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In today’s world, outside of the Rus, there is one symbol of the Rus that almost all women and girls are cognizant of and it the matryoshka dolls. These dolls became part of the Rus craft-art scene around the turn of the last century primarily at the end of the Russian-Japanese War.
Matryushka: Nesting Dolls of the Rus
By: Dr. Donald Houston
In today’s world, outside of the Rus, there is one symbol of the Rus that almost all women and girls are cognizant of and it the matryoshka dolls. These dolls became part of the Rus craft-art scene around the turn of the last century primarily at the end of the Russian-Japanese War. As a craft-art they are fairly old in Japan. The Russian prisoners of war learned the craft-art from their captors and once they were home they developed into a uniquely Rus craft-art.
Various sizes, shapes, paint schemes and other unique touches have made these dolls into true collectibles. There are dolls with as few as 3 pieces to them as well as some that have in excess of 25 pieces to them. Some of these dolls are fairly plain with a bare minimum of decoration and others are very ornately decorated. Some are only painted and some are incised, engraved, burned & carved as well as painted.
Russian nesting dolls also known by these synonyms - nested dolls, stacking dolls or matryoshki as it is sounded in Russian - probably, the most popular Russian national souvenir. Global fame was won by the Russian matryoshka far abroad. At all large exhibitions, fairs, festivals held in different counties of the world, these amusing and cheerful nesting dolls were and indeed are among the most fascinating exhibits. Also it seems, that matroyshka has come to us from a gray-haired antiquity, from the world of legends and fairy tales. Actually this wooden doll is only about 100-110 years old.
Some of the returning Russian prisoners of war brought a funny Japanese figurine of a good-nature bold headed old man, Fukuruma to a traditional meeting of Morozov family. This doll consisted of some other figurines nestled one inside of another. This doll was composed of 7 figures. There was a legend that the first doll of this type was made on Honshu Island where the Fukuruma camefrom was made by an unknown Russian monk.
Although matryoshki, are famous all over the world, books about this craft-art phenomena are somewhat difficult to find. If you were to look at sites dedicated to Russian souvenirs and crafts, you will see that the various stories about nesting dolls are very contradictory. This is so because the authors of sites had no relaible materials on this subject. It is my hope that this article will add fact and knowledge to the understanding of the matryoshka's roots and history.
The first Russian matryoshki were born in the 1890's in the workshop "Children's Education" situated in Abramtsevo estate of Moscow. The owner of Abramtsevo was Sava Mamontov an industrialist and a patron of the arts. At the end of the 19th. century, Russia was in a time of great economic and cultural development. Mamontov was one of the first who patronized artists who were possessed by the idea of the creation of a new Russian style. Many famous Russian artists worked along with folk craftsmen in Mamontov's workshops under his patronage.
Making and Decorating Matryoshka Dolls
Once the dolls have been turned out of the wood blanks they are then set up for the artistic touches that wil adorn them and give them their individual characters. Initially, using light touches of the brush to mark the outlines of the face, eyes and lips the artist will begin the process. Next the artist will apply color to the cheeks and the rest of the face. Next a skirt, an apron, a scarf on the matryoshka's head and finally the hands are drawn.
Semionovo Style Matryoshka Dolls
Semionovo is a large as well as old center of wooden craft-arts. Huge thick forests, soil not really that good for agriculture, and big market provided development of local craft-arts. Many changes occurred during long history of craft-arts in Semionovo but even now about 200 varieties are produced in factories which are characteristic only to this region, some 33 countries import goods from this small town.
Semionovo is famous for its wooden painted tableware, wooden toys and, of course, matryoshka dollss. The first mention about this settlement goes back as far as 1644. There is a legend that Semionovo was founded by a merchant Semion and a run-away monk from Solovky monastery. In 1779, at the time of Catherine the Second, 3000 inhabitants lived and worked here. As the town was surrounded by forests people used to make goods of wood for themselves and for sale. Some crafters made wooden toys just for their children. In time it has become a profitable business craft-art.
The first matryoshka doll in Semionovo was made by a man well known for his wooden utensils, rattles, balls and apples, Arsenty Mayorov.
In 1924 he brought an unpainted nesting doll from the fair in Nizhny Novgorod. His elder daughter Liuba painted it using an ordinary goose feather and aniline dyes, which were used for painting different toys. For almost 20 years matryoshka made by Mayorov wer the best in the area of Nizhny Novgorod. In 1931 an artel making souvenirs including matryoshkas was established in Semionovo.
Gradually a distinct matryoshka type of Semionovo was developed. It was more decorative and symbolic than the matryoshka from Sergiev Posad. Semionovo's tradition goes back to the traditions of ancient Russia.
