Kitschy or Cultural? (But definitely cute)

Matryoshka Dolls

Matryoshka Dolls

I simply can’t resist commenting on the ubiquitous and kitschy matryoshka dolls, especially since I’ve seen so many countries laying claim to them as part of their folk art tradition. The most recent being Budapest, where I was surprised to see them lining shelves at every knicknack shop. I’ll have to admit that I did a double-take, pinched myself, and thought “I’m not in Russia, right?” The Hermitage museum director would have cringed if he’d been in my head at that moment:

The Hermitage and the Russian government are politely clashing over whether “nested” matryoshka dolls are part of the national culture. Museum director Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky has banned their sale in the Hermitage’s gift shop in St Petersburg, saying that they are not part of Russian folk art. In an interview to mark the opening of the Hermitage’s Amsterdam branch last month, he explained: “The dolls are Japanese in origin, adapted to Russia…These dolls are frightful. They are symbols of the tourist industry. Let’s not sell any rubbish here, is what I say.”

The painted wooden dolls… are said to have been invented in 1890 by Russian folk painter Sergei Maliutin, who was inspired by a set of Japanese figures representing the Seven Gods of Fortune. However, one could argue that the concept of nested objects, such as eggs, was already part of Russian decorative art. Although traditionally matryoshka dolls portrayed girls, current bestsellers include a set of Russian leaders, starting with president Dmitry Medvedev and ending with a diminutive Lenin.

I started to wonder: is there one piece of folk art that so defines a country? Turkey, for example, has its “evil eye” to ward away bad omens. Mexico has its “Day of the Dead” art. The Middle East has its rugs. Africa  has its masks. I racked my brain trying to think of an American corollary to the matryoshka. What defines “Americana” that could sit on shelves at the gift shop, the gas station, the convenience store, the tourist kiosk? Is there one symbolic image of American folk art? Does the U.S. not have one national symbol like the matryoskha? 

The American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan’s gallery is filled with quilts, quilts, and more quilts. There’s more than that, of course, and in some cases I was scratching my head as to why certain pieces were considered American folk art (this one, for example). And step inside Sante Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and you see the whole concept of folk art expand even more so, perhaps beyond Wikipedia’s definition:

Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. As a phenomenon that can chronicle a move towards civilization yet rapidly diminish with modernity, industrialization, or outside influence, the nature of folk art is specific to its particular culture.

The article also mentioned that “pop art” has overlap with folk art. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, would you mind being placed in this category?

I’ll have to admit that across years of travel and ogling over probably thousands of matryoshka dolls, I’ve never bought one, even though they are pretty darn cute.

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