Matryoshka Dolls

For my birthday, one of my friends gave me a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls.  They are absolutely beautiful, and I love opening them one by one to take out the smaller doll from inside the bigger doll – there is something so satisfying about the smoothness with which the dolls come apart and reveal their secret – I’m not surprised they are so loved by Russians and everyone else. 

My beautiful birthday present has a set of 10

The Matryoshka dolls, also called babushka dolls or nesting dolls, are made of lime, birch, alder or linden wood. Once the logs are cut, they are left to aerate for two years before the wood is ready to be carved.  Highly skilled artisans carve the doll, starting with the smallest doll that cannot be taken apart and working their way to the biggest doll in the set.  Once the carving is complete, the doll is covered in glue to smooth out the surface and get it ready for painting

The dolls are mostly painted in Russian folk art form and depict a delightful village life. In one popular version, the dolls look like Russian peasant girls with colorful scarves (or babushkas hence the name), and are wearing sarafans (pinafore dresses) and carrying baskets, flowers, or a scythe. Sometimes the set is a complete family with children, sometimes they depict Russian nobility, sometimes they are painted to represent the time period or some newsworthy event – for example in 1909 to celebrate the anniversary of Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, the dolls were painted like characters from his books.

Traditional Russian Nesting Dolls

The first Russian dolls were carved in 1890 by craftsman Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin.  They were both folk artists who worked under the patronage of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy industrialist. The dolls gained global exposure when Mamontov’s wife presented the dolls at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris where they won the bronze medal.

The dolls were named after the Russian name “Matryona,” which was a very popular name in Russia in the late 1800s.  The name is derived from the Latin word “mater” for mother, and since the motherly name fit the dolls perfectly and the name stuck.  The most number of dolls in one set is 48, and it was made in 1913 in the city of Semyonov. My set has 10, as does my sister’s set which is actually Czech not Russian.

Though considered quintessentially Russian, the first nesting dolls are from Song Dynasty in China (1000 CE) where the smallest doll would be holding a grain of rice.  From here they went to Japan where the seven luck Gods were made as seven nesting dolls, with Fukurokuju the Japanese god of happiness as the biggest and the other six nesting inside.  It is speculated that it was these Japanese dolls which served as the inspiration for the first Russian dolls.

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose

Ye Shepherds tell me
Tell me have you seen,
Have you seen My Flora pass this way?
In shape and feature's beauty queen,
In pastoral, in pastoral array

A wreath around her head
Around her head she wore
Carnation, lily, lily, rose
And in her hand a crook she bore
And sweets her breath compose.

The Wreath, Joseph Mazzinghi (1765 - 1844)

Expatriate American artist, John Singer Sargent, was invited to stay and recuperate from a head injury in the Cotswold village of Broadway by his friend and fellow American expat artist Edwin Austin Abbey.  Here a group of artists would gather around a piano and sing the popular song, and spend glorious evenings together either playing tennis or going on boating expeditions on the Thames.  It was during one such boating expedition, when the natural light of the day was fading, that Sargent saw some Chinese lanterns hanging amidst trees and lilies in a garden. This vision of that exact purple twilight moment in the day when natural light gets replaced by artificial light captured Sargent’s fantasy, and he spent the next few months trying to capture that light, the result of which was the absolutely spellbinding painting which he titled Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.

He chose two sisters, daughters of a fellow artist for the painting because they had hair of the exact color he was looking for.  Every evening, Sargent would stop his tennis game, and wait in the spot with his models for the light to be exactly like he wanted and paint for a few moments.  He repeated this every evening from September to November 1885, when the light changed completely with the changing season.  He then resumed in the summer of 1886 and completed the painting in October 1886.

Lantern with illuminated ridges. Courtesy Tate Britain.

The painting is simply mesmerizing. In it Sargent has captured the twilight moment when natural light is replaced by artificial light, the innocence of childhood with the intense childlike concentration at the task of lighting the lanterns, the beauty of the late summer foliage in the darkness of the leaves and the maturity of the flowers, and the glow in the white cotton-linen dresses of the girls.  The young girls themselves are surrounded by a garden that forms a protective cocoon around them, the eye goes upward with the growing size of the flowers, and the age old Japanese technique of the increasing size of the flowers as the eye moves upward has the effect of bringing the background forward. At the same time the eye moves along the curve of the lantern string, stopping with the two central figures, where balance is achieved with the two girls facing each other.  The glow of the lanterns, some brighter than others, illuminate their faces and dresses, and the ridges of the lanterns. The painting draws you in – into the world of the fleeting light of dusk, and of fleeting childhood summers.