The painters of Semionovo used aniline dyes; they left quite a lot of unpainted space and then varnished dolls. First of all, light touches of the brush mark the outlines of the face, eyes, lines of the lips and apply colour to the cheeks. Then a skirt, an apron, a scarf on the matryoshka's head and hands are drawn.
It is the apron that is considered to be the main thing in painting of the famous and gifted artist Semionovo. A bright bouquet of flowers is next painted on the doll. It is easy to recognize the techniques of the old Russian masters. The early matryoshkas of Semionovo were more in the spirit of the old Russian painting traditions. The lines were more graphic and lighter. A typical Semionovo shape of a matryoshka is slender and has a fairly thin top which widens sharply into a rather thick bottom. Semionovo's matryoshki are famous for containing many pieces.
The matryoshka of Semionovo is famous for containing many pieces.
The biggest matryoshka contained 72 pieces; it was 1 m high. This unique doll was made in 1970 and was dedicated to birthday of a Soviet communist leader Lenin.
It costs 3000 roubles (it's worth saying that a popular Soviet car cost in that time 5,000 roubles). The doll was sent to exhibition in Japan.
In the 1980's artists from Semionovo developed new types of matryoshka dolls. Artist Serov designed a new matryoshka "Father Frost and Snegurotchka". This matryoshka was designed in such a way that children could learn to count: inside a big "mother" doll were10 smaller dolls. At this time the Chief Artist Sorokin created a couple of dolls "Russian Lad" and "Russian Beauty". Two od these Russian dolls were taken to the cosmic flight in 29 June 1982 by Russian astronauts and was presenteed as gifts to an international crew.
The Semionovo matryoshka doll has seen better days the difficult economic situation in Russia influences these crafts too: it's harder to buy raw materials. Fuel and electricity are more expensive. Under these conditions it is hard to create something new.,People produce omly simple goods for the small amounts of money that they earn. Such things as matryoshka dolls, wooden spoons, wooden tableware. This actually causes people to leave a factory and to work separately at home. It is hard in the beginning but new ideas, new types, even new goods can be born under such conditions because there is more room for creativity. It is hoped that Semionovo matryoshka doll will blossom again soon.
Other Styles of Matryoshka Dolls
Polkhovsky Maidan located SW of Nizhny Novgorod, is the birthplace and home of another style of matryoshka. The Polkhovka River in old times was wide and big, it was surrounded by forests. For the reason people choose this place to settle and make a new village. Now the Polkhovka become a small stream and the village has evolved into a center of crafts. The first matryoshka was made in Polkhovsky Maidan in 1930's, as other goods in that time the doll was made by poker work.
Typical Maidan Matryoshka Dolls
Wooden workmanship is an old tradition in Maidan. All toys were made on a turning lathe. These included samovars, birds, money-box, salt-cellars and apples. . The craftsmen of Polkhovsky Maidan like the craftsmen of Semionovo use aniline dyes. The matryoshkas were pasted over, brightly painted before being coated with varnish. The colors of the matryoshki of Polkhovsky Maidan are brighter and more expressive than the colors of the matryoshki of Semionovo, their ornaments are bigger as well. Green, blue, yellow, violet and crimson colors are used to contrast each other and thus setoff as well as compliment the designs. They are also used to make expressive and bright ornamentation. Richness of color is achieved by superimposing one layer of dye upon another.
Matryoshki of Polkhovsky Maidan are manufactured in the peasant-primitive style which resembles children's drawings. Usually they are a typical village beauty with knitted brows and a face framed in black locks of hair. These ringlets of hair are a genuine element of the local women's headdress.
Older women covered their hair with kokoshniks, young girls used ribbons in their tresses. Black drake's feathers were also stuck in their headdresses. The artists of Polkhovsky Maidan as the artists of Semionovo paid their special attention to floral ornamentation of the dolls' aprons. They ignored the other details of a matryoshka's costume.
Dog-roses with many petals are the main element of apron painting. This flower is traditionally considered to be the symbol of femininity, love and motherhood. This flower is a part of each matryoshka made and identifies it as a work of the Polkhovsky Maidan. Often this theme is developed and expamded as athe artist adds to the main rose its buds and branches.
Sergiev Posad Matryoshka Dolls
Sergiev Posad is another place where the "first" nesting doll was supposedly made by an artist Maliutin and a wood-turner Zviozdochkin. This old Russian town is located some 45 miles from Moscow. It has grown up around the famous Trinity-St.Sergius Monastery. It was in 1340 that the monk, Sergius, actually founded a small temple in the midst of the wild, thick forests. In time it has developed into the largest monastery of in all of Russia.
Arts and crafts flourished in the towns and villages which surrounding the monastery. Wooden toys known as "Trinity" toys became particularly popular. According to a legend, the first "Trinity" wooden toy was made by the Prior of the Monastery, Sergius Radonezhsky.
