Voices from Russia

Monday, 28 May 2012

A Miraculous Revival Along the Vyatka


In Kirov (formerly Vyatka), artisans are reviving a unique craft-form, the world-famous Dymkovo clay figurines. Made of baked clay with bright ornamental painting, many experts consider them one of the wonders of Russia and one of its hallmark signature folk-crafts. Art scholars believe that the history of the Dymkovo figures go back more than 400 years.

They originated in the fishing village of Dymkovo, as potters and oven-builders lived there in Old Russian days. Scholars believe that the first figures moulded from clay were whistles in the form of horses, sheep, goats, and ducks. Craftsmen created them for the annual holiday Свистунья (Svistunyа) or “Whistling”, which honoured those killed in a battle in 1418 between the people of Vyatka and those of Veliki Ustyug. According to legend, during the night, not recognising each other, two friendly armies engaged in battle. Each year, the holiday remembered those accidentally killed in this incident. Later on, it took on festive overtones; the festival lasted several days, and people filled the air with toots from colourful whistles.

Over centuries, the holiday lost its original meaning, and the clay whistles turned into true works of art. Languid ladies with umbrellas, ruddy Hussars, riders on fancy horses, goats playing balalaikas… these and many other clay figures, and are now well-known, not only in Russia, but throughout the world. However, by the early 20th century, Dymkovo nearly disappeared from the artistic map of Russia.

Nadezhda Menchikova, the manager of a Dymkovo craft artel, told VOR, “By a miracle, the craft survived. The whole fate of the craft was in the hands of Anna Mezrina. At the beginning of the 20th century, only this old woman kept alive the art of sculpting Dymkovo figures. She didn’t even have her own house. She lived in the bath-house, owned by one of the richest merchants of the city. One morning, she went out with her cats in the sun, sat on a bench, and began to sculpt. The future artist Aleksei Denshin ran across her, he was then 16-years-old. Every day, he crossed the Vyatka River by boat, sat next to her, and wrote down everything that Anna said concerning the composition of the figures. He made sketches, and, after a while, he released home-produced albums with texts and illustrations describing the colourful hand-made figures”.

Only through these improvised albums did the story of the unique Dymkovo figures pass throughout Russia. However, it took almost another hundred years for true professionals of the craft to appear in Kirov. Olga Golovina became attracted to this challenging craft in 1988. An artist by training, she became interested in the patterns on the clay figurines and began to study them. Gradually, she began to make them herself. Today, she can’t imagine life without having her hands in clay. Her amazing figures are in museums and private collections, not only in Russia, but also in the USA and Germany. She said, “Before you sculpt, you need to feel the mood of the clay. This will determine if it will successfully take on the essence of the figure. Clay has a very whimsical nature; you must necessarily consider that. One day, I was with a blind lady. In the evening, I watched her shape a figure with her hands. To myself, I thought, ‘What you did, well, I’m going to have to break it in the morning. I’m going to have to break it and glue it back together again right’. Well, the next day came; I saw that her hands moulded the figure as it should be. I didn’t have to break anything”.

Today, Olga leads master classes on the art of clay sculpting. She holds classes for children and adults in a small room of the Museum of Applied Art. However, at present, her class doesn’t have a permanent venue. With an eye to the future, the Museum administration decided to recruit a whole class to teach students the art of moulding Dymkovo figures. However, in order to become an expert and master of this ancient craft, you must pass serious tests. You must be able to feel the clay, have a good understanding of colours, and be able to draw. Yet, the main condition is that you must be female and live in Kirov. In fact, according to ancient tradition, only girls who were born on the banks of the Vyatka River could sculpt in clay and paint whimsical figurines and children’s whistles.

 25 May 2012

Milena Faustova

Voice of Russia World Service


Editor’s Note:

The art of the Dymkovo figurine survived because of support from the Soviet state. This was not an isolated case… many folk arts survive today because they had state sponsorship in Soviet days. This is in marked contrast to “capitalist” societies that were quick to smash under “old” crafts to make way for their “Brave New World“. Oddly enough, the SOCIALISTS were (and are) the “conservatives”, and the rightwingers were (and are) the ” tear-it-down radicals”… fancy that…



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