Art of Ivory-carving in Tobolsk

Art of Ivory-carving in Tobolsk

P. G. Bizin Ostyaks on reindeer-drawn sledge near a tent of skins. 1936. Fossil ivory.

Since old times ancient Tobolsk has been known for its monuments of architecture and workmanship of its folk skilled craftsmen. Silverware and embroidery in silk of the XVIII th century grace the glass-cases of the State Museum of History, the Armoury and the Hermitage. But it was the art of ivory-carving that won a particular fame for this small Siberian town. As far back as 1900 table sculpture miniatures, exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition, won the highest award — the Gold Medal. P. G. Terentyev, V. I. Denisov and other carvers, peasants by birth, were the authors of the exhibits in France.

The Parisians and guests of the capital, that enjoyed the recognized reputation of the arbiter of fashions and styles, were attracted both by the craftsmanship and the subjects of off – beat compositions. It was thanks to the Tobolsk craftsmen that the broad public came to know about the life of northern aborigines for the first time. Sculpture miniatures showed scenes of fishing, hunting and reideer ride. In this case not only a long stick to guide a team of deer but also reins were carved out of a solid piece of ivory. Fossil ivory tusks, brought to the province capital from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, served as the material for carving.

The works displayed at the World Exhibition also told the people about the life of Tobolsk citizens. Ink-stands, decorated with sculpture carving, paper-knives with relief portrayal of northern fauna representatives, cuff-links, cigarette-cases and boxes were in great demand. It was the needs of the province capital for articles of art that brought about the birth of the Tobolsk home industry of ivory-carving.
Ivory-carving was first mentioned in the XVIIth century. In the XVIIIth century the products of the workshops-silver sets, cloth embroidered in gold and silver, ivory cases—were sent for use by the Governor’s household. Other hand-made articles were sent to Moscow for sale. One day Governor F.I.Soimonov, for example, sent among other gifts, ivory ink-stands and a sand-box made by the Tobolsk craftsmen out of the Siberian materials to G. F. Miller, explorer of Siberia and his “loyal” friend. These were periods of ups and downs in history of Tobolsk. Ivory-carving fell into a decline towards the close of the XlXthe century. And it was only in the second half of the XlXth century when public life was growing more active due to the activity of exiles and intellectuals – enlighteners that ivory-carving found its second life.
In 1872 I.E.Oveshkov, land-surveyor of the province and a lover of drawing, opened “the Siberian workshop for making articles of fossil ivory”. This was followed by others, of which “the Model Siberian workshop” by Yu. I. Melgounova appeared to be the most viable. All these were commercial enterprises. Most of the fossil ivory handmade goods were entended for use — writing-table articles, toilet articles for ladies and those for the dining-room. Participation of those workshops in exhibitions was conducive to the creation of works of art, the growth of sculture- carving art. The desire of cratsmen to tell the story of the people’s life played a decisive role in this and brought about genre compositions.
Porfiri Grigoryevich Terentyev was reputed the most distinguished craftsman in the XlXth century. Born in the North, he determined in many respects the main trend of the Tobolsk decorative ivory-carving – sculpture carving reflecting northern subjects. Realism, psychological interpretation of images, sympathy with the people living in a sorry plight were the main peculiarities in the art of the Tobolsk ivory-carvers in those days. They expressed their thoughts and feelings through the images of ostyaks.
New forms of creative labour grew in the period of Soviet power. In 1929 these home industries resumed their work. Craftsmen worked traditionally on the ethnographical material. Socialist reorganizations started in the North after the formation of the Yamalo-Nenetski and Hanti-Mansiiski national regions. And the subjects in creative activity of ivory-carvers changed too. There appeared such works as “A
trading station of the Main Northern Sea Route” by V. I. Denisov, “The Elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in tundra” by T. S. Peskov, “A tent of skins with a wireless” by V.N. Lopatin and others. These works were higly appreciated in Moscow. The Paris Exhibition jury awarded V. I. Denisov the Diploma of the Gold Medal and V.N.Lopatin and Tregoubov — the Diploma of the Silver Medal for their perfect exhibition.
During the Great Patriotic War the work of this home industry was suspended but not completely; it began to return to normal again when craftsmen came home from the front. During this period many works were created on fairytale motifs. A small producers unit “Tobolski kostorez” (Tobolsk ivory-Carver) was awarded the Grand Gold Medal and the Diploma at the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958. Particular creative successes were achieved by V. S. Sinitskih and G. A.Hazov during that period.
In the next decade this small producers’ unit was reorganized into a factory where manual labour was replaced by mechanized production with a circular saw, a milling cutter and a drill being the main tools of ivory-carvers. Expert- artists created images and carvers-performers produced sculptures and articles in great numbers. New equipment, the change in living conditions of the Soviet people and immense scale development of the natural resources in the Tyumen North had a decisive effect on the working style of ivory-carvers.
By 1960 fossil ivory had been no longer available and ivory-carvers began to use sperm-whale tooth. Table sculpture groups gave way to small chamber miniatures. Natural properties of ivory made the volumes take gentle roundness and generalization and the images become more emotional.
In the 70’s a tendency towards creating multi-figure compositions was again shown in the work by ivory-carvers. The works by G. G. Krivoshein, V. P. Obryadova and others combined harmoniously symbolics and psychologism of images, rhythm and decorativeness of forms. The ivory- carvers of the factory that marked its centenary in 1975 are assisted in their creative work by the Moscow research institute of home industries of art.
Miniatures carved of ivory are mainly intended for home decoration. These tiny ivory sculpters, accurately polished and with the most subtle tracery of every detail, are a pleasure to the eye by the richness of modelling, the harmony of movement, their entertaining value and spirituality.
Natural properties of the material are revealed in its real beauty by experienced skillful hands of ivory-carvers.
Together with 3D-figured carving the Tobolsk ivory- carvers constantly develop for production numerous articles combining practical use and beauty. These are pendants, trinkets, cigarette-holders, brooches, crochet-hooks, hairgrips and cuff-links. Creation of memorable souvenirs with the depiction of Tobolsk and the symbolics distinguishing the Tyumen region is in the focus of attention of the Tobolsk ivory-carvers.
Sculpture groups and articles of art, created at different times and gathered together, reveal in their own way a diverse creative manner of craftsmen, the life and tastes of people of different epochs, the history of development of this home industry that long ago gained world fame.

Art of Ivory-carving in Tobolsk