancestors, ancient customs and artifacts, songs, and sayings. And while art strives for uniqueness, folk art, on the contrary, spreads among the people, gets replicated, and changes by the author's will. By the way, who should we consider the author of folk art? Everyone at once. All those people who retold tales or bylinas by word of mouth, all those who painted Gzhel porcelain, all those who sang songs and learned them by heart to sing them later somewhere else. This is how folklore – from the English word folk-lore, "folk wisdom" – was formed.
At the time when famous folk traditions, songs, and everyday objects appeared, the authorship was not considered important. It was far more important how these pieces of art were "retold." Each new detail passed the "preventive censorship of the community." This term was introduced in the 20th century by the linguist Roman Jakobson and the folklorist Pyotr Bogatyrev. In the article "Folklore as a special form of creativity" (1929) they wrote:
"Let us suppose that a member of a community has composed something. Should this oral work, created by the individual, be unacceptable to the community for one reason or another, should the remaining members of the community not adopt it, it is condemned to failure."
Bogatyrev and Jakobson wondered – why is folk art called collective, if a bylina, song or chastushka originally had to be created, composed by someone? And why does nobody know the names of these people? So, they came to the conclusion that folk art is not collective, but simply anonymous.
Bogatyrev and Jakobson studied this issue in the early twentieth century, but the interest in folk art and folklore sprang up in the late eighteenth century. Yet, it was mainly writers who showed interest. In those years, sentimentalists and romanticists were looking for material to describe the "soul of the nation." That period was marked by growing cultural differences between the lower and upper classes. Later on, at the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries, we see the fascination with the lower class and its tradition, influenced by Western trends. Peasant culture was perceived as something untouched by civilization. The villagers were considered to be the ones who reverently preserved the traditions and customs of the ancient Slavic peoples.
Literators of the early 19th century tried to create authentic folk poetry, one that would represent the national spirit and ancient customs. However, the ideas of national spirit and ancient customs were based on the Western models rather than on the knowledge of popular culture.
From 1860 onwards, the study of folklore developed even more seriously. And this was affected by political events. In those years, the state fought against so-called freethinking and exiled undesirable people, most of whom were well-educated Russians. In their exiles, they began to actively collect local folklore elements, to study the language and everyday life of the people in the regions, significantly enriching the science.
From then on, the trend of collecting folklore and folk traditions only grew. The researchers attempted to study the accumulated material using Western scientific concepts and theories. For example, Fyodor Buslaev and Alexander Afanasiev studied folk tales, songs, and beliefs in the context of the mythological theory of Kuhn, Müller, and the Grimm brothers. According to this concept, the above-mentioned elements of folklore are nothing but echoes of some ancient Aryan myths. Moreover, the myths, which later became the basis for poetic imagery, were created from the metaphors that ancient people interpreted literally; these metaphors helped them to understand the world and the natural phenomena.
In the 1960s, Alexander Afanasiev, the famous author of collections of Russian fairy tales, presented his own theory, "Poetic views on the nature of the Slavs", in which he also talked about understanding natural phenomena with the help of metaphors, which later turned into myths and fairy tales. At the same time, the so-called cabinet mythology was formed and Afanasiev was a supporter of it. According to the researchers who criticized the approach of the author of the "views," the cabinet mythology is a certain result of a false generalization: given the situation of a lack of written sources, there was a tendency to create Slavic paganism artificially on the model of ancient Greek or Roman mythology, simply put, to develop mythological characters that were not present in the real traditions. A striking example is Kolyada, which Afanasiev described as a Slavic goddess. In fact, kolyada is a Slavic folk name for Christmas Eve.
In the 20th century, researchers continued the work of their predecessors. And Russian folklore studies finally established as a scientific discipline, having separated from other sciences – ethnology, linguistics, literature studies.
Even today, there are groups of ethnologists, linguists, and other scholars who travel to villages and small settlements in Russia to record local stories, document ethnocultural stereotypes, and try to preserve the endangered languages of small peoples.
Besides the oral folk art, there are entire areas of applied folk art. The Dymkovo toy with red-cheeked maidens, nearly photo-realistic Zhostovo painting, Khokhloma design, incredible stories in Palekh miniatures – all these pieces of art have become a real heritage of Russian culture.
And what about matryoshka doll – the symbol of Russian folk art and the main Russian souvenir? Can we consider it an ancient Russian toy? Does it have authors?
It is believed that Matryoshka doll appeared in the 1890s. It happened exactly in the years of the rise of national consciousness and interest in Russian culture that we mentioned earlier. During this period, an artistic movement known as the "Russian style" emerged in the Russian Empire. Its followers revived and developed the traditions of folk peasant toys. In Moscow, under the leadership of Maria Alexandrovna Mamontova, artists at the "Children's Education" workshop-store created dolls in festival outfits typical for various Russian provinces and regions. One theory claims that exactly at that time, Vasily Zvezdochkin, a lathe operator, came up with an idea of creating a matryoshka doll. All figurines were different from each other, the last one, the eighth, was a figurine of a baby. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the toy received a bronze medal at an exhibition in Paris.
So, we cannot consider the matryoshka doll to be an ancient Russian toy, but this fact does not hinder it from being the main symbol of Russia, which has undergone numerous interpretations. We’d like to believe that folk art will remain a national heritage and will not lose its value and originality in the age of digital technology and virtual art.
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