in fine arts of Yakutia

Yakut heroic epos is closely connected with traditional culture. People's soul, original self image, idea of time and the world are focused in it; mythological, religious and philosophical worldview is synthesized.

The gallery of national characters in painting is started from “The portrait of Olonkho-performer I.N. Vinokurov-Tabakhyrov” painted in 1930 by Ivan Vasilievich Popov, the first Yakutian professional artist.

Olonkho performers have been constantly drawing attention of artists: V.G. Petrov “Olonkho-performer Yrya Bylatyan” (1955); S.L. Aleksandrov “Portrait of Olonkho-performer I.G. Timofeyev- Teploukhov” (1960); E.S. Sivtsev “Olonkho-performer V.P. Popov” (1965); V.D. Ivanov “The Portrait of S. Zverev” (1970); S.S. Parnikov “The Portrait of P.P. Yadrikhinskiy-Bedjeele” (1982); L.A. Kim “The Portrait of an Olonkho-performer” (1983); L.D. Sleptsova “Olonkho-performer Uustarabys” (1991).

One of the first painters of Yakutia, ethnographer, and specialist of a local lore Mikhail Mikhailovich Nosov in his graphics series “Yakutia in National Epos” (1945) leads into fantastical world and recreates overall folklore poetic atmosphere interpreting the epos as a fairy tale full of everyday observations.

In his painting “A Knight with his Bride” (1938) P.P. Romanov was the first in fine arts to transfer the figurative structure of the Yakut folklore, its vivid substance rich in passion, dramatic clashes, and life-asserting essence into a picturesque narration on human life on earth. The painting, with its detailed narration, active role of landscape, and colourful brilliance, depicts Olonkho characters vividly and clearly as if they were alive. Clothes and weapons are reproduced with ethnographic precision; Olonkho performers have also emphasized these details. A fantastic epic-elevated painting harmonically comprises reality and fiction. Thus, since the very beginning of Yakutian fine arts the painters referred to the ancient epic heritage as an inexhaustible source of their ideas and images.
Key images of Olonkho epos - the World tree with the concept of the universe, the Middle World which witnesses the fury of the Upper World and Underworld, a warrior-bogatyr in shining armour and his horse with elegant harness, creature "raised by cosmic cycle", beauties of the Middle World, the epic feast Yhyakh, koumiss utensils, a tethering-post and a dwelling with all appropriate attributes transform in the art space in a unique way.

Olonkho makes the backbone of the artistic tools of Timofey Andreyevich Stepanov. His epic works are noted for irrepressible richness of folk fantasy, colourful and expressive language, coexistence of the figments of fantastic imagination with the reality. Olonkho becomes the subject of his creative thinking. The author perceives the narratives as the source of historical information. He reproduces and artistically reconstructs not only the world of epic subjects, but also the epic time. Stepanov transfers all the richness of the heroic epos’s content to the language of painting, interpreting its plots and images as mythologemes and philosophemes of versatile order.

Thirty large-scale pieces of the series “The Yakut heroic epos Olonkho” (1977-1997) depict the cosmic structure of the universe. The artist chooses the key scenes from Olonkho - description of the Three Worlds, the World Tree, main characters - warriors and beautiful women - keepers of the fireplace, for whose sake the warriors fight… Creating his isofolklore, the author takes just the main nucleus of narrations and creates a finished composition around it, using all the necessary historical, ethnographical, geographical, and common attributes. The psychology of certain characters is replaced by the portrayal of the life of more complicated organisms: the mankind, tribe, earth, universe; intense, certain events are replaced by pictures from life in its most typical cases, for example, “The Middle World” (1980), “The Upper World” (1981) and others.

Having found his ideal in the epic narratives, Stepanov borrows counterpoint of composition, noble harmony of deep and intense colours and monumental images. Thematic, compositional, and plastic figures of Olonkho became a forming and style-forming factor. Hence distinguishing features of his works - mythological basis of plot organization and general structure (“The Tree of Life” (1982), “Balaghan – The Cradle of Olonkho” (1982), “The Youth of the Main Characters” (1984), “In the Front of the Mistress of Fiery Sea” (1985), “Defending the Middle World” (1986), “The Fight in Heavens” (1996), and others).

The artist personifies the Earth, drawing a colourful blossoming carpet of the Middle World where the Ayii people live. Endowing the Earth with hidden sacral powers, considering human relations to be indissoluble with the nature, the artist conveys the world outlook of ancient epic characters.

