The concept of a take a part nesting doll was borrowed from a Japanese toy, which was brought from the island of Honshu and was further developed in Russia. That figure showed a sage by the name Futurama, a good natured bald-headed old man. Interestingly enough, the Japanese say that the first take a part doll on that island was made by a Russian monk.
The first nesting doll, however, was a town-girl, it was highly influenced by modernism, the major style of the period. A partial pastoral effect was achieved by tender pastel colors of her costume in a combination for instance with a rooster, a sickle, or a loaf of bread, the things particularly typical of a peasant household.
The most common kind of the tree used for nesting doll are birch, lime and sometimes pine. The trees chosen are cut in early spring, stripped of their bark leaving a few rings to prevent the wood cracking when dried. The logs are arranged outside in piles with a clearance between them to allow aeration. The logs are kept in the open air under the roof for a number of years. It is very important not to over dry the wood and dry it enough. Only an experienced carver can tell that the wood is ready.
The logs are then cut into pieces. Every one of them passes through as many as 15 turning operations before being fashioned into a doll.
Fashioning a doll on a turning lathe requires a high degree of skill, an ability to handle a beguilingly small set of tools - a knife and chisels of various length and shape. The first to be made are usually the smallest figures which cannot be taken apart. In the making of the next matrons the bottom part is fashioned first. Then it is processed to a necessary height and the top end is removed. After that the upper ring is made on which the top part of the matryohska will be fitted and then the lower part is made. Then the nesting doll's head is fashioned and enough wood is removed from within the matryoshka's head to slip on the upper ring. All these operations do not involve any measurements, and rely on intuition. The upper part of the matryoshka stuck on the lower part dries and tightens the ring so that it sits securely in place. The turning work done, the snow-white wooden doll is thoroughly cleaned, primed with starchy glue to make its surface ideally smooth and to prevent the paint making smudges and then dried. The matryoshka is now ready to be painted.
A new genre is always an experiment. That is why the first matryoshkas often being far from the canon had a very important quality which was diversity. Depending of the author's imagination the pattern themes were ethnographic, historical or fairy tale for the decoration of nesting dolls artists used a variety of devices: from poker-work followed up, by painting, ornament painting to pictorial methods of using color shades. In certain places authors left wood unpainted or used gilding and lacquer.
Ever since then there appeared crafts shops producing matryohskas. In 1904 the Russian craftsmen partnership opened a permanent selling outlet in Paris. It was then that the first foreign order for wooden dolls was made. In 1910 a crafts workshop named "Amateur Artist" was set up in Sergiev Posad. There beginning from 1913 they started producing nesting dolls. It helped to fulfill the orders from abroad which in the middle of 1910s came from 14 countries. In the 20's the majority of local handicraftsmen joined together in the workshop.
Undoubtedly, the Sergiev Posad or Zagorsk matryoshka as a type of nesting doll is connected with the traditions of local village crafts which have been flourishing for several centuries in the environs of the Troitsko-Sergiyev Monastery. Previously there existed the so-called troitsky toys also made of wood and painted. The patterns were fairly diverse-from smart peasant women to noble ladies and hussars. Skillful hereditary craftsmen /toy makers/ worked out the major types of painting of the Sergiev Posad matrjoshkas combining traditional and new ideas.
The matryoshka industry flourished in Sergiyev Posad. The list of products at the Sergiyev Zemstvo training workshop in 1911 included 21 types of nesting dolls, each with a distinctive decorative pattern. Besides they differed in sizes and had different amount of nests.
Another well known type is the Semenov nesting doll. It got its name after the town of Semenov in which there also existed an ancient tradition of a turnery toy. The thick, often impenetrable forests in the Volga area had over the centuries given refuge to Old Believers persecuted by Patriarch Nikon, the Streltzi(soldiers in regular army in Russia of the 16-17th centuries) during the time of Peter the Great and run away serfs.
The old Russian ornamental art was well known in these parts and was applied to decorate various items. This is the birth place of the famous Khokhloma painting whose ornamental drawings call back to the Old Russia culture.
The Khokhloma painting preserves the free brushwork which was a feature of old Russian ornament and which contributed to a diversity of composition. The Semyonov matryoshka tradition owes much to the proximity of the Khokhloma center.
Toys were cut from wood in Semyonov from time immemorial. These took the shape of buckets, apples, pears, carafes, etc. Bright decorations were applied with a brush made from the local grass belous. The pattern consisted of alternating red and green stripes and covered with light varnish. Painted nesting dolls trace their origin to the time when the son of the famous toy maker Averyan Vagin from the village of Merinovo, 5 miles from Semyonov, brought a wooden bell shape doll made in Sergiyev Posad from a fair in Nizhni Novgorod. It was painted with light green vegetable paint (glaze) and it portrayed a Russian agricultural worker muzhik with a painted beard and moustache. The doll was cut in half, like Easter Eggs, and this gave rise to a prototype of the future Semyonov matryoshka. The early dolls were painted with Fuchsine ( a red aniline dye), then coated with glue which resulted in a darkish hue of the final pattern. Some of the first interesting toys came from the Vagin workshop, for instance, a bald-headed mushik with a beard and whiskers and stout mushik in a hat and thick overcoat.
