About Matryoshka
Courtesy of Olga Litvina, editor: Maria Chulova
(translated from Russian by Tatyana Kostromskaya)

The widely spread opinion that matryoshka is an authentic Russian toy is unfortunately a mere myth. The first Russian matryoshka was turned and painted - according to a sample brought from Japan - in a Moscow toy workshop only in the 90s of the 19th century.

The Japanese original was manufactured with a great sense of humor. It consisted of a number of figurines stacking one inside the other and representing the Japanese Wiseman Fukuruma, a bold-headed old man with an oval-shaped head - the consequence of his deep meditations.

The first Russian matryoshka represented a group of children. The eight dolls that the set consisted of depicted children of different ages: from the eldest girl (the outmost doll) with a rooster to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The first matryoshkas - manufactured by "Children Education" cartel - even though they were made for children, cost a lot of money and were quite popular among adults.

The end of the 19th century brought with it a real "matryoshka boom". To satisfy the unexpected demand, new manufacturers emerged on the market. In less than a few years, almost the whole city of Sergiev Posad was painting matryoshkas. This city was the place that had both multitudes of experienced wood turners and the excellent raw material: birch and lime trees. The painting was done by family cartels, where even children and old people took part in the process.

As a rule, Russian matryoshkas depicted young ladies in Russian sarafans [peasant woman's dress] and shawls, holding baskets, flowers, bread-and-salt [traditional Russian sign of hospitality], etc. Matryoshkas gained considerable popularity abroad and in the beginning of the XXth century Russia started exporting the dolls in large quantities.

Matryoshka business turned out to be so profitable that a number of other matryoshka-making centers have appeared soon after the mass export has begun. The largest were based in the city of Semenov of Nizhnii Novgorod province and in the village of Polkhov-Maidan. Moreover, this was the time when first western counterfeits appeared on the market. A number of German companies, for example, were turning and painting their own nesting dolls, selling them as Russian matryoshkas.

Even though nowadays one can find matryoshkas of various unusual shapes - ball- or cone-shaped, in forms of boxes and bottle-holders - figurines imitating woman's body still remain the most popular ones. As a rule Sergiev Posad dolls are, however, wider and smaller than the Semenov-turned ones.

Besides manufacturing the so-popular-over-the-world matryoshkas depicting "Russian peasant women and young ladies", some cartels introduced historical (Kutuzov, Napoleon) and literature-based (i.e. depicting the characters of such Russian fairytales as "The Turnip", "Tsarevich Ivan", "The Goldfish") matryoshkas.

Speaking of the number of dolls in a set, the most widely spread and most popular doll has always been a five-piece matryoshka. However, one may often come across three-, seven-, ten- and fifteen-piece nesting dolls. The latter, by the way, is not the largest. In 1913 a forty-eight-piece matryoshka was made. Honestly, such a doll is a rarity. Its making requires a highly skilled wood turner; and mass production of such dolls is impossible.

Just as it was a hundred years ago, Sergiev Posad and Semenov matryoshka-painting is nowadays a family business as well. Factory-manufactured matryoshkas end up being quite uncompetitive and way too expensive. By the way, modern-day matryoshka-making is not so toxic. Pre-revolution (Bolshevik Revolution of 1917) nesting doll painters were painting in oils, Soviet factories used aniline dyes, but modern-day painters paint mostly in gouache, sometimes using watercolor and tempera. There also exist unpainted nesting dolls (poker-work and mordant are used in the making of such dolls).

Painting your own nesting doll is a challenging, laborious, but a rewarding work. Even if you simply try to copy an already-existing sample, you will inevitably end up with something different, a one of a kind piece of art.

The classic painting theme for matryoshkas is a flower theme. It is always helpful to try copy various flowers from Russian trays, cups and shawls. However, flowers are only one of the options. One may think up ornamental patterns himself/herself or find useful ideas in books, on lacquer boxes, hats, etc. What if you tried painting a nesting doll according to ornamental designs of other peoples: Asian, Arab or Nothern? Your doll would've been the only one of its kind.

Matryoshka Dolls
Courtesy of Eva Katkova of the Siberian Vernisage Company, Novosibirsk, Russia

Matryoshka seems very ancient. However, the ancient origins of matryoshka are nothing but a marketing trick for easy tourists. From the historical perspective, the dolls relatively recently in 1890's, came to Russia from Japan. Hard as it is to believe, matryoshka is as old as cinema.

They say that somebody brought to the Mamontovs, a renowned family of Russian industrialists and patrons of arts, a wooden carving of a Buddhist saint with a surprise. The doll that came from island of Honshu would break into two halves revealing a smaller one with the same trick, of which there were five.

As for matryoshka's ancestors, is it only certain that they come from a tea-house in Japan whose owner once marketed a new toy, twelve dolls one inside the other. The toy was doubly nicknamed: parti-colored Daruma is honor of the Japanese god of luck, and Shichifukujin after the seven Shintoist gods - family patrons.

Once in Russia, matryoshka first established itself in Moscow "Children's Education" for design and marketing of the so-called ethnographic dolls dressed in folk clothes of various regions of the Russian Empire. The idea was happily married to the Japanese form to give birth to what is to world-known today as a multiple wooden doll in a Russian folk dress.

