Oleksandr Naiden

Ukrainian Folk Painting

December 10, 2021

Place and significance in the countryside; the relationship with ornament; the ritual and semantic nature; the diversity of stories and genres.

Bertold Brecht made the following statement on folk painting: “The bad taste of the masses is more deeply rooted in reality than the tastes of intellectuals”. But now, taste and bad taste have undergone significant changes. It is unlikely that there are minimally educated individuals who deny the value of art that was once considered questionable, bazaar, kitsch, and trash. However, the primary epithet of this art was its ‘market value’. Although the first examples of folk painting date back to the 1920s, their mass production and distribution began in the first postwar years, and reached their apogee in the 1950s,actively continuing until the late 1970s. Then, their mass appeal began to notably decrease. The reasons for this decrease were socio-existential processes that took place in the Soviet countryside.

Throughout most of the 20th century — until the last quarter — the countryside slowly changed, but retained the communicative and cultural foundations that have long determined its spiritual traditions. Simultaneously, a number of changes, particularly regarding increasing interaction between the village and the city through the bazaar, allowed folk painting to fit in the rural environment. Ornamental imagery was seemingly the predominant genre possible there. Folk painting — with its particular temporality — managed to overcome farmers’ long-standing bias towards figuration, principally pictorial and portrait imagery.

We can consider the traditional interior of a country house to be a completely cosmological-sacred environment. There is nothing superfluous here, and domestic minimalism prevails. The introduction of folk painting into this environment should be regarded as the result of social and existential dynamics in the countryside. A slow process occurred whereby the village was distanced from nature and migrated into everyday comfort. As comfort and wealth increased in the countryside, the social and figurative significance of folk painting changed. Folk painting served  civilizational and historical functions such as the expression of the farmers’ dream of a beautiful life, about the heavenly unearthly world of permanent celebration, overseas exotics, romantic visions, fantastic phenomena, ceremonial folklore, and mystical actions.

One of the predominant types (or genres) of folk painting was made on glass, plywood, or cardboard, and is commonly attributed to the category of market kitsch. In this case, I consider the latter as a positive phenomenon, designed to bring figurative realities, or rather, their conventionalised decorative image, into the sacred-ornamental space of the country house. Examples of these images are numerous sentimental and small paintings: 'Girl with Flowers', 'Girl with Cats', 'Two Girls', 'Girl and Boy', and 'Two Cats' and greetings or marriage-greetings depicted on glass with silver and coloured foil: 'Doves among Flowers', 'Male Dove and a Female Dove with a Leaf in its Beak', 'Flowers with Doves', 'Flowers', and 'Faith, Hope, and Love'. These images emphasize the naive faith of the farmers in harmony and prosperity and demonstrate the cosmological reality of 'eternal peace'. In general, folk painting is the manifestation of metaphysical realities of existence, but it is not limited to the aesthetics of natural subjects (sunset, castle with lake and swans, swans on the water, deer on the shore) or fairy-tale and allegorical-metaphorical plots (girl with a deer, being taken to the 'other' side in a boat with the help of swans and angels, and 'Angel watches over children’.) Folk painting also has a didactic factor.