Sergiev Posad was and now has once again become a colorful, tarditional and truly Russian town. The Monastery lent a unique specialness to it. A huge marketplace in front of the Monastery was always full of different peoples, merchants, monks, pilgrims and craftsmen were always to be found there.Today the artists, suvenir sellers and the tourists make up the crowds there.
Artists made the first painted matryoshka dolls of Sergiev Posad just for fun. It is this reason why these dolls are so expressive and have won the admiration of adults and children everywhere who have seen them. In the initial period of matryoshka doll development specific attention was paid to faces of the matryoshka however the clothes were not painted in great detail. Such dolls depicted different characters and types: peasants, merchants and noblemen.
The faces of the early matryoshka dolls of Sergiev Posad were oval and strict. The heads of many matryoshkas were greatly enlarged and it is this reason why a face dominated a body. These dolls look primitive because of this disproportion but at the same time they are very expressive. The first political matryoshka doll, the prototype of famous "Gorbi doll", was born in that time. Matryoshkas like "German" because Germany was the political Governor of old time Ukraine which was a part of Russian Empire gave a grounding to the artists to design modern political dolls.
Sometimes matryoshka dolls portray a whole family with numerous children and members of the households. Some matryoshka dolls were devoted to historical themes. They described boyars (old Russia's freemen and minor noblemen), legendary heroes bogatyrs (warriors), some dolls were devoted to characters of fairy tales and characters taken from literarure.
The matryoshka of Sergiev Posad usually contained anywhere from 2 - 24 pieces. The most popular dolls consisted of 3, 8 and 12 pieces. In 1913 a 48-piece matryoshka doll made by N. Bulichev and was displayed at the Exhibition of Toys in St. Petersburg.
Development of matryoshka dolls depended greatly on a wood-turners' skill. Highly skilled masters turned matryoshka dolls with very thin sides, which was/is considered to be a special art of wood-turning. Actually painting was considered to be secondary. Professional artists who painted the first turned dolls did not treat it seriously enough. It was for them an entertainment. There are some matryoshkas-caricatures in the Museum Estate of Polenovo. On the other hand there were many independent workshops of Sergiev Posad where skilled artisans worked and they crated their own style of Russian matryoshka doll.
Folk craft-art tradition was extremely important in the development of the present Sergiev Posad-style. Due to the widespread folk culture, matryoshka dolls continued to exist even later, after the Russian-style developed by Russian professional artists was forgotten.
Icon painters of Sergiev Posad contributed a lot to matryoshka pictorial style. Anthropomorphism, the resemblance to a human being of the Russia "take apart" dolls was simply a continuation of ancient Russian art tradition. An artist focused mainly on the figure of a person, his or her face.
This tradition of Russian art originated in the Byzantine Empire, which had borrowed it from ancient Greek culture. The connection of certain early type of the matryoshk dolls of Sergiev Posad with the tradition of the local icon painting school is confirmed both stylistically and virtually. Along with the icons, matryoshka dolls were also painted the icon painting school of Sergiev Posad.
Initially matryoshka types were rather different: they portrayed both male and female characters. There are some ethnographic matryoshka dolls: Samoyed (Eskimo), Gypsy Woman, American Man, Turkish, Chinese, Lithuanians, and Tartar Family, Ukrainian and so on. Gradually a female character became the main type of matryoshkas. The tradition of making special matryoshka doll proportions, 1:2, that is the ratio between a matryoshka's width and height was developed.
In Ukraine matryoshki are made that are almost round. They depict a more rotund and seemingly more genial woman. In Ukraine these dolls are made in several areas of the country. Most notable are those from Kharkiv, Zhitomir and Poltava. Bright collors, use of intrictae detail in the ornamentation of the dolls combined with an older style of dress serve to mark and identify the Ukrainian matryoshki.
Krutetz and Merinovo are other places in Nizhnij Novgorod region producing Russian Matrjoshkas. There is less tradition and more experiment in them regarding ornament, shape and pattern.
The most northern of all Russian matrjoshkas is the one which come from Vjatka. It is also the" youngest "- they began producing nesting dolls in Vjatka only in 1930's. Being a typical northerner she is blue-eyed and shy. Its most distinctive feature is rye straw inlay stuck on wet lacquer.
In addition to all these well-known places where they make matryoshka dolls there exist others as well. For instance, a tiny and slim matrjoshka doll made in Tver with painting over poker work. There also exist crafts workshops in the Mari and the Mordovian Authonomous Republics of Russia, as well as in Ukraine and Belarus. All these matiyoshka dollss are marked by their national peculiarities
HIstorical Periods of The Matryoshka Dolls
History of matryoshka dolls must actually be divided into 3 periods:
1990's - Present
The 1st period gave us the original matryoshka and the development a lot of new types which were pui onto base of the modern matryoshkas. Blossoming of matryoshki types was interrupted by construction of socialism in the USSR. The Soviet Government paid much attention to construction of factories, which produced goods of people crafts. The main problem is in this industrialization. Hand-made goods can not be made in factories! Such craft-arts are just not mass production items. A very few matryoshki types were altered for factory production. These include the Semionovo type, Sergiev Posad type, Kirov (Viatka) type and some others.
