RUSSIAN MATRYUSHKA NESTING DOLLS 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 mid 1700s. And yet, it is said a man named S. V. Malyvtin borrowed idea of "take apart" dolls from a Japanese toy maker, although Japanese claim first doll was created by a Russian monk on island of Honoshu, Japan. So even its inception is a mystery! The bright toy's introduction to world followed when a medal was awarded during Paris World Exhibition in 1900.
There is some controversy about name "Matryushka." Some linguists say origin of 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 Russian word for Mother - a whole different meaning. So nesting dolls represent both national motherland and actual motherhood and fertility; that's why they are traditionally painted like women, round figured females with babies inside. On other hand, idea of nesting dolls may have come from legendary idol called Jumala from 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 national toy and a favorite tourist souvenir. Designs constantly change and evolve to relfect times. For example, during Victorian era, to overcome Modernism art form present at turn of Century, crafts people painted dolls in pastel peasant colors and added country designs like a rooster or a loaf of bread in artful illustrations over costume.
The first fine-art Russian matryushkas were made in prestigious art center within walls of Sergei-Posan monastery, famous since 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 visitor's eyes. Within these grand buildings there exists a toy museum, opened in 1918 and filled with evolutionary examples of 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 traditional dolls, as well as, ones with exquisite icon paintings on sides. They even sell Disney and O.J. Simpson designs!
Today designs continue to be individualistic with each artist's imagination, adding historical, ethnic, fairy tale or animal patterns to dolls' decoration. Some American shops offer upward of 4000 different styles. Most of traditional designs come from villages in European part of Russia, around Moscow. Each style inherits its name from area it which it originated. Polkhovsky Maiden and Krutets in 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 pattern is sweetbrier, 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 dolls since 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 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 apron and shawl.
Many art centers disbanded after 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 technique artist has in mind, poker work (using a hot metal rod to burn patterns into wood. Nowadays they also use lasers), watercolors, or clear lacquer - each doll piece is hand-turned in as many as fifteen separate steps, smallest doll first. The logs are dried in open air for several years until they are ready to use. Only an expert can tell when logs are not too wet, not too dry. When prime, logs are cut into workpieces for dolls. The whole set has to be made out of same chunk of wood to insure that every piece of set will react in same way to changing temperature and climate conditions.