The Bruts of Boston

If one can tear themselves away from the cobblestoned beauty of Quincy market, from the culinary delights of Faneuil Hall, and from the narrow streets of the Italian North End that is practically bursting at its seams with history, and head towards Government center and City Hall in what was known as Scollay Square, one will come face to face with these gargantuan, yet lyrical, concrete giants of brutalism.

The post-World War II era put Boston on a path to reinvigorate itself and tear off the shackles of narrow cobblestones streets and old brownstone buildings. Brutalism architecture with its honest, concrete, progressive look seemed to fit the bill.

Brutalism is a sub-genre of modernist architecture that lasted from 1950s to mid-70s. It is so called not because of the “brutish” appearance of the building but is taken from the French term for raw concrete, “beton brut.” It was mostly used for government buildings, schools, and public housing built after World War II.  Brutalism is characterized by the blocky appearance of buildings that most often have a recurring geometric design and are built with massive amounts of poured concrete.

Boston City Hall and the Government Center buildings stand a stone’s throw from the Quincy market – but centuries separate these two sites architecturally. Other buildings followed -including the State Street Bank, Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, the Harbor Towers and the MIT Hermann Building. Today Boston boasts the largest concentration of brutalist architecture in the US.

Government Center Building

(All imges courtesy of Boston Magazine and Architectural Digest websites).

“Our Life” in Tiles

Art on buildings, among other public places, was a big thing for socialist countries – and in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is one of the most iconic and largest of these artworks. It wraps around two floors of the East German Ministry of Education’s “House of the Teachers” building like a bandage.

Artist Walter Womacka (1925 – 2010) was chosen by the East German government to make this mural – and the large-scale socialist realism mosaic built in 1964 is now a protected landmark. Its popularity probably stems from the colorful folk-art vibe which is so much softer and fun than hardline socialist propaganda art.Womacka called his mural with 800,000 tiles “Our Life,” and that’s precisely what it depicted – various aspects of life in East Germany that the government wanted to showcase.

This section of the mural depicts worldwide friendship and harmony

(All images courtesy Instagram and Haus des Lehrers website).

Pepys and the Great Fire

 …  By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge.

Sunday 2 September 1666, Samuel Pepys
Great Fire of London, 1666 (Unknown Artist)

So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already.

So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell’s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steeleyard, while I was there.

Sunday September 2 1666, Samuel Pepys

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire: rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Steele-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. ———— lives,…..

Lord! what sad sight it was by moone-light to see, the whole City almost on fire, that you might see it plain at Woolwich, as if you were by it….I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it; 

Thursday September 5, 1666 Samuel Pepys

Up by five o’clock; and, blessed be God! find all well, and by water to Paul’s Wharfe. Walked thence, and saw, all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church; with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St. Fayhth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet-street, my father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.

Friday 7 September 1666 Samuel Pepys
Canaletto, The Monument from Gracechurch Street (1750): monument to the Great Fire of 1666

(All images courtesy Museum of London, Guildhall Art (London), and pepysdiary.com)

What did you do during your lunch break today?

This summer, I participated in a New York Times Reading contest which involved reading an article and writing a personal reflection to the article. The article I wrote about is by Alex Vadukul, “How Big Mike, a Barbershop painter, Broke into the Art World.” Mike Saviello works at a barber shop and during his lunch break he paints. Here is my reflection on this article:

If you scroll past all the stories of immigrants, dreamers, migrant crisis, political debates, you will come to this truly heartwarming story of Mike Saveillo, a barber from New York who has become a sought after artist. This too is a story about America: about the opportunities that still exist, about simple working class people, about cities like New York with long lasting barbershops, about wives who get cancer and husbands who get shattered, about barbers who dare to dream and use bold colors and have art showings at big name galleries – all of this is possible because Mike Saveillo lives in America.

There is a Mike in most people. People often give up on something they are passionate about because it is the practical, sensible thing to do. We stop playing the cello because it interferes with math tutoring, we give up singing for science fairs. Mike gave up art for football, and then a well-paying job so he could support his family. But his passion for art never left him, and in the end he found a way to paint. That’s why I liked this story so much. Because in the end, Mike found a way to do something he had always wanted to do since he was a child, and because he lives in a country where he could dare to dream, and to be, in the words of his wife, “a disrupter.”

