The Guzuls are a small ethnic sub-group of Ukrainians who live in the Eastern Carpathians, in the West of the Soviet Union. Their homeland, Guzulshchina, lies within three administrative regions of the Ukrainian SSR (Ivano-Frankovsk, Chemovitsy and Zakarpatye regions).
Through the centuries, this group of Ukrainians, living isolated in the mountains, developed quite distinctive crafts and art forms of their own, on which their geography and natural resources have left their stamp. Thus, thick forest gave them logs for building and for wood carvings; the harsh climate of the mountains influenced their clothes and home. The Guzul peasants’ sheep gave them wool for heavy homespun clothes and lighter patterned weaves, sheepskin for their colourful sleeveless jerkins and leather for their boots, bags and belts; and they made colourful hand-painted pottery out of an abundance of local clays.
For the Guzuls, subsistence economy lasted a long time. The Guzuls built their own houses, made implements, household utensils and clothes for their own needs, skills that were handed down from generation to generation. Gradually, specialization in the crafts began. Some of the peasant craftsmen achieved a high level of artistry, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century, we find whole dynasties of potters, woodcarvers and metal workers.
Their artistic traditions give an insight into the supreme creativity they have applied in so many fields. The earliest artifacts that have come down to us are little more than two centuries old (they date back to the eighteenth century), but their very perfection indicates that there must even have been a long tradition.
The wooden buildings are perhaps among the Guzuls’ greatest achievements, for here we find a craftsman’s deep understanding of the qualities of his material, wood, and a keen sense of proportion. The log house with its long verandah under one side of a wide overhanging roof, and its complement of outhouses, is typical for the Guzuls. In olden times, the surrounding log fence also enclosed a front yard. Their churches, whose ground plan is a cross, had four transepts and a tent-roofed tower; there are many remarkable variations, but this is the typical Guzul church. The fame of the Carpathian woodcarvers has long since spread well beyond their mountains. This craft grew out of the peasant’s natural desire to decorate the things he used. Simple at first, the carvings became gradually more sophisticated, until eventually Guzul carvers were using quite a variety of inlays—wood, horn, metals, mother-of-pearl — highly decorative work, that came to be very popular and was in great demand. Some of the old artists carved strikingly realistic life-sized figures—usually their subjects were religious.
Guzul ceramics — also famous — are painted with amazing patterns and pictures. Their pots, pans, jars and oven-tiles are covered in delightfully naive scenes from their daily life, their work in the fields, festivals, market-days, amusements, giving a remarkably full picture of the Guzuls’ life. Jewellery was, however, one of their most ancient crafts. Wrought metal, mostly brass, was important for decorating their traditional dress and leatherwear. Brass ornaments also adorned weapons, tobacco pipes and other things in common use, their shapes and even names indicating that their designs had grown out of the ancient Russian tradition.
Their decorative towels, table-clothes, rugs and coverlets with the characteristic patterns and finely detailed embroidery are done in warm colours. Then there are the famous fluffy lizhnik rugs and smooth woven kilim carpets which are still made in large numbers.
Several crafts — weaving, embroidery, metal and leather work — come together in miraculous harmony to make Guzul costume. And, though the basic designs are common to all, each area or village has its own individual colour scheme, cloth finish and, above all, the Guzul women’s exquisite embroidery.
The Guzuls also do unique painting on egg-shells, and make beautiful toys (some of these are made of caseine, which they make of boiled curds), a rare material which they model with great fluency into very expressive birds and animals.
The arrival of Soviet power in the Western Ukraine brought many changes in the Guzul artists’ lives. In the past, many of the craftsmen worked in isolation, fighting fiercely for customers to fend off need. Now organized in craft artels, they exhibit all over the Soviet Union and beyond. Many are numbers of the USSR Union of Artists, and several of their number held the title of the Merited People’s Artist of the Ukrainian SSR.
Guzul art is now the subject of serious study, and their work is sought after by private collectors and museums; one of the largest collections is in the Guzul Folk Museum in Kolomya, where they have a uniquely representative collection of all the Guzul arts and crafts.