restricted access Folk Furniture of Canada's Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites and Ukrainians (review)
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Reviewed by
John Fleming and Michael Rowan. Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites and Ukrainians University of Alberta Press. xix, 156. $60.00

This lavishly illustrated book showcases the furniture of four immigrant groups that came to Western Canada from Imperial Russia between 1870 and 1930. The authors' purpose is to 'give visibility and credibility to this neglected yet important Canadian material heritage.' These simple objects, they argue, are as worthy of study as Greek and Roman antiquities. 'Material culture' is seen as 'an expression of the cultural and psychological values intimately tied to the systems of belief and identity, and the [End Page 471] vicissitudes of the immigrant experience.' Three of the groups chosen share 'systems of belief' that are at odds with the fourth: the iconoclastic views of the pacifist Doukhobors, Mennonites, and Hutterites are in conspicuous contrast to the Ukrainian reverence for icons. The stunning photographs in this book invite the viewer to participate in vicarious nostalgia, and the communities that produced the objects – chairs, chests, benches, clocks, cradles – are described as 'utopian,' a term that historians would problematize. Although John Fleming and Michael Rowan associate the vanishing of the furniture with deeper levels of cultural dispossession, they do not explore the dystopian potential in the 'systems of belief.'

The authors claim to have made particular use of 'aspects of the psychology of perception,' but they unfortunately make no reference to the seminal work of E.H. Gombrich. As Gombrich has made clear, none of us looks at things with John Ruskin's 'innocent eye.' My own Mennonite experience makes me resistant to the nostalgia, even as I take pleasure in the objects remembered from my childhood. The decorative arts, as Gombrich has also argued, represent an apparently universal human need for order. On the level of pretty colours and squiggly lines, this desire is innocuous, but what happens when Ordnung is part of godliness? What happens when it is behaviour and thought that are being ordered? The dark underside of such questions is not explored in this book.

In my own struggles with my Mennonite heritage, I have found that the richness of the decorative tradition acts as an antidote to the constricting forces and to the earnest intensity of thought so characteristic of the radical Reformation. A character in a story by Sandra Birdsell complains that 'Mennonites are engaged in a joyless search for meaning.' The blessedly pointless decorations on humble objects are an escape from that quest. Despite my scholarly sympathy with the aims of this book, therefore, it did sometimes seem that too many 'points' were being made, too many crosses discerned in the midst of squiggly lines, and that sometimes iconographic interpretations did not fit the objects made by iconoclastic people.

A museum setting, of course, offers instant solemnity, not to mention the legitimizing power of that institution. Fleming and Rowan acknowledge the 'methodological problem' involved when utilitarian objects are salvaged, taken out of their original domestic context, placed in a public place, bathed in warm light, and photographed for public consumption. I possess a storage chest that came from Russia containing all the earthly possessions of my father's dispossessed family. A chest much like it is pictured in this book. What are the stories it contains? Who owns or possesses them? Such fascinating questions are posed either implicitly or explicitly in this book and they deserve in-depth discussion by future scholars. For now it is enough that the objects have been salvaged and that Fleming and Rowan have put them on display so lovingly and begun to unlock their rich potential.

Magdalene Redekop

Magdalene Redekop, Department of English, University of Toronto