Nesting with the Dolls

This is one of my favorite things, besides the obvious ones, of bags and shoes (sigh!).. Matryoshka doll.



Originated back in Abramtsevo estate Moscow in the year of 1890, it was born in a children’s education workshop salon. The owner of Abramtsevo was Sava Mamontov – an industrialist and a patron of the arts.  The end of 19th century in Russia was a time of great economic and cultural development.  Mamontov was one of the first who patronized artist who were possessed by the idea of the creation of a new Russian style.  Many famous Russian artists worked along with folk craftsmen in workshops Mamantov.  The concept of nested objects was familiar in Russia, having been applied to carved wooden apples and Easter eggs; the first Faberge egg, in 1885, had a nesting of egg, yolk, hen and chick.


A Matryoshka doll or a Russian nested doll is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other.  Matryoshka is a derivative of the Russian female first name Matryona, which was a very popular name among peasants in old Russia.  The name Matryona in turn is related to the Latin root ‘matter’ and means ‘mother’, so the name is closely connected with motherhood and in turn the doll has come to symbolize fertility. 


A set of matryoshka consists of a wooden figure which can be pulled apart to reveal another figure of the same sort inside.  It has, in turn, another figure inside, and so on, which traditionally all of the dolls look almost identical to one and another.  The number of nested figures in a set ranges from 5 to 30, but some custom-made sets contain many more.  The shape is mostly cylindrical, rounded at the top for the head and tapered towards the bottom, but little else; the dolls have no hands (except those that are printed).  Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan, Russian native costume with a scarf on her head.  Inside, it contains other figures that may be of both genders, usually ending in a baby that does not open.  The artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be extremely elaborate. 

Matryoshkas are often designed to follow a particular theme, for instance peasant girls in traditional dress. Modern artists create many new styles of nesting dolls.  Common themes include animal collections, portraits and caricatures of famous politicians, musicians and popular movie stars.  Matryoshka dolls that feature communist leaders of Russia became very popular among Russian people in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today, some Russian artists specialize in painting themed matryoshka dolls that feature specific categories of subjects, people or nature.

Areas with notable matryoshka styles include Sergiyev Posad, Semionovo, Polkholvsky Maidan and Kirov.



The making of nesting dolls


The basic technique of nesting doll making remains unchanged. As a rule nesting dolls are made from lime, birch, alder and aspen. Lime is the most abundant material. The trees chosen to manufacture nesting dolls 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 experienced master can tell when the material is ready. Then the logs are cut into work pieces for nesting dolls. Every work piece can be turned as many as 15 times before the nesting doll 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 is usually made first. The bottom part of the next figurine which can be taken apart is turned first. Then a work piece is turned to reach the necessary size and the top end is removed. Then the ring is made to fit on the upper part of the nesting doll and then its lower part can be made. Then the nesting doll’s head is turned and the necessary amount of wood is removed from within the nesting doll’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 nesting doll is stuck on to its lower part. Then it 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 nesting doll was poked and painted with gouache and covered with varnish by S. V. Maliutin.



The above article is collated from various sources.


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