Russian Folk Art by Alison Hilton (review)
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Russian Folk Art. By Alison Hilton. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii + 356, glossary, notes, bibliography, index, photographs.)

Alison Hilton’s Russian Folk Art is a re-issue of her earlier work. It includes a new preface, but this new edition lacks the striking color pictures of the first edition published in 1995. The book is comprised of 18 chapters divided into 4 sections: (1) The Arts in Peasant Life, (2) Materials and Forms, (3) Designs and Their Meanings, (4) Preservation and Revival of Russian Folk Art. Hilton’s monograph opens with a consideration of the role of folk art within the context of Russian towns and villages, followed by an examination of the “relationships between styles and the physical characteristics of folk art” (p. xvii). The author then examines the significance of the images used in the art in various contexts and historical periods. She completes her study with a discussion of the folk art revival and preservation movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Due to Soviet-era limitations on foreign researchers, she was prevented from participating in fieldwork. Consequently, her research is based on museum collections and on the scholarship of and discussions with (Soviet) Russian scholars of folk art and material culture since the 1980s.

Hilton begins with an overview of the nature of folk art. She emphasizes the importance of, in the words of Arkhip Ershov, a maker of distaffs from Semenovo, the “thread of tradition” (p. 4). This section introduces the reader to the complexity of folk art in the Russian context, laying out the dilemmas for its study: the intersection of village and urban art (including church and court art as well as the craft trade); its interaction with historical events; and the origins of its motifs and techniques, whether Slavic or borrowed from other cultures present on the Russian territory. This section includes an overview of village life, house design and decoration, and toolmaking, including a thorough discussion of the decoration. It also includes a chapter on regional folk art specialization and particularly renowned folk artists. Hilton focuses on two artists, a distaff maker and a birch-bark carver, to demonstrate the “continual process of give and take between local customs and external influences” (p. 56). The second section expands on these topics through a detailed study of the motifs and styles of, in turn, wood carving, painting on wood, textile arts and costume, urban folk art, and specialized crafts associated with particular regions, such as bone carving, metalworking, lubki (block printing on paper for a mass [End Page 99] audience using folk motifs), lacquer, pottery, and toys. As an art historian, she is particularly astute at outlining the visual and aesthetic characteristics of the folk arts and at making parallels between different folk art traditions. For example, she examines how carving is related to textile art, and she studies how special designs on ritual breads are also connected to similar patterns in carving and embroidery. This section also outlines the effect of mass production and industrialization on folk art, in particular, on textiles as well as on wood carving, since the tools required to spin and weave have become obsolete.

The third section focuses not on “matching folk art and ritual with archaic prototypes,” as many Russian scholars have done, but on “the complex and irregular evolution of forms through the interaction of several artistic traditions” (p. 136). Hilton is quite successful at the latter goal, tracing the evolution of visual motifs derived from pre-Christian Slavic, Iranian, Finno-Ugric, and Scandinavian sources and their adaptation to the Russian Orthodox artistic tradition after 988 CE as well as in folk arts of various kinds, including painting, textiles, and carving. Hilton is particularly astute at taking into account the historical forces at work. These include the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, Ivan the Terrible’s sack of Novgorod in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent rise of Muscovy and events in Peter the Great’s reign 1682–1725. Despite the quality of this portion of the analysis, this section, billed as a study of the meaning and symbolism, will likely disappoint folklorists. Hilton makes some...


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