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Promoting Russia’s rich wood carving tradition

Decorative wood carvings in a Russian home in the Alexandrowka Russian Colony in Potsdam, Germany..
Decorative wood carvings in a Russian home in the Alexandrowka Russian Colony in Potsdam, Germany..

Ever admire the intricate woodwork in the homes created by designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright? Or marvel at the intricate latticework in Muslim mosque doorways? Or bemoan the loss of America’s virgin forests and an appreciation for “Old World” craftsmanship?

Detail of a traditional Russian wood carving known as a window surround

Then the new exhibit featuring traditional wood carving in Russia at The Museum of Russian Art from September 13, 2014 – March 8, 2015 should be up your cultural alley. Entitled “Life on the Edge of the Forest: Russian Traditions in Wood,” this new exhibit “will focus on the folk traditions of Russian woodworking as well as how the Russian forest played a role in cultural identity and the traditional way of life.”

In Europe, 19th century wood carving reflected the Arts and Crafts movement’s rebellion against industrialization. In America, wood carving helped promote the new experience of “industrial consumerism” that its proponents claimed would make “individuals more rational and society more harmonious” according to art historian Monica Obinski. In Russia, on the other hand, what Russian studies Professor Walter G. Moss termed the “other unique elements of Russian wood architecture” promoted three cultural elements: wood as building and crafts material, forests as sustainable ecosystems that supported Russian communities, and the forest as a spiritual and cultural resource to inspire artists and folktales.

One such example of Russian folk art in wood is the elaborately carved wooden panels that traditionally framed the windows of Russian rural homes. Known as “window surrounds,” these decorative features, according to a Radio Free Europe article, “drew on sources ranging from pre-Christian animism to Russian folklore, as well as from the baroque and art nouveau movements, to give the Russian countryside an unmistakable look of its own.”

Traditional Russian wood carving could be either colored or plain and contained “a wealth of symbolism.” Some of its more popular motifs are grapevines which symbolize wealth and prosperity, lions which symbolize protection, and the mythological "Sirin" bird which symbolizes the joy of life.

According to Russian expert Robert Chenciner, many wood frame houses in Russia have fallen into disrepair. The wood carving decorations in TMORA’s new exhibit have been salvaged from many of the remaining homes in central Russia, the Urals, and Siberia. These, along with wood-working tools, furniture, paintings and other artworks on display, showcase Russia’s rich history of folk art. To fully appreciate the tradition that has been preserved, be sure to attend the exhibit’s opening reception, 5-7 p.m. on September 13, 2014.

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