"The Tree of Life, the Sun, the Goddess: Symbolic Motifs in Ukrainian Folk Art," Nov. 23, 2005-Oct. 15, 2006, at the Ukrainian Museum, 222 East 6th Street, New York, N.Y. 10003.
Folk art sometimes brings the lore of our Neolithic ancestors to life, uncovering hints of ancient knowledge that are often hidden before our very eyes. A new exhibition in Manhattan’s East Village, a beautiful and intellectually engaging show, is the kind of undertaking that could change the way you look at folk art forever.
"The Tree of Life, the Sun, the Goddess: Symbolic Motifs in Ukrainian Folk Art," now at the new Ukrainian Museum, taught me how to "read" a bride’s costume. It allowed me to see symbols that evolved from at least as far back as the Linear and Trypillian cultures from 6000-3000 BCE.
The bride’s wraparound skirt seemed at first to be covered in flowers, but they are really sun symbols. Her shirt’s white-on-white embroidery is covered in tree-of-life motifs and climbing vines, a variant of the same symbol. Her sash has a tree of life that sprouts, transforming itself into a goddess motif, while a smaller horizontal band of quadripartite sun symbols marches across another part of the sash. While these symbols relate to fertility and protection, the coral beads were added to ward off evil.
All these pagan symbols reside in textiles and ornaments dating from the late 19th to early 20th century from a country that was converted to Christianity in 988 CE.
The goddess motif, a torso, often vegetative with curved arms held on either side of the head, can be found on the bottom edge of a cream-colored coat (svyta) from the 1920s or recognized in more abstract forms on painted Easter eggs (pysanky). A goddess figure often shows up in textiles as rhomboids, where hook-like extensions take the place of uplifted arms. In the same manner, she appears in sashes and in the embroidery on the sleeves of women’s shirts and ritual cloths.
The rites described and seen in photo blow-ups of rural Ukraine from early in the 20th century are connected to these symbols and other folk traditions. The tree of life, the sun and the goddess permeate many other European cultures, and viewers will begin to spy them when investigating other kinds of folk art.
The sun designs, for example, are extremely varied. Besides circles and dots, swastikas, four swirling, spiral arms and simple crosses, sun signs are often quadripartite or eight-rayed and resemble blossoms. The tie between the sun and fertility is never distant in folk art. A wooden keg (boshilka) explodes with an image of the sun combining many of these motifs into one vibrant image.
The tree-of-life designs play an important role in many cultures. A pillar or tree, an axis mundi, is seen as connecting the world above (gods or benevolent spirits), the earth (man’s domain) and the underground (ancestors or evil spirits).
In Ukrainian folk art, the tree-of-life is often found on ritual cloths, usually with red embroidery on a white ground. These cloths were found everywhere in traditional villages. Some were hung in houses at weddings and births; others were placed on coffins; still others were put atop markers at the edge of small towns to welcome visitors. One ritual cloth (rushnyk) from the 1930s is a riot of tree-of-life motifs along with other fertility symbols -- flowers, vines and birds.
The tree of life also appears on a gray-ground kilim that’s also chock full of lively birds. It’s one of several on the walls of a central hall attractively filled with female costume ensembles on manikins in tall cases that you can walk around.
The exhibition also includes a selection of breads that are traditionally baked for special occasions and adorned with symbols. Most extravagant is a wedding tree (derevtse or hil’tse), made of dough over the branches of a real tree limb, adorned with ribbons, flowers, herbs, wheat stalks, feathers and tiny birds also formed from dough. This extravagant version of the tree of life is not the only wedding bread. A round bread (korovai) is topped with what looks like more than a hundred tiny birds surrounding a central puddle of grain, all individually shaped from dough.
More tree-of-life designs and sun symbols appear along with plants, birds, and animals on a selection of incised and glazed folk pottery -- plates, vessels and tiles.
"The Sun, the Tree of Life, the Goddess: Symbolic Motifs in Ukrainian Folk Art" is accompanied by a stylish bilingual catalogue with three informative essays, including one by Lubow K. Wolynetz, the exhibition’s curator.
The Ukrainian Museum, which opened its new exhibition space last year with an excellent Alexander Archipenko show, is definitely on a roll. In the fall, an exhibition devoted to early Ukrainian modernists arrives.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.