The charm of matrioshkas

Few Russian crafts reached the West before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Mother Russia, like a sleeping bear, guarded her secrets well. Today’s global market, however, now brings its treasures to our very doorstep, wherever that may be.

Since Russia is blessed with vast forests, wood that is cheap and close at hand has traditionally been used for both utilitarian and craft needs. Peasants who ate from hand carved wooden plates probably spent the long Russian winters carving wooden playthings for their children and grandchildren. mat7 AT 2-27.jpgRussia’s popular wooden nesting dolls, called matrioshkas, however, are barely a century old.

Matrioshkas, nesting Russian dolls, have been popular collectibles for more than a century. American collectors have also discovered their charms, snapping them up at shows and shops.

The word matrioshka is a traditional Russian diminutive for “mother.” Like mothers, these rotund female figures, when separated into halves, “give birth” to daughters who “give birth” to progressively smaller versions of themselves. Modern matrioshkas typically conceal between three and 12 “daughters.” Some collector’s items, amazingly, conceal more than a thousand. Some “daughters” are exact replicas of their “mothers,” but not all. Since they are hand painted, their clothes, even in a single set, may vary in color or pattern. Or they may bear varied symbols of Russian life like loaves of bread, roosters, bowls of salt, or even clusters of beets.

mat4 AT 2-27.jpgTrue, Russian artisans had long carved nested apples and Easter eggs out of wood, but the first matrioshka doll, evidently, was not home grown at all, but inspired by an unusual Japanese nesting doll displayed at an 1896 art exhibit. Soon after, when a national movement rose to preserve and develop traditional Russian folk art, widespread matrioshka production, which incorporates traditional materials with artistic skills and designs, began in earnest.

How are matrioshkas, with their thin, interlocking circular partitions, fashioned? Each matrioshka set, whether turned on a lathe or hand carved, is shaped from a single block of air-seasoned wood, generally lime, alder, aspen or birch. That way all their components have identical moisture, expansion, and contraction levels, all requirements for accurate fits.

After the shaped sets are hand oiled, primed, and dried, artisans, drawing on their familiarity with the wood and their knowledge of traditional motifs, choose designs. When their designs, whether executed in tempura, gouache, watercolor, oil, or gold leaf paint, are completed, the artists lacquer their works many times over, bringing them to an appealing sheen.
Matrioshkas come in a variety of styles. The earliest ones, those from the monastery town Sergiev Posad, feature oval, outsized faces of peasants, merchants, and noblemen, with scant attention paid to their clothing.

Since they are painted with gouache, then varnished, some say they resemble traditional Russian religious icons. Semionovo matrioshkas, considered more decorative and symbolic than Sergiev Posads, are lightly painted, leaving large areas blank. The women they portray wear traditional Russian attire, skirts, shawls, scarves, and, especially, sarafans. These matrioshkas, which often feature bouquets of flowers, typically have slender top halves which descend into wider bottoms. Polkholvsky Maidan matrioshkas resemble children’s dolls, with rich, brightly colored simplistic features framed by black ringlets. Generally shinier than the Semionovos, many feature flower designs.

Today’s matrioshkas, like today’s rural Russian women, often carry baskets, bouquets of flowers, scythes, or water buckets. They still sport traditional shawls, scarves, embroidered blouses, and voluminous aprons. Indeed, artists often adorn these items of clothing with ornate motifs inspired by traditional lacework or embroidery patterns.

Some matrioshkas follow historic themes, illustrating tsars, warriors, or members of the Russian aristocracy. Others portray typical characters like bearded grandfathers, horsemen, peasants, or, nostalgically, offer typical wintry sleigh scenes. With a nod toward Russia’s rich literary heritage, some matrioshkas illustrate characters immortalized in the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, or Pushkin. Matrioshkas embellished with romanticized figures from Russian fairy tales, like Masha and the Three Bears and the Snow Queen, are quite popular. Father Christmas matrioshkas, too, revealing a bevy of rosy-cheeked wives and merry Christmas elves tucked inside their rotund bellies, grace many an armoire.

Russians also purchase Matrioshkas as souvenirs. What better way to remember that summer on the shores of the Black Sea, or Winter Palace and Kremlin tours than collecting matrioshkas depicting those famed Odessa, St. Petersburg and Moscow tourist sites?

In recent years, matrioshka artists, with an eye toward international marketing, have borrowed images that reflect today’s fast-paced, global culture. Many are aimed toward children, since matrioshkas, which are actually three-dimensional puzzles, are playthings par excellence. They not only foster the imagination, but also promote fine motor skills, and encourage organization by size, shape, and color.

Collectors can purchase modern matrioshkas, those created by the thousands with standard adornments, for just a couple of dollars, but genuine Russian-made, signed sets, those boasting unusual subjects and exquisitely wrought designs, can command hundreds of dollars.

The Russians, a decidedly romantic people, often wax eloquent when they discuss their national culture. Their beloved matrioshkas play a starring role. Mikhail Terletski, based in St. Petersburg, explains. “We can see dignity and humility, power and hope for the future, deep sorrow and boundless hilarity in Russian painted nesting dolls… They are both sculpture and painting, the image and soul of Russia.”

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