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.

Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).

Rene Magritte (1898–1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who is known for challenging the viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.One could wax and wane endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of his pipe painting, Treachery of Images (1929). Or the way I understand it – Magritte was saying two things here – this is not a pipe since you can’t really stuff some tobacco into it and smoke it as you would a pipe. The second is that it’s not a pipe because it’s an image of a pipe. And really the word pipe can be changed at any time to say for instance pig – in which case – this would still no longer be a pipe. So the word and the image are simply representations of the real thing, and not the real thing.

The Interpretation of Dreams 1935

Words and images are human representations of the real live tangible thing which we can touch and experience. They have names because we gave them these names – there is always a disconnect between the real thing and the way we see and name something – perhaps that’s why the images are also painted through a window.

Key to Dreams 1927 …the sky, the bird, the table, the sponge

The paintings are depictions of the challenges put forth by the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who clearly saw that the relationship between a thing and its name are totally arbitrary. The word gets its meaning from existing within a context of the system of naming that exists and has existed for centuries. Magritte challenged this same arbitrary relation in these paintings.

The Key To Dreams, 1930 …. the acacia flower, the moon, the snow, the roof, the storm, the desert

So Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure come together to help us understand and challenege, and find new ways of looking at old things.

Ragged Old Flag

On this Flag Day, I wanted to honor the flag with this poem by Johnny Cash.

Ragged Old Flag

I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, your old courthouse is kinda run down
He said, naw, it'll do for our little town
I said, your old flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that's a ragged old flag you got hanging on it

He said, have a seat, and I sat down
Is this the first time you've been to our little town?
I said, I think it is
He said, I don't like to brag
But we're kinda proud of that ragged old flag

You see, we got a little hole in that flag there when 
Washington took it across the Delaware
And it got powder-burned the night Francis Scott Key
Sat watching it writing say can you see
And it got a bad rip in New Orleans
With Packingham and Jackson tuggin' at its seams

And it almost fell at the Alamo
Beside the texas flag, but she waved on though
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill
There was Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Bragg
And the south wind blew hard on that ragged old flag

On Flanders field in World War one
She got a big hole from a Bertha gun
She turned blood red in World War Two
She hung limp and low a time or two
She was in Korea and Vietnam
She went where she was sent by Uncle Sam

She waved from our ships upon the Briny foam
And now they've about quit waving her back here at home
In her own good land here she's been abused 
She's been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused

And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she's getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she's in good shape for the shape she's in
'Cause she's been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more

So we raise her up every morning
We take her down every night
We don't let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
'Cause I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag

(Images Courtesy Smithsonian.com, US Govt and War Archives Websites)

Frank LLoyd Wright in Florida

Usonian House at Florida Southern College

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) is a uniquely American artist who created America’s distinct architectural style based on its vast open lands and prairies. The combination of a Midwestern upbringing, the launch of his architectural career in Chicago, and the building boom in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 all propelled him towards architectural greatness – something his mother had predicted for him when she decorated his nursey with engravings of English cathedrals.

Fallingwater

Wright’s genius in blending nature and architecture is most fully realized in Fallingwater in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. This incredible home was set directly on the water fall that the owners wanted to enjoy. On a larger scale he built the Guggenheim museum in the shape of a spiraling nautical shell. Those of us living in Central Florida, do not have to venture far to see the works of Frank Lloyd Wright – the largest  collection of his buildings on one site is right here in Florida Southern College.

In 1938, Ludd Spivey, president of the College reached out to Wright to help with the expansion of the college. Wright who had been wanting to build an entire community jumped at the chance. He designed 12 structures for this campus including a chapel, a water dome, and miles of covered walkways, collectively called “Child of the Sun”.

The Great Depression would have halted the construction of these buildings but for the ingenious solution that the college arrived at – students were used for construction labor in exchange for free tuition – a win-win situation during the country’s great economic crisis. When WWII started and male students left – the female students took over the task of construction.

