Toys, like heroes of the Antiquity or mediaeval knights, become characters of popular tradition. Matrioshka nesting dolls are no exception.
One legend tells about a gift brought to the Mamontov family - industrialists of fabulous wealth and patrons of the arts - in the end of the 19th century. Some say it was from Paris, others insist on the Japanese island of Honshu. All agree on one point, that it was a carved figurine of Fukurui, or Fukurume, a Buddhist saint, with four small figurines nested inside one another. The exotic souvenir gave craftsmen the idea of a Russian nesting doll, a little girl in folk attire.
The set soon became popular under the name of Matrioshka. There are several accounts of why the doll was called Matrioshka. The first one is that it is a diminutive of the widespread woman name Matriona, another one is that it is derived from Russian "mother" - "matierj". Several versions of the Matrioshka's place of origin exist, - some art scholars cling to the Japanese version of its origin, another trace leads to Easter eggs of painted wood which were widely spread in Russia. The idea of nesting dolls found the embodiment in the creative activity of such prominent Russian artists as Sergei Malyutin and Vladimir Zvezdochkin, an expert woodworker from the Voronovo district close to Moscow.
The new toys soon became a highly sought Russian souvenir. Born in Moscow, the Matrioshka was first mass-produced in Sergiev Posad, Russia's largest center of toy manufacturing. Before the Matrioshkas started being produced there, it was the biggest center of woodcarving, thanks to its location near the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. The proximity to this renowned monastery encouraged the trade and attracted thousands of pilgrims.
There were an amazing variety of topics for Matrioshka prints, and there was hardly an aspect in Russian life, a social group or a historical event that wouldn't give an idea for a toy. The most widespread figurines represented fine ladies, hussars, women with babies, bird catchers, street venders and bakers. In 1990-1910 sets representing mediaeval Russian knights and boyars appeared. The Napoleonic War of 1812 was represented by Kutuzov and Napoleon sets, complete with Russian and French officers. Russian literary classics also gave a lot of ideas - Alexander Pushkin's "The Tale of Tzar Saltan", "The tale of the Fisherman and the Fish", "The Little Hunchbacked Horse" and many others.
Since 1909 Matrioshka dolls started being exported from Russia and presented at different fairs - in Leipzig, Berlin, London and Paris. Greece, Turkey and the Middle East also liked the new toy which came to these parts of the world thanks to the exhibition arranged by the Russian Trade and Shipping League. In 1922 Matrioshka's production started in a place rather remote from Moscow when a craftsman artist Arsenti Mayorov bought a Sergiev Posad doll at the Nizhni Novgorod fair and his family liked it and started imitating it. Several other village households soon followed, and the nesting doll eventually became the basic local article to stay so to this day. Almost at the same time Matrioshka appeared in the Volga country - in the village Polkhovsky (or Polkhov) Maidan. Maidan articles differ in shape from the Sergiev Posad and Semyonovo. The craftsmen from this village used aniline paints dissolved in spirit, applying them on primed surfaces, whereas their Sergiev Posad colleagues preferred gouache, or watercolors, never making preliminary sketch, and they intensified the color with varnish.
The most complicated technique for Matrioshka production was used in Vyatka village, where the doll is exquisitely inlaid with straw. The palette usually consists of three or four colors - red or saffron, yellow, green and dark blue - with the facial featured and garments contoured in fine strokes of black.
The technique, originated in Japan, China and Persia first became known in Europe in the 16th century. By the 18th century lacquer snuff-boxes decorated with miniatures and made in England, France and Germany had become fashionable. One of the greatest European centers for such items production was Johann Stobwasser's manufactory in Braunschweig, Germany.
In 1795 the Russian merchant Petr Korobov visited the Braunschweig workshops and his enterprising mind quickly grasped that cheap and simple articles could be mass-produced using this very durable combination of materials. Within a year he had opened his own factory on the outskirts of Fedoskino, Moscow region. At first it employed just over 20 people and made most of the money from manufacturing the varnished peaks for military caps and helmets. By the middle of 19th century about 1000 peasants were already involved in producing lacquer miniatures.
A lacquer box begins with ordinary cardboard, which is cut into narrow strips and pasted with glue made of wheat flour. These strips are then built round a wooden form and that gives it the right size and the shape of the box, and when the right thickness is achieved, it is put under a mechanical press before being dried for 15 days at room temperature. After being kept in linseed oil for 24 hours, the future lacquer box is heated for four days in an iron box, itself within an oven, at 120°C. By the time it's taken from the oven, the form becomes as hard as wood. 3 or 4 coatings of different lacquers are then applied, with 12 hours' drying time between each application.
