Northern Dvina Traditional Folk Painting
Northern Dvina peasant painting is an original, striking phenomenon in Russian folk art. Painted household articles were in great demand in Russia. To further boost the demand, the sources they came from were kept secret. And only in 1950, the History and Art Museum of the Zagorsk Reserve organized an expedition to explore the North Dvina area folk painting phenomenon. An effort was to identify the regions and centers where painting was traditional. The expedition succeeded in clarifying and rendering concrete the commonly used but extremely vague term “Northern-Dvina painting”. According to researchers, these paintings can be divided into three major, independent categories or styles – the Rakulka, the Permogorye and the Borok painting.
The first category includes the painted woodwork from a number of villages bearing the common name of Mokraya Yedoma in the Krasnoborsk Region, four kilometers away from the Permogorye landing-stage. The characteristic feature of Permogorye painting, as it is generally referred to nowadays, is a narrative composition depicting scenes from everyday peasant life and bordered with a fine foliate pattern on a white background.
In the neighboring Cherevkovo Region further down the river Northern Dvina, the expedition discovered distaffs decorated with a large curving branch painted against a yellow background. The lower part of the distaff blade decorated with the outline of a bird in a square frame. This type of painted decoration originated in the village of Ulyanovskaya in the Cherevkovo Region, a few kilometers away from the place where the river Rakulka flows into the Northern Dvina. Hence, the term “Rakulka painting”.
Still further down the Northern Dvina, you find distaffs of a third type – Borok painting. Similar to Permogorye distaffs in their ornamentation, but they are larger in size, bolder and more decorative in form and more garish in coloring. Characteristic are dazzling white backgrounds and the abundance of gilding. The lower part of the blade invariably depicts an equestrian scene. The expedition discovered this type of painting in the villages of Pervaya Zhelyginskaya, Puchuga and Skobely, situated all along the Northern Dvina, situated on the band of the Northern Dvina some fifteen or twenty kilometers away from each other.
It is folk art, and its masters dedicated it to the common man. Its main theme is the life of the common people, rendered in a highly poetic form. It was developed by peasant artists in an effort to impart beauty to the objects used in everyday life.
The earliest specimens of the surviving Permogorye woodwork date back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The artistic traditions of preceding centuries were preserved in the shape and painted decoration of many of them.
The 19th-century Mokraya Yedoma craftsmen preferred the same kind of supple twig as the leitmotif of a foliate design to decorate dishes for a festive table. The twig framed a large fish or the fabulous Sirin (bird with a woman’s face) depicted in the center of dish.
Most of the white-background painted woodwork embellished with genre scenes, framed in a foliate pattern. Some of the wooden objects were adorned with a series of pictures which, taken together, told a single story. There is usually a certain topic, too, behind compositions with figures of men and animals incorporated in foliate patterns.
The larger the object to paint, the greater was the possibility for a craftsman to tell a detailed story of peasant life. For instance, the cradle exhibited in the Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad is decorated with eleven different genre compositions depicting man’s life from his birth well into maturity.
Beautifully decorated distaffs predominate among the surviving specimens of 19th-century painted woodwork from Permogorye. An indispensable implement, the distaff played an important role in the life of peasant women and certain parts of the marriage ceremony were connected with it. Distaffs were embellished with special care.
The earliest specimens of Permogorye distaffs evidently date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Two of the several patterns on which their painted design is usually based were especially widespread. In one of them, the fabulous Sirin, encircled with the supple twigs of the traditional Permogorye ornament, was the center-piece of the front side of the blade. Below, a riding scene was depicted. In the other, the front and the back of the blade were covered with rows of pictures on the wedding theme. The central picture on the front of the distaff showed a traditional young people’s gathering on a winter evening. The back of the blade, to which flax was attached, bore a picture, in its bottom part, of a feast with the hosts and the guests sitting at a round table with a samovar on it. Together, the genre scenes depicted on a distaff of this kind tell a single story about a wedding. Such a distaff was to be given to the bride either by her parents, as a part of her dowry, or by the bridegroom, as a wedding present.
