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A Puzzle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma!

by Joan Bramsch

Photographs by Lynne Payne,
showing some of her 60-set nesting doll collection

Matryushkas Dolls have been created by Russian craftspersons for hundreds of years, at least back to the mid 1700s. And yet, it is said a man named S. V. Malyvtin borrowed the idea of the "take apart" dolls from a Japanese toy maker, although the Japanese claim the first doll was created by a Russian monk on the island of Honoshu, Japan. So even its inception is a mystery! The bright toy's introduction to the world followed when a medal was awarded during the Paris World Exhibition in 1900.

There is some controversy about the name "Matryushka." Some linguists say the origin of the word goes back to an old-fashion name Matriona, common among peasantry. The first four letters of matryushka - "Matr" - has Latin roots, but also comes from the Russian word for Mother - a whole different meaning. So the nesting dolls represent both the national motherland and actual motherhood and fertility; that's why they are traditionally painted like women, round figured females with babies inside. On the other hand, the idea of nesting dolls may have come from the legendary idol called Jumala from the Ural Mountains. It was made of gold, and was hollowed out to hold three smaller idol figures.

The present day nesting doll concept continues to be popular in Russia after years of being the national toy and a favorite tourist souvenir. Designs constantly change and evolve to relfect the times. For example, during the Victorian era, to overcome the Modernism art form present at the turn of the Century, the crafts people painted the dolls in pastel peasant colors and added country designs like a rooster or a loaf of bread in artful illustrations over the costume.

The first fine-art Russian matryushkas were made in the prestigious art center within the walls of the Sergei-Posan monastery, famous since the 14th Century for its art, in Zagorsk, 50 miles north of Moscow. These nesting dolls are highly professional and original, created in good taste and a variety of themes. The techniques used are also diverse - from dab painting to other artistic devices like icon painting. The gilded domed monastery complex is still a feast for the visitor's eyes. Within these grand buildings there exists a toy museum, opened in 1918 and filled with evolutionary examples of the nesting doll, from peasant women to noble ladies and hussars. Nearby, vendors in an open market sell a wide variety of matryushkas to tourists and natives alike. Merchants offer the traditional dolls, as well as, ones with exquisite icon paintings on the sides. They even sell Disney and O.J. Simpson designs!

Today the designs continue to be individualistic with each artist's imagination, adding historical, ethnic, fairy tale or animal patterns to the dolls' decoration. Some American shops offer upward of 4000 different styles. Most of the traditional designs come from villages in the European part of Russia, around Moscow. Each style inherits its name from the area it which it originated. Polkhovsky Maiden and Krutets in the Nizhni Novgorod region doll designs are more massive and less graceful with larger patterns than other models. They use many contrasting colors - blue, green, yellow, crimson, even purple. The typical detail in the pattern is sweetbrier, the so-called northern rose, painted both as an open flower and a bud. The northern most village making matryushkas is Vjatka. They've only been producing the dolls since the 1930s. Their dolls are typically northern characterized - large blue-eyes and decidedly shy. Its most distinctive feature is rye straw inlay stuck on wet lacquer.

The Semjonov village art school characterizes their matryushka dolls, which are taller and slimmer than the short Sergiev Posad doll, by fine and specific graphic techniques which turn bright floral designs into elegant ones. This technique produces an embroidery lace effect around the apron and shawl.

Many art centers disbanded after the fall of communism and only individual artists or small groups work in other locations. Matryushkas are made from aged linden, birch or lime wood - depending on the technique the artist has in mind, poker work (using a hot metal rod to burn patterns into the wood. Nowadays they also use lasers), watercolors, or clear lacquer - each doll piece is hand-turned in as many as fifteen separate steps, the smallest doll first. The logs are dried in the open air for several years until they are ready to use. Only an expert can tell when the logs are not too wet, not too dry. When prime, the logs are cut into workpieces for the dolls. The whole set has to be made out of the same chunk of wood to insure that every piece of the set will react in the same way to changing temperature and climate conditions.

This condition imposes severe restrictions on the artist because that individual person assumes complete responsibility over every piece and every part of the process. If s/he makes one mistake, a set can be ruined, even if it's almost finished, which could have taken months of work. And, indeed, some of the more complex dolls are very collectible because the artist can only make a few in a year's time! Generally speaking, matryushkas can contain from three to thirty pieces in a set that may take from five days to 18 months of work to complete. Prices range from $10US to more than $1200US.

To create matryushkas the artisan requires only a small set of tools; this remains unchanged today. No measurements are taken, other than the intuitive calculations of the artist's well-trained eyes, and yet, they all fit perfectly inside the other. Next an artist begins the long process of painting and lacquering the seemingly endless doll parts. The inside surfaces remain natural wood, and the mating edges of each doll are treated with heat to harden the surface and make assembly easier. When completed the nesting doll is signed by the artist.

Religious themes were considered very desirable for the matryushkas until the Romanov royal court was overthrown and the country fell to communism. After that, in addition to the peasant mother dolls, and to replace the 'missing' religious icon dolls, political leaders, literary giants and sylvan scenes were usually incorporated into the designs. Of course, today golden haloed religious icons are again created upon nesting dolls. Matryushkas range in size from 3/16 inch miniatures up to giants of four-feet or more. Most have three to ten pieces, but some unique examples have as many as forty nesting dolls, one within the other. Modern day nesting dolls come in a great variety. Art dolls are the typical, traditional floral matryushkas, each a work of an individual artist. They seem to boast an endless variety of colors and patterns, some more complicated than others. They are created with a main color theme - red, green or blue - and the face painting uses the light color of the natural wood along with delicate paint and lacquer for a realistic look.

The floral patterns and colors are consistent between each doll in a set; even the smallest doll has a face (though you may have to use a strong magnifying glass to see it!). Caricature dolls make light of an often dark world and include communist leaders, KGB agents, sports figures, even US presidents. Fairy Tale & Scenic dolls are special art dolls. Each nesting doll illustrates a different scene, telling the whole story of a single Russian fairy tale. Today they even create dolls about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins. The scenic dolls carry beautiful landscapes of Russian parks or landmarks like palaces, official buildings, historic sites and museums. Religious Icon dolls' most popular themes seem to be the orthodox icons - the Trinity, and Our Lady with the Infant Jesus. Many artists develop themes celebrating orthodox holidays too, such as the Annunciation, Ascension and Christmas. Art Masterpiece dolls celebrate the world's art treasures by depicting a different masterpiece by a certain master on each doll.

Russian Writers dolls show the fine-art likeness of the authors of great Russian literature. On the back of each doll is a landscape described in that particular Russian novel. Studying matryushkas is always interesting and instructive. Gathering a collection and learning the backgrounds of the art work provides information about the history of Russian national costume, and Russian political history, art, literature, architecture and music. The complexity of matryushka design, from long before the Victorian age to present day, lends itself to more dedicated collectors and connoisseurs of definite styles. These collectibles will continue to grow and become more desirable now that the Iron Curtain has fallen and different examples of this type Russian art has become more readily available. With reasonable care the matryushka can be handed down through family generations, an heirloom art piece. That is, unless you're more interested in Russian Papier-Mache lacquer boxes costing between $150 to $20,000. But that's another story. Happy Collecting!

About the Author

JOAN BRAMSCH is a family person, educator, writer and E-publisher. Her articles appear internationally in print and online. Six of her best-selling adult novels - near one million copies - have worldwide distribution. Her
Empowered Parenting Ezine serves 1000 parents around the globe.
http://www.JoanBramsch.com mailto:hijoan@joanbramsch.com


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