The epic in the painter’s works is disclosed in the compositions, in which the Sun and the stars, the water and the fire are presented in their cosmic role. These compositions include “The Land of Olonkho” (1984), “Competition” (1988). This is brightly expressed in the work “Olonkho Worlds and the World Tree” (1979), representing the fragment of the universe - the triadic picture of the world where there is no animosity and it is not divided into the animate and inanimate natures, where between the grass and flowers frolic the spirits of flora “Ereke-Djereke” and where all the surrounding things are endowed with mind. In fact, this is a mythological-parable philosophic reflection of the epic world. The series “The Yakut Heroic Epos Olonkho” by T.S. Stepanov appears as a symbolic sign of the Sakha history, endowed with high and generally valid meaning as in a way a universal metaphor of the World and the Man.
An entirely new stage of development of the heroic epos in fine arts was introduced by the graphics of the 1960s-1970s, when the Yakut print assumed the international cultural value. At the time, the artists have completed the transition from ethnographism to another type of artistic expression - vivification of the folklore; the dialogue of the past and the present; a new impulse for the comprehension of the pictorial symbolism of the national living; the orientation to the traditional art; use of colour decorativeness, space flatness and monumentality of forms.

It was brightly embodied in the works of the graphic artists E.S. Sivtsev, V.S. Karamzin, V.R.Vasiliev, and A.P. Munkhalov. It is the Olonkho that has been the primarily form of aesthetic perception, reflecting integral world outlook of the people in its centuries-old development. The professional mastering of the epic images is parallel to the recognition of the people as creator and the keeper of cultural traditions.

One of the first Yakut printmakers Ellyai Semyonovich Sivtsev was a true national artist whose world vision was rooted in common people’s life. Among his graphic works of special significance are the works portraying intellectual culture and the keepers of the ancient Yakut traditions (series of etchings “Yakut National Games” (1969), series of the lithographs “Guest” (1978), “Shamans” (1988)). Triptych “Narrators” (1966) reflects the history of people who overcome every difficulty (List “The Past”), the battle and the victory of the Ayii warrior (List “Battle”), the established peace and calmness in the Middle World (List “Happiness”) in the allegoric form through the epic plots and the image of Olonkho-performer.
The folklore also dominates in the creative works of Vladimir Semenovich Karamzin. In the series “The Yakut Heroic Epos” (1969) the artist portrays the main characters of Olonkho - the warriors of the Middle and the Lower Worlds, the arch-fathers and the beauties of the Middle World, and depicts the culmination points – the path and deeds of the warrior, the battle of warriors, celebration of the Yhyakh, devoted to the winner and his bride. The master finds a precise graphic equivalent to poetic techniques of Olonkho, highlighting the main characters with a clear silhouette - with a bright spot on a dark background and vice versa.
The finest lyric combines with the depth of an analyst and the width of a philosopher in the art of Valerian Romanovich Vasiliev. In his triptych “Nurgun Botur the Swift” (1969), V.R. Vasiliev focuses not only on the plot lines, but also on the image structure and high spirituality of the epos Olonkho, on the philosophical and epic conceptions of the fight between the Good and the Evil. For the works on the epic motifs the author chose the xylography technique (woodcarving) like national craftsmen.
The illustrations to the heroic epos “Nurgun Botur the Swift” mastered in 1973 by E.S. Sivtsev, V.S. Karamzin, and I.D. Koryakin for the Russian edition translated by V.V. Derzhavin became a significant event in the cultural life of the Republic. The design and the attributes of the publication belong to S.S. Parnikov. There are 36 illustrations - four for every nine songs of the Olonkho. They are noted for their generalization of artistic images that are imaginary and real at the same time. In their works the illustrators managed to convey the intense spirit and image system of the Yakut heroic epos.
Credits: Story

Alexey Ivanov, High Achiever in Culture of Sakha Republic (Yakutia), curator and coordinator of the project on inclusion of regional museums of Yakutia into the project "Google Cultural Institute" (e-mail:

Also took part in the exhibition organization:
Asya Gabysheva, general director of the National Art Museum of Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
Galina Neustroeva, deputy general director of research of the National Art Museum of Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
Claudia Kozlova, museum curator
Vyacheslav Semyonov, photographer
Irina Yakovleva, Russian-English translation

Credits: All media
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