Art beat // Nesting dolls

Nesting dolls on exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art

— Last year, The Museum of Russian Art hosted an exhibit of Yaroslavl icons, two- and three-century-old religious paintings that decorated the churches of a wealthy trading hub on the Volga River.

This winter, the museum is again dealing in icons, although these are “icons” in a different sense of the word.

The Matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, is an emblem of Russian culture known the world over. Just in time for the holiday season, the museum is showing several dozen of these colorful and skillfully crafted dolls on loan from a San Francisco collector.

Examples range from the traditional — dolls painted as peasant women wearing folk costumes — to the political, including several that trace the succession of Russian and American leaders through the 20th century.

The basic Matryoshka design — a doll that opens to reveal a slightly smaller doll inside, which hides another doll, and so on — easily works as a metaphor for age or power relationships. The format also lends itself to storytelling, each successively smaller doll adding to the tale as it is revealed.

The charming wooden dolls are an interesting lens through which to view Russian history — at least the last century, or so. It turns out, surprisingly, Matryoshka are a relatively recent invention.

The Museum of Russian Art display retells the story of the first Matryoshka commissioned by a Moscow oil tycoon in the 1890s. Inspired by a Japanese design, the nesting doll was re-imagined as a Russian peasant woman wearing a traditional ankle-length jumper known as a sarafan.

The doll was a hit at the 1900 Paris World Fair, and Matryoshka production quickly became big business back in the small towns surrounding Moscow, where most of the early dolls were produced.

Early Matryoshka were designed as educational toys for young children. The brightly painted dolls, often decorated with floral designs, taught colors, numbers and familial relationships.

Distinct styles emerged as Matryoshka making spread across the vast country, reflecting the different traditions of dress and decoration among Russia’s various ethnic groups. In Yoshkar-Ola, a regional capital 500 miles east of Moscow, ethnic Finns produced unique cone-shaped nesting dolls, while to the north the craftsmen of Viatka embellished their Matryoshka with patterns of inlaid rye straw.

Production of Matryoshka in the Soviet era moved from small shops to large factories, where the dolls were churned out by the thousands for the souvenir market. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 shuttered many of those factories, but also sparked a resurgence in Matryoshka craftsmanship.

As the exhibition text explains, the dire economic conditions in the early post-Soviet years were part of the reason, as the unemployed turned to doll making for a source of income. Standardized designs gave way to greater variety of Matryoshka as individual artists put their own spin on the century-old form.

Russian fairy tales are one popular subject. Stories like The Magic Pike or Baba Yaga may not be familiar to many museum goers, but the exhibition gives enough of an explanation to follow the plot from one doll to the next.

The politically themed Matryoshka are among the most amusing in the exhibit. A set of dolls painted on one side with Russian leaders and the other with American presidents makes some idiosyncratic comparisons between Stalin and Kennedy, Lenin and Lincoln and Ivan the Terrible and George Washington.

Modern Matryoshka craftsmen draw on other decorative arts, incorporating Russian forms of textile and lacquer designs in their dolls. One striking set of Matryoshkas are painted in the angular style of Russian constructivist art, replacing traditional floral patterns with images from Soviet propaganda.

Go see it

“Matryoshka: The Russian Nesting Doll” runs through March 29 at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S. 821-9045.

More at the museum

The Museum of Russian Art is the gift that keeps on giving, it seems. The exhibition of century-old color photographs in the basement is something no visitor should miss.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs of the former Russian Empire first went on display at the museum in 2008, and now comes the sequel, “Photographer to the Tsar: Revealing the Silk Road.”

Prokudin-Gorskii took his photographs with a system of three glass plates, each with a different color filter. They were later combined and projected to produce a full-color image.

As with the previous show, the 26 photographs are displayed in backlit boxes, bringing the scenes of daily life along the Silk Road to vibrant life. Turbaned melon sellers, miners leading pack camels and colorfully costumed nomads are captured by Prokudin-Gorskii’s camera on the grassy plains and ancient settlements along the vital trading route.

Go see it

“Photographer to the Tsar: Revealing the Silk Road” runs through Feb. 28 at the museum.