Dymkovo toys are one of the oldest handicrafts, and are practically the only type of folk art that gives us the unique chance to trace its development over almost one and a half centuries.
The first mention of Dymkovo toys was made in 1811, but it is evident that this was referring to developed, functioning production and not its beginning stage.
Ethnographers believe that the original style of Dymkovo toys became distinct first in the 15th-16th centuries, and that the handicraft arose in the settlement of Dymkovo on the other side of the river near the city of Vyatka. Although several unusual styles of artistic ceramics were born in the Russian Middle Ages, some of which have not been forgotten to this day, the clay toys from the settlement of Dymkovo have eclipsed the others with their popularity as a Russian souvenir.
Many researchers believe that the development of the Dymkovo clay toys is connected to the ritual spring holiday Svistunya (“Whistler”, reminiscent of the Russian word svistoplyaska, which has the modern meaning of “mass pandemonium”), which was dedicated to the sun, and for which women and girls (this work was considered exclusively feminine) all winter long before the holiday fashioned toys out of clay: horses, sheep, goats, bears, reindeer and ducks. In essence, all of these uncomplicated toys were quite simple, since their main function was magical and not decorative. In spite of the ritual meaning of the clay whistles, a certain irony can be noticed in the way they were made.
The magical meaning of the holiday was lost in the 19th century, and the holiday turned into an animated “whistler” fair with uninterrupted whistling. The whistles, without which it was once impossible to participate in the holiday and were made plainly for play, were preserved, but acquired ever more grotesque, decorative forms. The ancient handicraft was not only preserved, but has further developed as new everyday and fairytale subjects were added to the toy. A large number of ornaments and color combinations were developed. The Dymkovo clay toy began to distinctively acquire the character of a small folk sculpture, on the one hand becoming more decorative, but on the other being enriched with new themes and subjects taken from real life and redone by folk fantasy. Totemic and mythological characters (Sirin the bird-woman, two-headed horses, etc.) now were only a part of the subject matter used in Dymkovo toys.
Whereas in antiquity the main theme was animals and baby (symbols of female fertility), in the 19th century there begin to appear women in folk costumes, with babies, birds, baskets with pies, and balancing rods, on benches and boats. Multifigure compositions with such names as “Journey on a Sleigh”, “Drinking Tea”, “Strolling with Children”, “At Night”, and so forth began to appear.
Later the Dymkovo toy masters turned to urban subjects, portraying them using the tastes of the ordinary people far from the tastes of high society. All of the characters are male peasants, city dwellers, merchant women, fine ladies, women of fashion, dandies, officers and skomorokhs (a sort of minstrel clown) portrayed in the ceramic toy in a generalized form, as a type or class (peasants, soldiers, city dwellers) or function (nanny, musician, dancer, woodcutter, etc.). The differences are only in the colors and varieties of clothes, the faces are portrayed using several blots of color: black arcs and dots form the eyebrows and eyes, and red circles make the rosy cheeks and mouth.
The figurines and compositions served to decorate windowsills and dish cabinets, replacing expensive porcelain statuettes. But their creators were not copycats merely fashioning pale imitations of porcelain. This was a new, distinctive and inimitable art born from a venerable clay toy.
Thus gradually formed an inimitable world of Dymkovo toy images and its distinctive artistic composition.
Signs of the clay toy as a type of folk art are its laconic form and generality, displaying the figures head-on or in profile, the state of “movement in stillness”, the presence of collective image types in which live observations are combined with poetic fancy. All of this acquired a concrete form of expression in the Dymkovo toy in entirely local methods of molding, coloring and ornamental painting, as well as the particulars of composition.
The entire process, from preparing the clay to finishing the painting of the fired and whitened figure, consists of strictly delineated, sequential operations and techniques. Preparing a Dymkovo toy presupposes a sort of knowledge of the laws of its notional language. The strict set nature of the subjects and forms is not only a limitation imposed by the souvenir style, but at the same time a guarantee of the preservation of old traditions in an almost unchanged form.
The raw materials for producing Dymkovo toys are local: red clay mixed with sifted river sand. The process for preparing clay toys is very simple. First the figure’s torso is molded by hand from the clay dough, then clay balls (head and hands) are affixed to it using liquid clay. The seams are smoothed over by a wet rag. Whistles are also molded by hand, and the orifices are poked with a stick. The ready figures are dried and fired in an oven, whitened with chalk that has been dissolved in milk, and painted with tempera (aniline dyes were used until 1953).
Usually the toy is painted with simple geometric ornaments: bright spots, circles, zigzags, stripes, dots, diamonds, and checkered patterns in various combinations. Meanwhile the contrasting joyous colors (from 4 to 10 of them) – dark blue, red, light blue, yellow, yellowish orange, crimson, green, sometimes supplemented by copper-leaf diamonds – create the one-of-a-kind festive coloring which makes Dymkovo toys distinctive. At one time even gold leaf was used to decorate items. Although the geometric patterns have always been unpretentious, they contain a certain sort of information. For example, a blue wavy strip denotes water, crossing stripes hint at the frame for a well, and circles with a central star are the sun and other celestial bodies.
Each master makes the toy in its entirety, from molding the clay to the final strokes of paint. In spite of the strict stylistic limits which are in large part dictated by the Dymkovo toy’s status as a souvenir, all authors bring their own creative handwriting and preferred coloring scheme into their creations.
Each figurine is handcrafted, the only one quite like it. And to this day this craft is not produced on mass assembly lines, which differentiates it from other folk crafts.