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Art and Architecture Overview

Architecture Intro - A-J - K-R - R-Z Art Intro - A-LM-Z


The Introduction to

An Annotated Bibliography of Eastern European

Folk Art

Prepared for a Class with Henry Glassie

by Danusha V. Goska, PhD



Arresting Puppets:

An annotated bibliography of works in English

on folk Art

in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary.


When the Gestapo arrested Josef Skupa, a Czech puppeteer, they arrested his puppets, Spejbl and Hurvinek, as well.


The Great Variety in Eastern European Folk Art

            In a previous bibliography, we explored the folk architecture of Poland, Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia. In that bibliography, it was relatively easy to discover and describe common features in the material, design, economics, and use of folk architecture throughout the region. With the folk art of the same area, it is less easy to do so. The visitor to the world of Eastern European folk art is confronted with an embarrassment of riches that challenges anyone searching for common denominators in materials, aesthetics, economics or use. Rather, there is great variation in all of these features.

            Variation is wide in the most obvious feature of art, physical appearance. The work may be as rough and earthy as a peasant's hands. "I don't polish or smarten up anything; after all, human beings have their blemishes as well," announces a Polish wood carver. In sharp contrast, the brilliance, sophistication, and subtlety of Czechoslovak folk embroideries stand second to none among folk or elite art. The delicate tracery and evanescence of Polish and Bohemian sand paintings, the weirdly lush, pasha's harem look in the birds hovering over a Carpathian clay stove, contrast sharply with heavier figures over-burdened with gravity: Slovak beehives, Swiatowid stone carvings, the folk-inspired forms of Brancusi.

            One feature many works, in many media, have in common, is busyness. It is as if the Eastern European folk artists' hands wish to communicate: "We were here. We took the time. We saw all the design options going on around us and we gave you every one of them that that we could possibly crowd into this space." Even the quieter forms, like the worried Christs in countless Polish roadside shrines, are busy when compared to a Japanese shrine figure, the minimalist Jiso.

            No palette predominates. Some works are reserved in their use of color. One Polish wood carver protested that it would betray tradition and aesthetic to paint Polish wood carving. Hungarian embroiderers, hungover from the psychedelic array of color that appeared after new rail lines brought them dyed thread, turned to black embroidery on black fabric, or white on white. Further north, the embroiderers of Czechoslovakia never seemed to get enough color; Lowicz wycniankis burn as brilliantly as a box of Crayolas; other Polish carvers gain fame precisely for painting their wood in loud colors.

            Not only are a wide variety of materials and technologies exploited, including such unlikely candidates as batik on eggshells and soap drawings on window glass, but origins also vary. Some materials are natural products of long use that undergo a minimum of processing, like the tree trunks formed into beehives in Slovakia. Locally made variations on exotic technologies, like indigo blue print textiles, are seen. Some materials are recently invented, purchased items, like aniline dyed threads and fabrics, worked into technologies of longer local standing, like embroidery and weaving.

            Motifs vary not just country to country but region to region and within the same medium. The Hutsuls, a mountain people of western Ukraine, produce a purely geometric embroidery with a limited palette of primarily red and black. In eastern Ukraine, embroidery blossoms into flora, fauna, and color. Themes in representational folk art also vary widely, from the exuberant joys of rebellion expressed in countless glass paintings of the Tatran outlaw Janosik jumping over fire, pistols crossed over his head, to the weighed down, contemplative Worried Christs one sees in roadside shrines and tourist shops throughout Poland.

            Some artwork recorded, in ethnographic detail, the lives of its producers. The handles of Slovak shepherd's mugs feature clever carvings of shepherd life: milking, flute playing, sheepdogs, bears. Nativity scenes painted by Slovak shepherds, Polish aristocrats' funereal portraits, and the decorations on Haban ceramics record day-to-day life in eras inadequately reflected in written sources. Ethnographers and historians glean them for data. In other cases, folk art suggests artists' dreams or nightmares rather than records their reality: a beefy, weathered peasant woman paints on her cottage walls portraits of a fine lady who appears to have lost her way from the production of a Merchant-Ivory film; a Polish peasant and survivor of World War Two produces a wood carving of a hoofed, horned, and tailed Satan embracing Adolph Hitler.

