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Russian Matryoshka

The matryoshka is the most famous Russian souvenir which is popular with everyone, it is considered to be a phenomenon in the world culture. This idea is recognised not only by connoisseurs of the language, history and culture of this country but also by those who just begin their acquaintance with Russia. Matryoshka has become sort of a formula of a cultural phenomenon which is unique and has a meaning of its own.

It is hard to imagine now that only about one hundred years ago matryoshka has not existed at all. The first Russian matryoshka appeared only at the end of the 19th century. It was greatly acclaimed as one of the all-embracing image of Russia, symbol of Russian folk art.

The end of the 19th century in Russia was a period of great economic and cultural development, a period of rising national identity. It was the time of great interest in Russian culture generally and particularly in Russian art. A new artistic trend known as 'Russian style' appeared. Such artists as V. M. Vasnetsov, K. A. Somov, M. A. Vrubel, N. K. Rerih, V. A. Serov, F. A. Maliavin, K. A. Korovin, S. V. Maliutin were possessed by the idea of creation of a new style where Russian national traditions would revive. They understood that it was necessary to find unity and harmony of the past and present in art and life. Due to their efforts at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century artistic creative units started to spring up. They can be called spiritual and cultural centres of Russia.

Abramtsevo artistic unit of S. I. Mamontov was part of this cultural trend of the development and revival of Russian traditional national art. S. I. Mamontov (1841 -1918) belonged to the famous merchant family, he was an industrialist and a patron of the arts. Mamontov was one ofand art collecting. Peasant toys were in their collection of folk art. Special attention was paid to the revival and development of folk peasant toys.

That was a great merit of the family of Anatoly Ivanovich Mamontov (1839-1905), the brother of S. I. Mamontov. This family owned workshop 'Children's Education' where various toys for children were made and sold. So-called ethnographic dolls dressed in folk festive costumes of inhabitants of various Russian regions (gubernias and uezds) and art collecting. Peasant toys were in their collection of folk art. Special attention was paid to the revival and development of folk peasant toys.

A. I. Mamontov, a publisher, translator and owner of a printing-house, collector of Russian paintings as well as his brother S. I. Mamontov, was a remarkable and active person, who was always surrounded by professional artists, artisans and folk craftsmen. A. I. Mamontov offered jobs in his studio to highly qualified creative toy makers who had initiative and fantasy. There were various samples of toys from different countries in the workshop to broaden toy makers outlook and to develop their creative fantasy. Oriental art and Japanese fine and applied art in particular was very fashionable at that time.

Thus, a famous predecessor and prototype of Russian matryoshka was brought to Russia from the Island of Honshu. It was a figurine of a good-natured bold headed old man, Buddhist sage by the name of Fukuruma. The doll contained some other figurines nestled inside one another. There was a stamp on the figurine's butt-end: made in Japan. By the way the Japanese claimed that the first doll of such a type on the Island of Honshu was made by unknown Russian monk. Now the Fukuruma figurine is kept in the Artistic Pedagogical Museum of Toys (APMT) in Sergiev Posad. The first Russian matryoshka also has a stamp: 'Children's Education' workshop.

The legendary matryoshka was made in the workshop of A. I. Mamontov. The hereditary toy maker, Vassiliy Petrovich Zviozdochkin was entrusted to turn this toy. The first samples of matryoshkas were painted by S. V. Maliutin. At that time he also illustrated books for children. That's why illustrations and the first samples of matryoshkas have a lot in common.

Perhaps, S. V. Maliutin and V. P. Zviozdochkin didn't think that the first Russian wooden doll within smaller dolls made by them would be very popular all over the world. They didn't think that their matryoshka would be a symbol of some magic secret and mysterious Russian soul.The makers of the first Russian matryoshka were really talented and unique people. When great Rilke visited Russia at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, he noted that ancient crafts still existed in Russia: artistic embroidery on towels and clothes or carved wooden items. S. V. Maliutin was the best connoisseur of Russian folk art. Being an artist he used the colours and the style of ancient Russian folk art in his own work. S. V. Maliutin belonged to the old Russian merchants family, his experience and knowledge of Russian ancient and folk arts came not only from archaeological and ethnographic sources. Due to his talent and intuition he was the first of the artists who united folk and professional art. His matryoshka was a light, elegant, spontaneous figurine of a round faced peasant young girl dressed in colorful scarf, an embroidered shirt, sarafan (Russian national costume) and apron. She was holding a black rooster in her hands.

Russian wooden dolls within smaller dolls were called matryoshka. In provincial Russia before the Revolution the name Matryona o Matriyosha was a very popular female name. It was derived from the Latin root 'mater' which means 'mother'. This name was associated with the image of a mother of a big family who was very healthy and had a portly figure. Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to describe brightly painted wooden dolls made in such a way that they could be taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

Even now matryoshka is considered to be a symbol of motherhood and fertility. A mother doll with numerous dolls- children perfectly expresses the oldest symbol of human culture.

The first Russian matryoshka turned by Vassily Zviozdochkin and painted by Sergey Maliutin contained 8 pieces: a girl with a black rooster was followed by a boy and then by a girl again and so on. All figurines were different from each other, the last one was a figurine of a baby wrapped in diaper.

It was quite easy for Russian craftsmen who had had a considerable experience in turning wooden objects which fitted inside each other (for example, Easter eggs) to work out the matryoshka making technology. The basic technique of matryoshka making remains unchanged. As a rule matryoshkas are made from lime, birch, alder and aspen. Lime is the most abundant material. The trees chosen to manufacture matryoshkas are cut down at the beginning of Spring, usually in April when the trees are full of sap. The felled trees are stripped of their bark leaving a few rings to prevent the wood from cracking. The logs prepared in this way with their butt-ends smeared over are arranged in piles with a clearance between them to allow aeration.

The logs are kept in the open air for two years. Only an experience master can tell when the material is ready. Then the logs are cut into workpieces for matryoshkas. Every workpiece can be turned as many as 15 times before the matryoshka will be ready. Making a doll on a turning lathe requires high skills , an ability to work with a beguilingly small set of tools - a knife and chisels of various length and shape. The smallest figurine which cannot be taken apart usually is made first. The bottom part of the next figurine which can be taken apart is turned first. Then a workpiece is turned first. Then a workpiece is turned to reach the necessary size and the top end is removed. Then the ring is made to fit on it the upper part of the matryoshka and then its lower part can be made. Then the matryoshka’s head is turned and the necessary amount of 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 only on intuition and require high professional skills.

The upper part of the matryoshka is stuck on to its lower part, dries and tightens the ring so it sits securely in place. When the turning work is over, a snow white-doll is thoroughly cleaned, primed with starchy glue to make the surface ideally smooth and to prevent the paint making smudges and then dried. Now it is ready to be painted. The first Russian matryoshka was poked and painted with gouache and covered with varnish by S. V. Maliutin.

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