The box now goes to an artist for painting. Fedoskino is the only art-school of oil art painting. The pictures are produced by application of several layers of oil paints, a technique widely used in the classical painting of the late 18th and early 19th century Russia. One after another, up to 4 layers are added to and worked over: ground tinting, outlines, successive translucent layers and, finally, highlights. Each item is in turn dried and sealed with lacquer. In certain places, mother of pearl is cut into the surface of the box, layers of gold leaf are glued to and powdered silver is dusted on. The feature of Fedoskino is attained to be an alteration between thickly painted colors covered with a translucent top layer and "through - painted" areas where one color shines through another. Figures are naturally proportioned, perspective is generally not inverted and the whole appearance of composition is that of a 19th century canvas.
There is a group of about thirty villages located not far from Moscow bearing the name of Gzhel, which has long been famous for its white-burning clay. Gzhel must have been the name of one of these villages. The origin of this name is somehow connected with the verb zhech - "to fire, to burn". The place has always been the center of folk pottery and has played an important role in the history and development of Russian ceramic arts. Traditionally, Gzhel has supplied clay to many factories and produced excellent pottery famous all over the country.
The history of Russian pottery begins with Gzhel majolica of the eighteenth century, which was followed in the nineteenth century by half-faience, porcelain and thinly wrought faience. It took Gzhel only about fifty years to take up all principal types of earthenware. The most appealing among the wares of Gzhel are masterfully koomgans, kvassniks (pitchers for kvass, a kind of traditional Russian non-alcoholic beverage), diverse and original in form. Moreover, almost all the population of Gzhel participated in producing majolica pottery, plates, pitchers, bratinas (loving-cups), wine scoops, mugs, ink-pots and other, more decorative festive wears, such as dishes, jugs shaped like a two-headed eagle. Minor sculptural forms also were of interest in Gzhel ceramic works. Pottery-painting on Gzhel majolica is close to the folk style of "lubok".
Each painted object is a creation of a poller, who was often a simple, illiterate peasant; but his simple practice didn't come into contradiction with a high degree of artistic accomplishment which combined the master's experience of nature, of town and country life, of artistic impressions from architecture, iconography, tile-painting and "lubok" with his own imagination and fantasy. There are two peculiar compositional trends in Gzhel pottery decoration, a three-unit composition with the emphasized central motif under the spout and a panoramic composition with rhythmical arrangement of designs around the vessel body. The developed specific system of Gzhel majolica painting was conventional and frontal-flat, with further expansion of stylistic drawing of the new art.
Alongside with traditional technique of minor plastics, the art of Gzhel sculpture was created. The old traditions were influenced by new trends of Soviet decorative art, which shed the traditions of easel painting and turned to idiosyncratic means and to its conventional decorative idiom. However, during the Soviet period most attention was paid to national folk traditions. In the 1980s Gzhel art was, as always, based on traditional artistic principles inherited from old masters and formulated in the time of Soviet rule. On the whole, Gzhel art includes stylistic uniformity and individual variations, which helped to create various styles and diverse artistic manners developing in the frame of a common artistic system. An important feature of Gzhel pottery is integrity of form, which is emphasized by painting. However, time and development of artistic styles change the character and themes of painting. Initially, the potters produced mainly utilitarian works, but at present, artists feel entitled to artistic creations which are emotionally strong and imbued with sophisticated associations, which are able not only to beautify our life but also to transform it.
The modem art of Gzhel is an active artistic trend with its ups and downs, and with the search of new ways. We may expect its flourishing and success if the masters continue to turn to the heritage of the old times and preceding periods, to find it in the source of education and inspiration and to treat it with deep respect.
Zhostovo is a world-famous Russian folk art center popular for its painted trays decorated with bright bunches of flowers on the black background. The skillful and talented masters of Zhostovo have turned these domestic utensils into real masterpieces of art.
The first workshop of painted tray decoration was opened in 1825. Soon tray painting became an independent handicraft. The following types of lacquered wares were made there: boxes, cases, snuffboxes and other articles of papier-mache. The first trays were also made of papier-mache decorated with troika driving, genre scenes, landscape and floral ornamentation. Later this material was substituted by metal, while decorative bunch of flowers replaced floral ornament. Thus, the original style of Zhostovo painted decoration had formed about the middle of the nineteenth century. The style and methods of Zhostovo painted decoration have acquired peculiar traditions of folk art ornamentation and realistic still-life painting. However, the tendency of painting bunches of flowers became leading.
Today, after more than 170 years existence of handicrafts the village of Zhostovo turned into a unique center of Russian folk art. The floral designs of Zhostovo trays display beauty of nature and a cheerful, optimistic sense of life. Modem artists of Zhostovo, who manage to unite the traditional methods with improvisation and individual talent of each master, preserve the best traditions of this popular folk art. Nowadays the works of Zhostovo artists are on display at various exhibitions and museums not only in Russia, but also in many other countries of the world.