The immigrant doll naturalized in the Russian soil, changing it's eastern narrow eyes for a wide stare, with roses in it's cheeks and golden curls of hair. Ten years later matryoshka made its appearance in Russia it was awarded a gold medal as a typically Russian toy at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900.

After the World exhibition of 1900 international orders swarmed to encourage opening of large workshops in Moscow's suburb of Sergiev Posad, a major centre of Russian icon painting. As a matter of division of labor, women would paint clothes and men faces since, according to the ecclesiastical rule, only men learned to paint countenances of the saints. This explains why motionless faces of early dolls from Sergiev Posad are so expressive.

After the revolution matryoshkas were ideologically purged. It was not just policemen, deacons and old-believers who were put on the black list but also sea-maids and forest trolls, something quite understandable from the point of view of the soviet regime. Of the entire variety only one species survived, a puff-sided wide-eyed lady with rosy cheeks. Production of dolls in the Soviet Union peaked at the time of 1980 Olympics when a total of 10 million sets were made. Of souvenirs bought by international travelers only the Bear, official symbol of the Olympics, was competitive.

Today a whole army of craftsmen produce dolls for sale as their fantasy and skill would suggest. From a few forms of traditional Russian matryoshka, one can always guess where the doll comes from knowing specific tricks of their manufacture.

Already early in the 20th century Sergiev Posad developed its own species later called Zagorsk by the name that the town adopted at the time of the Soviet regime. Dolls are painted heavily without leaving a single patch of pure wood. Their warm color palette - orange, light brown, yellow, red - inspires warmth and vitality. This hostess doll as it is often called will invariably hold something like a samovar or a basket.

In the 1920s matryoshka came to the fair at the Nizhni Novgorod and spread out to several craftsmen villages. The most famous dolls were made in Semyonovo. They were more brightly
colored than those of Zagorsk, with contrasting combinations of red, blue and yellow in their dress. Semyonovo sets are known for their prolificacy (15-18 dolls) of which the biggest (72-doll 1,5 m high and 0,75 m wide) was even mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records. This giantess was specifically commissioned to the Semyonovo factory as a memorable gift for the Japanese government.

Another manufacturing centre is the town of Vyatka (Kirov). In the 1960s the local matryoshka acquiring patches of straw. After rye straw is manually cut in the field, it is boiled in a soda solution to gain yellowish shade, cut and ironed, with decorative elements die-made as necessary.

The process of doll manufacture changed little from the last century, the best material being soft and easily workable linden. Trees are cut in April for juicy wood which is then freed of bark, the ends covered with the clay to avoid flaws. Before coming to the turner, blanks are patiently aged in the open air for two long years for the she shaft to dry to the core.

It takes a true professional to make one round blank through 15 operations using only a primitive set of chisels and knives. The blank is covered with starch glue to have an absolutely smooth surface for paints to apply evenly and avoid flowing. Since production of blanks ("whites" as they are called in slang) is a sophisticated and painstaking process, it is not surprising that every craftsman wants his own turner so that the doll perfectly falls within the size and shape of the pattern designed by its author.

Today shops abound in dolls designed exclusively for foreign guests. Characters of Disney animations compete with sets of Russian rulers, while faces of the saints with those of the hair Beatles. True connoisseurs want only an exclusive precious doll for themselves. Dolls may be commissioned: one American wanted from Sergiev Posad a set after Alice in Wonderland, a work that required several months to complete. Some collector's items follow the style of Rubens and Gainsborough, their cost going well beyond 3 or 4 thousand dollars. A traditional 30-doll set from Russia is displayed in New-York's Gallery of Modern Art. The largest private collection of more than 6 thousand sets of different schools including original pre-revolutionary ones belongs to Robert Brokop, an American.

The art of matryoshka, despite its Japanese origins, is surprisingly Russian. Attempts to paint collapsible dolls were made in Germany, France, and Japan itself. Chinese craftsmen even set up a large-scale production of dolls with all exactness of costume detail and painting methods. But the alien nature would instantly reveal itself, foreign dolls failing to win recognition.
Could it be that the unresolved mystery of matryoshka is in a short story told step by step, from the bigger doll to the smaller, with all intimacy and romance so peculiar of Russia?

Professional Secrets or How Nesting Dolls are Drawn
Based on the works of Svetlana Barchenkova
Translated by Tatyana Kostromskaya

All of us, people living in Russia, know firsthand what a wonderful souvenir-toy matryoshka is. Encyclopedias define it as:
1. (a) Russian toy in a form of a painted wooden doll, containing smaller dolls of the same shape inside. (b) One of such dolls.
2. Figurative sense: Plump, rosy, round-faced girl or lady, resembling such doll.
My first opinion of the matryoshka dolls formed when I was little child. That was when I first saw - in the widow of a shop - a wooden doll of an unusual shape, weirdly painted into three bright colors, with a symbolic picture of flowers on the doll's dress.

