Monday, June 11, 2018

The World On Display

Polyorama Panoptique. (c. 1830).

The Polyorama Panoptique is not so much an optical toy as an illusory experience. With the wooden box in one hand and the wooden lens in the other, the viewer may find stretched out before him or her the streets of London with the familiar Westminster Abbey in the background or the noble arch of the Champs Elysées. Slides encapsulate these scenes; each one bears a short cloth tab for easy extraction, a label at the back of the frame to identify the illustration, and many have careful cutouts or points edging chandeliers, skylines, and candles. By adjusting the concertina or the doors at the top and back of the box, and thus allowing different amounts of light to illuminate the scene, streetlamps may glow, windows may shine, and day may turn to night. Forty-two such images accompany this particular Panoptique.

The Panoptique was at its popular height from the 1820s through the 1850s, paralleling the success of its full-size inspiration, the Dioramas created by Louis Daguerre and Charles-Marie Bouton. The Diorama, as opposed to the also-popular Panorama, was a dynamic theatrical experience that required movement of both the scenery and the audience. A custom theater was built in Paris, and later in Regent’s Park in London, that provided two adjacent stages, in front of which the audience would pivot on a turntable. Each stage displayed layers of paintings on linen, made transparent in selected areas and arranged along a deep tunnel. Through skylights, screens, shutters, and colored blinds, sunlight then transformed each image, subtly or dramatically. Thus the audience’s gaze was manipulated not only through the inclusion of multiple images, but also through the transformation of the images themselves. Like the Panoptique’s slides, the Dioramas presented familiar scenes and landscapes: the Holyrood Chapel, Mon St. Godard, and the Harbour of Brest, among others.

This hyperrealism of highly recognizable natural and manmade features, and implicating the audience in those scenes through compulsory participation, bestows upon the images a sense of the fantastic. The “normal” – the train plying its way through the land, the cabs and horses circling each other in front of state houses, the men and women milling about the large fora of major cities – becomes abnormal, a thing to be wondered at and interacted with on a new plane. Yet the interaction is stunted; there is an artificial but impenetrable distance between the viewer and the object, one that does not exist in real life. This distance, this insistence at holding the viewer at arm’s length while the world changes, is the true source of the Diorama and the Panoptique’s power. They are so profound because they render the touchable untouchable and the real unreal, and all of it highly ephemeral (the Diorama performance lasted at most fifteen minutes, and the Panoptique’s slides may be changed at will). The Panoptique makes this sensation mobile and places ownership of the experience literally into the hands of the viewer. But this shrinkage and consequential responsibility comes with an increased sense of fantasy and dissociation. The viewer may hold the world in his or her pocket, may turn on or off the lights, but despite their best efforts will never reach the place they see. The key elements, that is, the fixedness of scope and scene and the temporality of the images, dictate the extent of the interaction, and ultimately set the viewer at enough of a remove that his or her activity is inevitably futile. This futility generates fantasy, the sense that if the world cannot be totally embraced and understood, that it cannot be real. The Panoptique in this way moves beyond a simple mechanism of entertainment; it reveals to the viewer their incapability and allows them to wonder at it.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Tradition By Hand: A Book of Russian Folk Art

Denshin, Alexei. Vyatskaya glinyanaya igrushka v risunkakh: raskraska risunkov ruchnaya, yachnymi kraskami, tochno skopirovannymi s podlinnikov. Moscow, 1917.

Folk art, and artistic style itself, bends over time to the weight of cultural change, its authenticity eroding until a new style rises up to take its place. It takes deep traditional roots and regional resilience for a method to withstand such pressures; such is the case with Russian Dymkovo toys. The small figurines were first explicitly mentioned in 1811, but were noted as key parts of a celebration to commemorate a battle some four hundred years prior. Made from clay and river sand and whitewashed with chalk diluted in milk, the toys take on grotesque, almost amoebic shapes. The limbs of men and women extend only vaguely out from their ill-defined torsos, and the legs of cows, deer, and rams are often only half-realized curves protruding from their bodies. All are decorated in geometric patterns in bright colors – a duck may be covered in green dots, a ram’s horns may be a brilliant orange, a woman’s skirt checked in blue and yellow. To this is sometimes added gold leaf, giving the rustic figures a strange richness. They depict not only real creatures, but also fanciful ones, such as horses with two heads or winged beasts.

The 1811 mention of the Dymkovo toys occurs in the writing of Major General Khitrovo, who had been sent into exile to the region of Vytaka. There, at the village of Khlynov, he learned of the legend of the Khlynovo massacre, an event unconfirmed but seared into the collective memory of the town. Each year the villagers gathered to commemorate the bloodshed, and here Khitrovo noted that brightly colored and gilded clay dolls were sold to honor the widows left after the battle. The gathering, called Svistoplyaska, functioned not only as a remembrance of the past, but also as a festival to celebrate spring fertility. The festival required participants to whistle in the new season with pennywhistles, and this ritual was performed by women. Women also were the only ones who created the Dymkovo toys, thus asserting themselves as the heralds of springtime and the bearers of renewal and continuity in the land and among the people.

As time passed, the toys became more sophisticated. Ladies might bear parasols or wear bonnets, men might sport top hats and cloaks, after the fashions of city-dwellers. Toys might display multiple figures – a woman riding a horse, or a couple holding hands – and separate toys might be arranged into tableaux. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, mass-manufactured porcelain and plaster figurines were threatening the traditional handmade crafts. The Svistoplyaska festival still existed, although now known as the Svistunya, but had been reduced to a children’s party. However, in the Soviet era, the old ways were revived; in 1939, masters of the Dymkovo craft were commissioned to create a panneau for that year’s agricultural exhibition. Now, students may travel to the Vytaka (or Kirov) region, where the Kirov Artist Union closely monitors the use of traditional methods to create the toys. Though the field is still small, it trudges onward in the hands of eager young artists who learn the old ways from village women.

The revival of the tradition of the Dymkovo toys relied not just on the few old women who exhibited their handiwork at the agricultural exhibition; it also owes its success in part to Alexei Denshin (1893-1948), a Moscow artist fascinated with the craft. Denshin published a series of monographs on the toys, and in his later career taught at the Vytaka Art College. His interest in the tradition began early on, as exemplified in this 1917 volume of hand-colored drawings that reproduced original figurines. In them, Denshin well-represents the abstractness of the toys, and his colors glint off the pages as they would off the originals. The volume has a stated limitation of three hundred copies, but the amount of work required to produce it – the drawings are hand-done and glued to each page, the introductory text has been lithographed in sepia from Denshin’s own calligraphy, the book itself is carefully stab-bound with string – suggests that the actual number published is not so high. It retains its original board slipcase, which had hand-done ornamentation in red and black. The volume itself is a work of art, a book of careful construction and whimsical artistic style, but its significance lies in its testament as a man’s consideration of a woman’s art, its recognition of the resiliency of cultural custom, and its celebration of the rural arts that speak to the soul of the Russian countryside.