Thursday, March 3, 2011

Matryoshkas And Their Legends

The "Legend of Tsar Saltan" Matryoshka Family
Matryoshka, the nestled Russian doll, is perhaps the most famous Russian toy, a culture symbol and a phenomenon in the folk world art.  
The moniker Matryoshka comes from a female name Matryona (Matrëna), rooted in the Slavic word “mother” - mat’ (maть), and is associated with fertility and motherhood. That’s why the traditional Matryoshka dolls use the image of a full-bodied, strong, and cheerful mother on the outside with the likenesses of her numerous children painted on the smaller, inner pieces. Some Matryoshka sets consist of female-only dolls while others feature male figurines as well. Today, the image of a robust peasant matriarch is probably still the favorite, although Matryoshkas are painted in a variety of themes, including folk characters and even former Soviet leaders. 

The Rescued Swan Turns into a Princess
If you follow my collection here, you will see that every doll features a scene from a Russian fable, The Legend of Tsar Saltan. As the fable goes, a tsarina and her son, sealed in a barrel, are thrown into the seas by traitors, but the pair safely reach an island where the young prince builds his own state and finds his true love after rescuing a white swan who turns into a beautiful princess – and eventually reunites with his father. 

The first “official” nesting doll was born in the 1890s, in the Children's Education Workshop in the Abramtsevo estate near Moscow. Founded by a Russian patron of arts, Savva Mamontov, the workshop employed professional artists and talented craftsmen to produce and preserve peasant folk art. The original nested doll set was carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin, who also did the original design drawing.  However, it was not the first wooden doll ever produced. Thus, the origin of the Matryoshka doll is still unclear – and has a story of its own.

Supposedly, Abramtsevo Matryoshkas were inspired by a Japanese wooden doll brought to Russia from the island of Honshu in Japan. However, the Japanese claim their dolls were inspired by the work of a Russian monk, who created a wooden figure depicting a good-natured, bald old man thought to represent a Buddhist sage. Other sources say, there were seven Japanese dolls, although non-nestled, representing the Seven Lucky Gods. I must admit, in this particular case, I tend to think the origin of the painted wooden figurines belongs to Russia. Blessed with endless forests, the Slavic craftsman had been carving wooden toys, buckets, shoes, kitchen utensils and children’s toys for centuries. 

  The Adventures of the Tsarina and the Prince
Instead of the theological theme, the Abramtsevo craftsmen saw a folk leitmotif to the figurines. Their first doll was a girl named Matryoshka. She held a rooster and carried seven nestled figurines inside: six more girls, one boy, and a baby. In 1900, Savva Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the World Exhibition in Paris, and the toy earned a bronze medal. Soon after, Matryoshkas were being made in several places in Russia. Now, the tradition is over a hundred years old. 

The New Palace and the Charmed Swan
The biggest Matryoshka was made in 1970, contained 72 pieces and was 1 meter tall. It cost 3,000 rubles (while a popular Soviet car cost 5,000 rubles in the time) and was sent to an exhibition in Japan. A famous Matryoshka couple, "Russian Lad" and "Russian Beauty," was taken to the International Space Station Spaceship by Russian astronauts and given as gift to its international crew. The word Matryoshka is also used metaphorically, as a design paradigm, known as the "Matryoshka principle." 

1 comment:

  1. Lina, your Matryoshka collection is exquisite! The paintings with scenes from fables and legends are so appropriate for you! I have a couple of laquered boxes that were made in Russia and have folk designs on them, but no stories. They're beautiful, though, and I treasure them.