The style of Borok painting just like of Permogorye painting, has its roots in old Russian art. However, while the genre scenes embellishing the Permogorye painted woodwork owe much to the influence of the book miniature, the Borok style of painting, with its intense and vivid color range was clearly influenced by the icon-painting of the northern school. Its composition resembles that of the traditional church iconostasis. The upper part of the blade is divided into rectangular sections. The central section shows a front door with an arched top and a porch in front of it. An old man is ascending the steps. A young rider has stopped by the porch, his hat in his hand. Both figures are depicted in the manner characteristic of icon painting. Some researchers believe that this scene depicts a match-making episode. While the bridegroom is waiting by the porch, the match-maker goes to the bride’s house (usually called a terem in folk songs).
In the late 19th and early 20th century Borok distaffs enjoyed enormous demand thanks to the bright colors and gilt used to decorate them. They could be found far beyond the limits of the region where they had been manufactured, namely, in the area stretching along the middle reaches of the Northern Dvina.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the village of Puchuga, 25 kilometers away from the Borok jetty up the Northern Dvina, could boast its own painters. The Puchuga distaffs of this period are similar to those manufactured in Borok and the fronts of the blades in both kinds of distaffs carry an almost identical design.
A detail which makes it possible to distinguish between the Borok and the Puchuga distaffs is the design covering the stem of distaff. Unlike the vertical stalk adorning the Borok distaffs, the Puchuga distaffs are embellished with a supple twisting stalk with leaves running from the foot of the stem to the blade and ending, just as the stalk in Borok distaffs, in a round rosette.
A distinguishing feature of the Toima distaffs is the brightly painted carved stem and a mirror inserted in the middle of that side of the blade which faced the spinner. The Rakulka style of Northern Dvina painting boasted long-standing traditions, too. It had nothing in common with either the Permogorye or Borok styles. In its heyday it rivaled the famous white-background Permogorye painting.
Rakulka painting displays, especially in the mid-19th century, certain features resembling the miniatures illuminating Pomorye manuscripts coming from the Vyg River Area.
The dominant colores of the Rakulka painted woodwork are golden ochre and black with concomitant deep green and brownish red. The color palette, though austere, is harmonious and charming. The ornament is large in size and consists primarily of decorative leaves. It is outlined in black, with the tendrils, coils, and veins are also done in black.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the Rakulka painters favored the distaff as the object of decoration.
The Rakulka distaffs are much higher than the Permogorye and Borok ones. Almost from its very foot the stem of the distaff starts to broaden into rounded projections and gradually runs into a rather narrow and tall granulated blade.
The front blade of the Rakulka distaff is divided into three almost equal parts. The stem is usually decorated by a vertical branch with large symmetrically arranged leaves and black tendrils. The blade was adorned with an outline of a decorative bird depicted in the center of a square frame in a few bold black strokes. The upper — and the largest — part of the blade is decorated with an S-shaped branch bearing large leaves. The leaves seem to have facets as they are painted in two or sometimes three colors. The leaves are surrounded by black tendrils and spiral-shaped tendrils of the kind twining plants have. The painting on the inner side of the distaff is almost an exact copy of the design embellishing its front, especially in its upper and middle parts.
Most of the works made in the last years of the craft’s existence are excessively garish. The background was usually painted pungent yellow, often accompanied by other excessively bright colors — bright blue, bright green and even violet. The color palette lost its former harmony. However, the general pattern of Rakulka painting can be observed even in the latest specimens.
The painted woodwork coming from Northern Dvina 19th-century centers show a wonderful workmanship and skill in composition, drawing, and painting.
By decorating household objects with a beautiful, bright painted design, folk artists turned them into works of art which are a joy to the eye. One cannot but admire the talent of their authors and the spiritual beauty of the Russian people reflected in them.