Gradually a distinct Semyonov type of matryoshka emerged which is more decorative and symbolic than the Sergiyev Posad matryoshka. The Semyonov doll is not a character of the modern life. Rather, it goes back to the floral ornament of Old Russia. It is painted in aniline dyes with lots of space left blank and then varnished. First, light touches of the brush make the outlines of the face, eyes, the lines of the lips and apply color to the cheeks. Then a kerchief is drawn on the matryoshka's head, a skirt and apron and the hands. The focal part of the composition in the Semyonov doll is the apron which features bright bouquet of flowers. It is in the way the bouquet is drawn that the decorative techniques of Old Russia can be discerned. Early Semyonov dolls were more in the spirit of Old Russia decorations and the lines were lighter and more graphic. Over the time the bouquet was suffused with the sap of the grass, and became more dense, colorful and graphic, producing an effect of embroidery.
Besides the Semyonov craftsmen paint ornaments over pure wood without the background painting. They only make the edge of an apron or shawl stand out against the background. Hence part of wood is left unpainted, but lacquered. The major component of the ornament is an apron, the major color is red. The shawl and the Sarafan add two more traditional colours-yellow and dark blue. Unlike the short Sergiev Posad matryoshka, the Semyonov one is taller and slimmer. The top widens sharply into a thick bottom. The famous Semyonov nesting doll is also remarkable for containing many pieces (15-18 varicolored dolls). Semyonov also claims the credit for the biggest doll ever made - 72 pieces, 20 inches in diameter and 40 inches high.The Semyonov Souvenir factory is one of the biggest in Russia.
Also in Nizhni Novgorod province there is another place called Polhovskij Maidan famous for its turnery wooden toys. Unlike the Sergiev Posad matryoshkas which were characters from everyday life, the Semeynov nesting dolls which followed the ornamental tradition of Old Russia, the Polhovsky Maidan matryoshka is a specimen of primitive peasant art reminiscent of children's drawings.
Wood workmanship was an old tradition in the south west of the Nizhni Novgorod Region. Many of the toys were made on a turning lathe. They included samovars, birds, piggy banks, salt-cellars. It is not surprising that, after Semyonov, the matryoshka appeared in this area. The early nesting dolls, like the Sergiev Posad ones, featured poker work, but then the local craftsmen took to decorating wooden dolls with floral ornaments. Like the craftsmen in Semyonov, they used aniline dyes. The matryoshkas were pasted over, brightly painted before being coated with varnish.
The colors of Polhovsky Maidan nesting dolls are more aggressive and vigorous. Green, blue, yellow, violet and crimson colors contrast with each other conferring a special vitality on the items. Richness of color is achieved by superimposing one layer of dye on another. The decorations are larger than on the Semyonov doll.
The matryoshka of Polhovsky Maidan is typically a village belle with knitted brows and a face framed in black locks. The ringlets of hair are a genuine element of local women's headgear. The women stuck their hair under the kokoshnik, the maids under ribbons and in their head dress they stuck black drake's feathers curled like locks. The artists favor a floral design on the apron and omit all other costume details. The main element in the Polchovsky Maidan nesting dolls is a dog-rose with many petals. The flower has always been considered to be a symbol of femininity, love and motherhood. This nothern rose is a hallmark of Polchovsky Maidan compositions. The motif is often elaborated by the addition of rose buds on branches.
Krutetz and Merinovo are other places in Nizhni Novgorod region producing Russian Matryoshkas. There is less tradition and more experiment in them as regards to the ornament, shape and pattern.
The northerest of all Russian matryoshkas is the one which comes from Vyatka. It is also the youngest- they began producing nesting dolls in Vyatka only in the 30s. Being a typical northerner she is blue-eyed and shy. Its most distinctive feature is rye straw inlay stuck on wet lacquer.
Apart from these well known places where they make matryoshkas there are other places as well. For instance, a tiny and slim matryoshka made in Tver with painting over poker work. There are also Russian crafts workshops in the Mari and Mordovia, as well as in Ukraine and Belarus. All these matryoshkas are marked by their national peculiarities.
The evolution of matryoshkas is interesting. From toys they gradually became a Russian traditional souvenir. Its production started as an individual craftsmanship and has turned into an industrial output. In the initial period of its development matryoshka became simpler: they were only few patterns used, the ornament became poorer, the form - crude. By the beginning of the 80's alongside the industrial output there appeared unique exhibition samples. It might be connected with the setting up of the Institute of the Toy in Sergiev Posad with its research and art laboratory. Genuine craftsmen who felt themselves uncomfortable in the specific atmosphere of mass production were greatly encouraged by the growing market. Matryoshka, which had long been a symbol of political stability of Russia, its aesthetical constant was suddenly identified with the changes in the tenor of life in Russia. As if it responded to these changes and had an impulse for its development.