Basically, until very recently I simply could not understand why this weirdness is so popular both in Russia, and abroad. I couldn't understand until I saw professionally painted nesting dolls. They had nothing in common with those wretched dolls that I saw before; they were entirely different - airy and tender works of folk art. How could it be that on a standard wooden blank one could paint such a splendor?!

I will not tell of how a painter paints a matryoshka doll. (Even thought in the nearest future I do hope to find an artist that can tell of his/her work.) What I want do describe here are my own impressions, impressions having effect on you when you are watching a miracle performed on a wooden blank doll before your very eyes.

So, everything started with an order. The order was for nesting dolls with winter motifs: blue scarves on the heads of the dolls and winter landscapes on their bellies.

The artist I wanted drew similar things many times before, for - as everyone knows - retail matryoshkas are thought up according to what sells and not according to what one simply wants to draw. This was a typical case.

So, the work begun... It begun from working the blank doll with sandpaper. The process was not a fast one; yet it did not require much intellect. You can just sit and enjoy the nature, while your hands are sandpapering the matryoshka. The only thing to be concerned about is not working it too hard, not to make holes in it...

Now, when the blank doll is totally smooth, you can start painting on it... Nothing is simple here. First of all, you have to work on the background of the belly landscape. How to properly mix colors in such paintings you have to ask an artist. One thing I can tell you: the work on each landscape (which has to be very thorough) is an extremely laborious one, and not everyone can handle it. There are dozens of landscape drawing techniques when it comes to matryoshkas. Some include the employment of various brushes, others - cotton wool tampons or even a regular bandage (for hoar-frost drawing). Sometimes winter birds are drawn on matryoshka bellies as well.

Besides drawing a landscape, a painter paints matryoshka's face. As far as I understand, each painter draws the face the way he/she wants. The sample represented possesses big eyes and fluffy eyelashes.

Matryoshka's face is a story in itself. Normally, an artist paints a sweet-looking girl with light brown (other colors are possible) hair. Obviously, I am not discussing matryoshka dolls, depicting political leaders and/or other humorous characters. So, traditional tradition dolls, usually, posses blue eyes, Cupid's bow, gentle high color face - charm itself. After all, it is the image of "Russian beauty" that attracts to this 'souvenir-transformer' most of all.

Strange as it may seem, this image was created immediately on the blank doll, without any auxiliary tone put on it prior to the painting itself. The painter said that in the finished form - or after being lacquered - the doll's face would acquire a real, warm, body-color look. Eyebrows, lips and eyes are painted in gouache (but more often in watercolor) by a thin brush. High color on the cheeks of our doll has been achieved with a help of a small cotton wool tampon that helped apply previously dried gouache to the face of the doll. Finally, gentle highlights have been marked on the nose and the chin of our doll. This was done for the purpose of giving relief to the flat face of the blank doll.

As soon as the faces and the bellies of the dolls were ready, the work on the scarf - wrapping our work of art - has begun. First of all the main tone of the scarf was worked on. In our case, it was a blue one. Then the blue color of the fringe was taken care of.

As soon as everything dried - which happened very quickly (I'd like to note that nesting dolls do not stick in the work; most likely because the wood absorbs paint very well and it dries quickly) - the contours of the doll were set. This means the frame around the belly with landscapes (which looked like a window, leading into a different dimension), the fringe, the frame around the stand and the crown.

Matryoshka's crown is her kokoshnik [woman's head-dress in old Russia]. I believe, the most painstaking work is lying in wait for the artist here. Save the fact that the crown, as I see it, consists of a million of finest details, there is also a risk of a slightest error, tremble of hand or, for that matter, even a mosquito getting stuck in the paint, spoiling the whole work.

The scarf of this particular doll matryoshka doll was painted in Gzhel' flowers style: dark blue flowers with white or light contours. While the matryoshka was being painted, I noticed that had almost totally bold spots on the sides and on the back of the scarf (see the picture). When I had asked the artist why this is so, he answered that these places will look especially showy when the doll is coated with lacquer. They were much brighter that the background itself. The edge of every detail had an accurate contour. It was achieved through lines, patterns and lace imitation - extremely striking details.

Most of the work was completed. Now the artist had to give his matryoshka a bright, festive look. On this stage he used sparklets of various colors, mixed with paper glue, lacquer and whitewash. The inside of the flowers was brightened with paint mixed with sparklets, while the crown started shining like it was decorated with semi-precious stones, and the hair of matryoshka was covered by a whole diadem of sparklets.

So, the matryoshka doll was almost ready. The only thing missing was the lacquer coating. The paint on the doll wasn't coming smudged as it was, but the sparklets could fall off. I will not get into the process of lacquer coating, as, frankly, do not know myself how it is done.

Now, knowing everything (well, of course, a couple of tricks remained a secret!), we can fully understand and appreciate the laborious task set before an artist; especially, because he has to paint at least 10 of such dolls. Each of these dolls has a different landscape on its belly. The smallest doll is never taller that 1.5 cm (or 1/2 of an inch), sometimes being even smaller than that!

By the way, the smallest nesting dolls are being stuck on a needle or a thin metal stick - to ease the process of painting. To look at the process, one has to be a brave person, but, after all, your fingers do not hide the whole of the picture from you when you're painting in such a way.