The Animal Style of Perm
The Animal Style of Perm
A number of important manifestations of artistry had occurred in Siberia in prehistoric times, some dating back as far as the 3rd millennium B.C. The Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages were all productive of objects. Primitive artists, under necessity of farming, collecting and hunting for a living, produced works of art usually of religious and social importance and achieved heights of abstraction modelling schematic figures and formalistic ornaments. The discoveries of prehistoric times brought to light a large number of cave paintings and engravings of animals, zoomorphic wooden figures and utensils, and drawings of elk and fowl motifs on clay vessels of the Bronze Age.
During the 6th – 8th centuries of the Christian era, when the art of bronze casting was mature, ancestors of a group of Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the Urals and the basin of the Kama in western Siberia practised an ‘animal’ art of an essentially decorative character.
Known objects of the Animal Style in its fully developed form come mainly from numerous burial mounds of the Perm and Komi lands – among them is a series of exceptionally interesting cast bronze plaques and buckles with animal designs, intended with small cast bronze figures, pole-tops for standards, and ritual spoons with ornamented handles.
According to their designs, finds in the Animal Style can be but into three groups: animal forms, bird-shaped figures and complicated compositions of animals, birds, human beings and therianthropic creatures. The variety, inventiveness and vitality of the designs are quite remarkable.
Animal figures of this kind had evidently a deep meaning for the artists. The animals represented are wild: beasts or birds of prey, and game as stags or elks, and occasionally fish and large reptiles. The Animal Style seems to be a direct survival of the magical art of hunters, by which representations of the animals most hunted or dreaded could be used in rituals intended to control them. But such art is usually realistic rather than deliberately distorted. None the less, among both settled cultivators and nomadic herdsmen, hunting continued to be needed for a livelihood, so that hunt animals remained a subject for art. Thus a close knowledge of animals continues to appear through the peculiar surface of the Animal Style. The animal figures were originally those of totems, animal ancestors and kin of the tribes that venerated them, and the totems then developed into gods and spirits, the rulers of the world in which the tribes lived, and these divine beings continued to be imagined in animal form. Animal art served the theriomorphic view of the world. The animal figures would thus be emblems, some tribal, some cosmic.
The Siberian beasts are often enclosed in a square, rectangular or semicircular border and set against an openwork background.
The bear, common in western Siberia, is usually shown in a sacrificial pose, his head arranged between the forepaws. The elk of the earliest Animal Style is incorporated into complicated compositions; two confronted elks’ heads symbolize the celestial sphere. Separate animal figures include wolf, sable, beaver, marten, snake and frog. The grotesque reptile, usually placed in the plaque’s bottom, personifies the infernal regions. Among the tame animals the most popular is a horse, sometimes mounted with a human being; between the 10th and 13th centuries castwork bases of tinkling pendants were formed as horses with two heraldically opposed heads.
The pendants of solid and hollow bronze are shaped as birds in flight, towards the 11th century the hollow ones modifying to tinkling pendants. The bird with outstretched wings and a human face on the breast embodies an ancient idea of the sacred bird taking away human souls. Incorporated in a separate group are relief hollow pendants formed as animals being attacked by birds of prey.
A number of plaques displays complicated compositions of human beings, beasts, birds and reptiles, the human figure being an essential part of designed groupings; usual is the therianthropic form – a creature half-man, half-elk. Of special interest are anthropomorphic plaques showing female divinities or higly conventionalized figures of parents flanking the child.
Flat surfaces of bronze are worked in a technique that has the effect of low relief or sometimes are made in openwork with empty spaces between figures. The animals are rendered naturalistically but at the same time they are sharply synthetized, with the result that their salient characteristics are instantly seen. Like all other objects the plaques and buckles clearly illustrate the people’s profound knowledge of the animals they were fond of portraying and testify both to their skill in working bronze and to their artistic gifts.
Nearly every animal figure is at once recognizable, and even the monsters are of clearly defined types. But the featuresof real animals are sometimes bent and folded upon themselves in a special manner, which in the best conveys an extreme tenseness and vitality. The folding and distortion may first have been adopted to fit all the features on to a confined surface. But where there is a room there is often another convention employed, that of adding small figures of other animals to the sides of larger figures. The style avoids smooth and featureless surfaces. One common feature of figures made in relief or in the round is the indication of rounded bodies or bunches of muscles by a bevelling technique of slanted surfaces that meet in a ridge along the line of greatest prominence.
The end of the Animal Style was apparently brought about by the spread of Christianity, which destroyed the religious ideas embodied in it. But it left survivals and influences on other traditions of art in widely separated regions of the Urals, European North and western Siberia. Copious materials show a vigorous tradition of the style in folk arts and crafts in our own day.