Have you noticed a big emphasis on handcrafted folk art in design these days? It's especially visible in textiles like ikat, Moroccan wedding blankets and Otomis. Of course, the idea of looking to folk art for a fresh design vocabulary is not a new one. During the Art Nouveau era, each nation's cultural past was a major source of inspiration for modern designs. Let's take a look at one of the centers of Russian Art Nouveau, and the surprising role Russian nesting dolls played in the dissemination of the Russian folk aesthetic.
Folk art was an incredibly important source for art and design in the second half of the 19th century. By this time, the Industrial Revolution had completed its ruthless sweep across Europe and America, so there was a lot of urbanization and the sense of a poignant loss of an old way of life. By appropriating the motifs, media, craft techniques and aesthetics of the national past, it was a way for artists to hold onto a sense of identity in the face of globalization and mechanization.
Two of the centers of this Arts & Crafts aesthetic in Russia were the Abramtsevo artists' colony and the Talashkino Workshops.
Abramtsevo was a large estate bought by Savva Mamontov in 1870. Mamontov was, ironically, the scion of a railroad magnate, though he was also a trained singer, and considered himself an artist. He befriended many of the most prominent Russian artists of the time, and in the 1870s and '80s, he established a studio for his artist friends at Abramtsevo (image 2). Meanwhile, Mamontov and his wife began collecting Russian folk art, which further inspired the artists to take up handcraft. Their goal was to elevate craft to the level of fine art.
Over the course of a couple decades, the Abramtsevo artists designed buildings, furniture, tiles, silks, and other decorative arts, all based on Slavic folk design, folk tales, and other vernacular culture. Abramtsevo fell into decline in the '90s when Mamontov was wrongly arrested for fraud in his railroad business and went bankrupt in 1899.
Filling the void was Talashkino, founded in 1900 by Princess Maria Tenisheva, who, like Mamontov, was trained as an opera singer, and was a great patron of avant-garde artists. Like the Mamontovs, Tenisheva amassed an important collection of folk art, and she started a historical and ethnographic museum focusing on Slavic heritage. At Talashkino, artists taught handcraft to peasant children from the agricultural school, in an attempt to ensure the endurance of their folk traditions. They also designed buildings, furniture, embroidery, tiles, and other household items.
One of the most surprising legacies of this folk art emphasis in Russian Art Nouveau is the Russian nesting doll, or Matryoshka doll, which was first created by artists associated with both the Abramtsevo and Talashkino workshops.
It might surprise you to learn that Matryoshka dolls were not part of some long Slavic folk tradition. In fact, while there was a Russian craft tradition of nesting objects (including Fabergé eggs, first made in 1885), it seems that nesting dolls came from Japan. In 1896, at an exhibit of Japanese art in St. Petersburg, there was a set of nesting dolls from the island of Honshu that might have been the inspiration for the Russian variant — Japanese art was a major inspiration for Western craftsmen in general at that time. In the 1890s, a woodworker named Vasily Zvyozdochkin made a set of 8 nesting dolls that the painter Sergey Malyutin then decorated to look like peasant women and girls (image 1).
Interestingly, Malyutin is an artist with strong associations with Talashkino, but the dolls were made for the Children's Educational Workshop in Moscow, a toy company owned by Savva Mamontov's brother Anatoly. And it was Savva's wife, Elizaveta Mamontova, who exhibited the dolls at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, where they were hugely popular emblems of Slavic folk art during the height of Art Nouveau.
1 The first Matryoshka dolls, carved by Vasiliy Zvezdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin, at the Artistic Pedagogical Museum of Toys in Sergiyev Posad, Russia, via Wikipedia
2 Detail of the studio at Abramtsevo, designed by Victor Gartman in 1873, via Abramtsevo Museum
3 Hanging cupboard (1890-1900) by the Abramtsevo Workshop at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
4 Tiles by Mikhail Vrubel made at Abramtsevo (1890s-1900s) at the Abramtsevo Museum
5 A detail of a carved wooden door designed by Yelena Polenova at Abramtsevo in the 1890s, at the Abramtsevo Museum
6 The 'Hut on Chicken Legs' at Abramtsevo, designed by Viktor Vasnetsov in 1883, via Abramtsevo Museum
7 Dining chairs made at the Talashkino workshops in the early 1900s, at the Musée d'Orsay via bluetravelguide.com
8 The Church of the Holy Spirit at Talashkino, designed by Maria Tenisheva, Sergey Malyutin and I. Barshevsky and built 1902-5, via Wikimedia Commons
9 The gate to Talashkino, via Wikimedia Commons
10 Candlesticks made at Talashkino in 1907, attributed to Maria Tenisheva, via artinvestment.ru