All paintings from Michael Saviello’s Instagram

Enigmatic England: Bletchley Park

Eighty years ago on August 31, the German army invaded Poland and started World War II.  I was watching some movies about World War II and came across “The Imitation Game,” which was about scientists and mathematicians that worked at top-secret Bletchley Park. As a student in London, my sister was lucky enough to visit Bletchley Park, and wrote the following vignette:  

The really striking thing about England, particularly to an outsider, is how much of its national character is shaped by the two world wars, particularly World War II. It seems that no family was left untouched by the war, and every sacrifice, great and small, that can be made for a nation, was made. The number of young lives lost is incomprehensible, and the number would have been much larger but for the brilliant people who worked at Bletchley Park. 

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction – it is at least true in the case of Bletchley Park.  If you put all the spy movies, thrillers, and novels together, they would still not match the intrigue of Bletchley Park, its intense secrecy, its brilliant people, and the unbelievably intelligent decoding and deciphering work that was done here during World War II.  The fact that toward the end of the war over 8000 people worked here and yet its existence was not disclosed until decades later, gives an inkling of the level of secrecy maintained, and the characters of the people that worked here.  The mathematicians at Bletchley Park were deciphering Germany’s war time communication codes, and to do this they built the world’s first computers.  These brilliant people were able to decipher Germany’s supposedly indestructible codes and in the process saved many lives including at Dunkirk, D-Day, and were instrumental in finding Germany’s most powerful warship Bismarck so the British Navy could drown it. 

Women at Bletchley Park (image courtesy of http://www.bletchleypark.org)

After the war, Bletchley Park and its brilliant people all went home, and never spoke a word because of the oath of secrecy they had all taken. Many had parents that died without knowing their son or daughter’s immense contribution to the war effort.   Clearly this was a generation of greatness. How did we get from there to our current generation of selfies, Facebook, Instagram – we can barely drink a cup of tea without informing the whole world about it. Over 8000 people. Over three decades.  Not one word.  Let that sink in, and perhaps one begins to understand England.

(Both images from http://www.bletchleypark.org)

The Things They Longed For

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, there is a piece of America that transported me into one of my favorite books, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.

Sometimes on a regular day out – well this one was a daytrip to see waterfalls in the mountains of Georgia – one comes across the most unexpected people and places. While driving to see the Tallulah Gorge, I took a last minute side detour to a scenic overlook. For me, there was so much more than the overlook here – by the side of the road there was the kind of place that I think Tim O’Brien and his platoon would have made for themselves in Vietnam, a place that would transport them, if only momentarily, to the America, the home, and the things they longed for so desperately. It was almost a mise-en-scene for a play or a movie about the longing for Americana that the boys in Vietnam must have felt – except this was real, and the boys were – well – middle aged bikers by now.

The roadside shack, with a flag and a bald eagle on its roof, proudly calls itself “Hillbilly’s Hot Nuts & BBQ.” The shack was adorned with every possible American thing a boy would long for in Vietnam –all kinds of Harley Davidson models, banners, and paraphernalia, music records, Coca Cola bottle cut outs, a smiling Marilyn Monroe, a sexy Marilyn Monroe with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Humphrey Bogart in a café, a sultry Rita Hayworth selling Coke, Coke selling Coke and hot dogs for 15 cents, Big foot crossing sign, a Native American chief with a glorious feathered headgear, a faded Uncle Sam, a black and white electric guitar – it was all there. And to the right was a place to sit, relax, chitchat, and as the picture shows – enjoy a Coke. Here a large flag covered the entire back wall, and a welcome committee, in the form of a faintly Asian looking mannequin, stood in front of the shack.

A third shack with a tin roof provides a welcome respite for the riders.

The entire space seems more like a setting for a Vietnam war movie than a roadside shack next to a scenic overlook. But there it was, and bikers rode up to it, bought their roasted Georgia peanuts and Coke and hung out for a while chatting with each other. One of them even happily posed for a picture when I asked if I could get a picture of his bike.

Happy to pose

And I was reminded of Tim O’Brien and his platoon; young American boys longing for the comforts of home in Vietnam, and I imagined that this is what they longed for. Suddenly, this place took on so much meaning for me – it was not just a roadside food shack, but a place for the boys who returned home, and for those who did not. None of us will ever understand what they went through in Vietnam. They have only each other to turn to; the shared experience is theirs only, the rest of us are outsiders looking in, trying unsuccessfully to understand. And places like the Hillbilly Nut & BBQ Shop, make it possible for these brave men to stop for a few minutes, talk to each other, perhaps reminisce about someone who didn’t make it back – before they ride off into the mountains.