Demand to a great extent determined supply. New stimulus, both artistic and material made old craftsmen enrich ornaments and the techniques of painting and which is more important attracted a new galaxy of distinctive artists. The best of them reached the highest individuality and originality in their work. It is symbolic that the turn of the century is traditionally a time of summing up. It is an anthology of the most significant traits in every genre. Authors remembered the former variety of themes, the richness of ornaments: they also remembered that matrjoshka can not only be a toy. After having passed the stage of accumulation the genre has grown mature.
The customer has also changed. The brilliant individual manner of the best craftsmen who did not work for the average buyer retained in the memory. There appeared collectors and connoisseurs of definite styles which made some of the authors and the genre itself close to real art. We strongly believe that in the future we will read passionate and profound essays about the art of designing and making matrjoshkas as about the art of painting in general. The authors whose names became famous have gone a traditional way in their artist growth. They began to receiving professional training at art schools, add their knowledge of the history and traditions of Russian crafts, the history of art in general. Their individuality, sense of humor, their own experience are reflected in their work and highly individual.
In the first place let's mention the graduates of the Abramtsevo Art Colony named after Viktor Vasnetsov. The geography and history of the place where the art school is situated makes every student devote his life to art. Nearby there is a country estate of Savva Mamontov turned into a museum after his death. The art school appeared from its craft shops. At the end of the 19th century Abramtsevo was the Russian art Mecca. The famous Russian artists Viktor Vasnetsov, Vasiliy Polenov, Michael Vrubel and Valentin Serov worked there. The museum exhibits, the nature and the creative spirit of the place defined a vast range of the students' interests and a high level of artistic aspirations. Not far from Abramtsevo there is already mentioned above Sergiev Posad with its Crafts Museum and magnificent architecture of Troitsko-Sergiev Monastery. This atmosphere attracted to the art school creative and skillful teachers. The teachers cultivate a real artistic taste in the student, give assistance in their first steps to mastership. Some of the teachers are former students of the same school.
Graduates of this school make nesting dolls which are highly professional and original, characterized by good taste and a variety of themes. The techniques used are also diverse. We come across dab painting combined with mastery drawing as well as quite a variety of artistic devices - from icon painting to experiments in the taste of Kazimir Malevich. Some authors prefer the violent uproar of the Russian cheap popular print with its cunning cheerfulness but they raise it to real art.
The painting of matryoshkas in its period of renaissance awoke the creative potential of various artists. There are graduates of the Ryazan School of Art, Moscow Architecture Institute as well as other art schools all over the country. Their geography is diverse as well as the themes used. Such artists as Petrov, Simouchina, Korchougova, Brysina, Nikitenko, Bochegova, Manohin, Soulyagin, Ovchinnikov, Mitrochin, Antonov in between dozens of others constitute the cream of matryoshkas authors.
Russian epos as a source of themes is very popular with matryoshka makers now. Sometimes the resort to the Palech traditions, though initially Palech is an icon painting school characterized by very strict rules. If some authors have their own somewhat ironical look on certain epical themes they tackle them with in their own way. The same goes for Russian fairy tale, though, classical interpretations seem to prevail.
Sometimes matryoshkas have ornaments based on plots of popular European fairy tales, even modern ones. Have a look at very fine ornaments based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Mary Pop pins. The authors seem to have put part of their own childhood in them with a sincere belief in miracles and genuine love for these characters.
Russian history has received a reflection in the authors' matryoshka. In the ornaments we come across Russian tsars and great Russian writers as well as the characters from the fairy tales, bilinis and other folk tales. Pushkin's famous poem "The poet and the Tsar" has found its specific reflection here. An interest to Russian history presupposes an interest in the mode of life, morals and manners of the past centuries as well as present day customs and traditions. Among the ornament themes there are scenes of folk outdoor fetes, fairs, a classical Russian large family, affecting relationship of children and animals. There are also merchant and high life motifs, funny rendezvous. Here we find every living thing as long as we are alive.
Tightly linked with the historical theme is the religious nesting doll. Matryoshkas with icon painting ornaments have taken their worth place among the authors' works. The most popular themes are borrowed from the orthodox icons - Trinity, Our Lady with the Infant. Quite a number of authors develop the themes of the orthodox holidays such as Annunciation, Ascension of Jesus and Christmas.
Present day authors of matryoshkas also make use to the themes of Russian and European paintings, landscape painting and still life. There are serious grounds therefore to consider the art of making matryoshkas as a genre of art in general.
Sources: Yelena Phillipova. Russian Matrjoshka. Larissa Soloviova, Marina Marder. Russian Matryoshka.