Private making of matryoshki and production of other hand crafted things was actually forbidden in the USSR. Craftsmen had to work at the factories where the possibilities, neither to earn enough money for their labor nor to show their artistic abilities as the goods had to be simple enough for mass production.
There is a story of old craft-artist from Polkhovsky Maidan in the Soviet time. Those who did not work at the factory were not allowed to use home lathes for turning, electricity was “curtailed”. Use of foot-powered lathes became the only method of wood turning for these illicit artisans. Militia and representatives of power controlled roads and railway stations to prevent the smuggling of such goods to other regions of the country where such items could and would be sold. Despite this heavy-handedness people produced their own goods and brought them to different regions of the Soviet Union: Far East, North regions, South and Central Asia Republics.
It was nonethe less easier to work in the factories of Semionovo where many new types of wooden toys were created. These toys with the matryoshki among them, were exported to many countries of the world. This made them all look exactly the same with no indiviual character such the ones made by hand.
The same happened with Sergiev Posad matryoshki. In 1920's the matryoshka makers artel “Artisan-Artist” was renamed “The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army Artel” and thus it became toy factory #1 in 1928. The period of free work had ended. Some simple types of dolls were produced at the factory. It is necessary to say that there were some people who created and painted original matryoshka dolls but it was not typical. Such matryoshka were bought by private collectors and now are very valauble as well as rare.
In the beginning of 1990's whenthe old economic system was destroyed. Many artists and talented artisans gained the freedom for creation of new types of matryoshkas and other craft-arts.
During the Soviet times, many factories all over the country made nesting dolls. In this time of planned economy, someone from Gosplan decided that it would be nice to make as many matryoshka dolls as possible in order that each person on Earth could get his or her own matryoshka dool. This is why nesting dolls were made in Moldavia (South part of the USSR), in Caucus republics, in Bashkiria, Karelia and many other places. Nobody seemed interested in the fact that it was impossible to bring together the number of necessary tools and wood artisanship of people and their skills. Without the traditional individualism and art the matroyshka doll lost its charm and became an ordinary wooden toy, very primitive and very simple.
The only other place where the matryoshka dolls truly found a new home was Kirov. It was in this old city with deep roots and traditions of wooden article making. that the now known Kirov matryoshka doll has its own style and is still made a factory.
Modern and Exclusive Matryoshka
This section is devoted soley to the "exclusive" matryoshka dolls being made today. The difference between the artist-made Matryoshka and thousands of those "pretty girls with Samovars" which smile us in Arbat street and Izmailovo park markets. The comparison is that they differ from each another like collectable porcelain dolls from any product of "Ogoniok" trade-mark toys.
In Russia today, many artists and other skilled craft-artists make identical pieces. True there are some gifted artists who work just as hard at creating matryoshka dolls as at any other "solid" work of art. The majority of the exclusive Matryoshka doll artists are successful painters or graphic-artists educated by the best Russian Art-Schools. Some of these artists began to make matryoshka dolls many years ago in their youth. Even in this small craft they could not be false. Dolls made by them became real artistic paintings on wood and now appear in famous local galleries alongside pictures and sculptures. Some authors have a long list of customers awaiting for their lovely one-of-a-kind Matryoshka doll. These customers know that in buying these dolls they acquire not only a well-known Russian souvenir but the creation of a gifted artist, a true investment-art piece that also tells a story told step-by-step, from the "elder" doll to the smallest.
Artists often say that the special form and structure of the Matryoshka doll is the symbol of personality and the projection of Space to a soul. Its "simple-looking" form encourages an artist to tell the story of Motherhood, Love, or well-known fairy tales. Many artists turn to such topics as World History or Bible Stories. Not too long ago a series of dolls was introduced that depicted the American President, Bill Clinton, his wife his daughter, Monica Lewensky and the infamous cigar. Sports teams are popular as well. It is possible to commission private and individual pieces if you are willing to pay the price.
The Art of the Russian Matryoshka, Rett Ertl, Yakov Chitov and Rick Hibberd
Boulder, CO : Vernissage Press, Published: 2003 ISBN: 2002094629
Matryoshka: Russian Souvenir, L.N. Soloviova, Interbook Business. Moscow
Published: 1997 ISBN: 5891640163
Matryoshka / videotape / directed and edited by Kristin C. Eaton. 1994
Library of CongressC Control #: 95516490
© Donald R. Houston, PhD 2006-2011