“The Way of The Red Flag”

Dresden is almost too beautiful to be real. When the late afternoon sun shines on its churches and palaces, it almost takes your breath away. The Frauenkirche (Lutheran Church) sits in the middle of the old town center like a beautifully iced cake on a platter; just one of the many baroque architectural gems in this town which, until 1989, was part of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city was completely devastated by Allied bombings in 1945, practically every building was demolished. For 45 years after that, Dresden and its old town lay in ruins. Mountains of rubbles lay everywhere, untouched by the communist government, as a propaganda about the devastation of capitalist warfare.

 The Frauenkirche in Dresden Old Town was rebuilt after the fall of Communism

The GDR constructed numerous buildings around the old town, punctuating the once baroque town with low and wide glass and concrete buildings that are quintessential socialist and communist architecture. The Kulturpalast (Palace of culture, 1962) at the edge of the reborn old town is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order. One side of the building is decorated with a striking mural called “The  Way of the Red Flag,” adding color, albeit a symbolic red, to an otherwise grey concrete exterior.

The Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) was built by the GDR government in 1962 and is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order.        

The long narrow mural, is approximately 95 feet high and 325 feet wide, and tells the history of socialism. Almost to the center stands its most striking feature, a woman with a scarf typical of the socialist working class, her left hand stretched out in a welcoming gesture, while her right hand holds a red flag. The raised flag leads the eye toward the hammer and sickle symbol of the GDR. The story starts on the left half of the mural where Karl Marx (with a document in his hands) can be seen standing with Freidrich Engels. Below them a group of three men arm themselves in protest, and to the right we see the Red Star a sign of the Russian revolution of 1914. World War II, and its suffering, is depicted to the right of the flag bearer. The victory of socialism is seen in the depiction of groups of men of various professions, some holding guns while others raise their right fists. All seem to be looking towards the central figure of Walter Ulbricht the communist leader of GDR.

  The Way of the Red Flag : The mural on the Kulturpalast tells the history of Socialism  

I discovered the mural almost by accident and stood in front of it for a long time, marveling at it, and shocked both by its existence and its contrast with the baroque architecture of Dresden’s old town. The fact that the Kulturpalast and the mural exist to this day, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a testament to the people of Dresden. The people of this Dresden have rebuilt their town back to its former Baroque glory from the debris that remained after World War II. Their love for art and architecture is evident from the fact that despite the passage of time, almost 40 years passed before communism fell, they started rebuilding brick by broken brick as soon as they could after reunification . It is only a city that has suffered and lost so much that will not be quick to tear down art, even if it is communist art. And we, the visitors, leave  Dresden enriched, by both the people and the art and architecture of this beautiful city.

Speedwell’s Song

Robinson Of Leyden
Oliver Wendell Holmes

HE sleeps not here; in hope and prayer 
His wandering flock had gone before, 
But he, the shepherd, might not share 
Their sorrows on the wintry shore. 

Before the Speedwell's anchor swung, 
Ere yet the Mayflower's sail was spread, 
While round his feet the Pilgrims clung, 
The pastor spake, and thus he said:-- 

'Men, brethren, sisters, children dear! 
God calls you hence from over sea; 
Ye may not build by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor yet along the Zuyder-Zee. 

'Ye go to bear the saving word 
To tribes unnamed and shores untrod; 
Heed well the lessons ye have heard 
From those old teachers taught of God. 

'Yet think not unto them was lent 
All light for all the coming days, 
And Heaven's eternal wisdom spent 
In making straight the ancient ways; 

'The living fountain overflows 
For every flock, for every lamb, 
Nor heeds, though angry creeds oppose 
With Luther's dike or Calvin's dam.' 

He spake; with lingering, long embrace, 
With tears of love and partings fond, 
They floated down the creeping Maas, 
Along the isle of Ysselmond. 

They passed the frowning towers of Briel, 
The 'Hook of Holland's' shelf of sand, 
And grated soon with lifting keel 
The sullen shores of Fatherland. 

No home for these!--too well they knew 
The mitred king behind the throne;-- 
The sails were set, the pennons flew, 
And westward ho! for worlds unknown. 

And these were they who gave us birth, 
The Pilgrims of the sunset wave, 
Who won for us this virgin earth, 
And freedom with the soil they gave. 

The pastor slumbers by the Rhine,-- 
In alien earth the exiles lie,-- 
Their nameless graves our holiest shrine, 
His words our noblest battle-cry! 

Still cry them, and the world shall hear, 
Ye dwellers by the storm-swept sea! 
Ye _have_ not built by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor on the land-locked Zuyder-Zee!

On July 23, 1620, the English Pilgrms who had been living in the Netherlands, sailed on the Speedwell. They were heading towards Sothhampton where they would meet up with the Mayflower, and togther the two ships would sail for the New World.