            Folk art from this region may have been highly functional as tool or as sign. A mangling board may have mangled clothing or, gussied up, and given by a beau to his intended, it may have announced a love. Folk art may have been intended to fend off the evil eye or changelings, but may have actually served a medical purpose. Birthing curtains surrounding new Czechoslovak mothers and infants may have isolated them from microbes carried by the "twenty or thirty" other people sleeping in the same room. Folk art has been used by the folk to express overwhelming themes historians and artists still struggle to capture in lengthy volumes. Hofer and Fel tell us of a Hungarian peasant who left the village and went to the city to give his family the dream, the better life, which suddenly, with modernization, seemed to be in reach. His collision with these forces, and what they did to him, he expressed with a handkerchief, a simple embroidered handkerchief, the traditional token of love between a girl and her intended in the village. One day his wife, left at home, looked out the window of her cottage and saw the handkerchief she had made for and given to her man hanging from a tree in the backyard. Suddenly, she knew. She searched the grounds and found him hanging in the barn.

            Some folk art was made and used by the same person, for example, Slovak shepherds' mugs. Some was made by a member of a household for use by the entire household, for example, Ukrainian ritual cloths. Some folk art was commissioned from an individual. This might be a marginal individual too poor, unconnected, or weak to earn a full living through agriculture. Shepherds, once rejected for their untamed ways and rank odor, earned some acceptance and commissions through production of exceptional folk art. Commissioned artists might have been linguistic and religious outsiders, like the immigrant Haban potters, who eventually assimilated into host communities. Some folk art might be made in a village and exported for cash, like the Czechoslovak bobbin lace that found its way onto Hungarian costumes.

            The folk's attitude toward their art also varies. A Polish folk carver says of competitions, "I don't mind when I don't come in first. The first shall be last and the last shall be first." In the world of Czechoslovak folk embroidery, on the other hand, the last was surely last. Competition fierce as on Seventh Avenue decreed that even the feather in a Slovak boy's cap might be earned through fisticuffs, and a girl's unearned signs of virginity her braids might be hacked off and nailed to a church wall. Poor Hungarians, unable to accumulate the required ration of dowry textiles, a measure from bed to ceiling, would be forced to put their bed on longer legs.

            Artists display reverence for materials. A Polish-American practitioner of wycnianki reports that, as tradition demands, she reuses her paper scraps, though her supply is humble goods: grocery bags, newspaper. Pysanky makers describe the painstaking care and patience they devote to blowing out eggs; others insist that, because of its symbolic value of the new life, they keep the contents in the eggs. Purchasers of such eggs must take storage and climactic precautions to avoid noisome explosions. Balas tells us that in his reverence for materials, Brancusi was very much the peasant.

            The folk have treated their art with similar care. A Slovak aunt in her seventies once described to me the care she devoted to maintaining in mint condition an embroidered apron she had had since her youth, in spite of storage in a hand-hewn peasant cottage through two world wars and several minor invasions. Nora Pickens reports that usable bits of Czechoslovak folk embroideries might have been carefully sniped off of otherwise unsalvageable costumes and sewn onto new fabrics. On the other hand, Fel and Hofer describe Hungarian peasants during the great "undressing" smashing perfectly usable folk pottery and abandoning serviceable folk architecture because it did not conform to the new style, and a Polish carver admits that his own brother used to throw his carvings into the fire because art took time from labor.

            How good is it? We are told, in no uncertain terms, that peasant pilgrims to Czestochowa bought and encouraged further production of simply bad reproductions of the Madonna. On the other hand, the undisputed excellence of folk art from Eastern Europe is currently the cause of a catastrophe, "a hemorrhage of heritage and identity" compared to the cultural depredations of Hitler and Stalin. A western elite have shown no scruples in stealing, openly advertising, and possessing hot Eastern European folk art.


Copyright 2004, Danusha V. Goska

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Photograph: Crucifixion, Ulicske Krive, Copyright 2001, Bill Tarkulich

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