Cossack History Tells Another Artful Tale

Pysanky eggs may garner the share of the artistic spotlight around the world when a traveler considers Ukrainian art, but the art of woodcarving can be traced to the heydays of the Cossack state in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, wood sculpture reached a heady climax when talented Cossacks created their own unique artistic style – the Cossack Baroque. Practical, yet ornamental, the work of Cossack and later, Hutsul artisans, incorporated natural imagery of grapevine stems, sunflowers, and roses with figures of saints and angels into furniture, chests, plates and dishes.

Woodcarvers, past and present, employ the flat, dry carving approach by preparing and surfaces into small geometric shapes – squares, circles, semicircles, and rectangles – forming incised straight and curved lines. The oldest examples of flat woodcarving dating back to the 16th century originate from the Dnipro region, and today, artists in the Carpathian Mountain region are revered for their originality and ingenuity of design. Defined geographic areas in the wood are slowly inlayed with mother-of-pearl and colorful beads for creative texture using a technique called patsiorkuvannia. Internationally, wood craft from the western region in particular is popular especially the Hutsul ornamental hatchets, pistols, guns, small vessels for liquid and decorative plates.

Ukrainian woodcarvers employ different muses, however. While the technique of flat, dry woodcarving is perhaps the most recognized art form among followers around the world, other woodcarvers like Serhiy Karpenko, rely a different technique. Chiseling scenes from the Bible, empires and festivals, Karpenko turns pieces of wood into animated, three-dimensional vignettes where each piece of straw, every facial expression, and individual leaves on the trees sing like paintings, drawing the viewer inside the wood itself.

The history of Ukrainian woodcarving is as long and complex as that of the well-known Pysanky Easter egg. Equally symbolic and artful, the designs coaxed out of natural wood by artisans carrying on this sculptural tradition whisper stories to the curious traveler.