Female Students carried on the task of construction on campus when the male students left for WWII

In 1975, this stunning campus with its concentration of Wright architecture was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Images courtesy of FSC site and fallingwater.org).

My afternoon with Sargent

Last weekend I went to Washington DC to accompany my sister on a speech tournament. I could do that because school is over.  Since the group had free time, we went to various museums around the city.  I went to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) which was great fun especially because it was so hot outside.  The museum was big but not huge like the Louvre or the Hermitage, and I felt like I saw most of it.  It’s a gorgeous building with an atrium on either side – where one can sit and relax.  There was a Sally Mann photography exhibition going on in the museum.  Her large black and white landscapes of the South were really stunning.  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the exhibition.

I spent a long time admiring the John Singer Sargent paintings in the museum. Sargent (1856 – 1925) is an American artist, who was trained in France, and lived in London. He is heavily influenced by Spanish master artist Velazquez, whom he studied passionately.   Interestingly, Sargent also painted murals which can be found in the Boston public Library and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  The NGA in DC has some beautiful Sargent works which I photographed (with permission of course).  The paintings in the museum show his versatility as an artist – his landscapes, portraits, interiors are all equally beautiful.  It’s very difficult to pick a favorite but if I had to, I would pick the lady in the white silk gown with the paisley shawl.  I had a really fun time in the museum because I saw a lot of stuff but focused on one artist the most.  Others may not like to focus on one artist as they feel it limits their enjoyment of the museum – for me it was great fun.

Sargent - Pavement, Cairo, 1891Sargent - Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911

 

Arts in the City Beautiful

Art, in the words of Picasso, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” For Orlando, it was the balm that soothed its wounds from the horrific nightclub shooting. Orlando, as a city, collectively turned to art to heal the wounds of that horrible night and find a way forward. Lake Eola Park is a beautiful public space in downtown Orlando.  For the last year, the hatch shell has been painted in the colors of a rainbow to symbolize LGBTQ pride and #OrlandoStrong.

In Orlando, all around the ‘city beautiful,” there are new murals, graffiti, and even painted electric boxes – some memorializing the Pulse nightclub, others just there to add a little beauty to our day. Driving to school, stopping at red lights, being stuck in traffic, I have appreciated this art.  It has brought a smile to my face and reduced some of my morning tiredness – wouldn’t you smile if the Girl with a Pearl Earring smiled at you from a dumpster on your way to school every morning!!

An Ode to A City

Patrick Martinez was born and raised in Los Angeles, with a multicultural heritage – he is Filipino, Mexican, and Native American. This gives him a unique persepective and outlook – something that he has translated into his artwork – all of which show that his figers are firmly placed on the pulse of his city and the nation.

He captures the essence of the city and its forgotten nooks and crannies – neon signs from convenience stores, bakeries, and barber shops that tell desparate stories, funeral wreaths for sale on street corners, a shocking pink bogainviilea peeking out from over a fence – all these show up in his mixed media work – and convey messages about forgotten streets and overlooked people.

Martinez has taken very ordinary neon light signs seen in local shops and bars and turned them into meaningful works of art.  In one, the neon sign reads, references German (anti-Nazi) pastor Martin Niemoller’s  (1892 – 1984) well known quote: First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

Baggage Claim

Only an immigrant, especially one that has left home in a rush can understand the value of baggage. The exhibition Baggage Claims at the Orlando Museum of Art explores the role of baggage in our lives – baggage is the only thing all our immigrant parents brought with them when they came to this country.

South African artist Dan Halter’s large world map made of cheap woven plastic bags – which serve as baggage to many poor people throughout the world -shows more people are displaced today than at any time in world history; all they have is the baggage they left their homes with.  Refugees from Syria are travelling through continents with their baggage, and with the emotional baggage of leaving their homes under such sad circumstances.

Here a pile of suitcases wait patiently on the floor waiting to be picked up by the owners.  Almost all pieces of art in this exhibition were on the floor – as though they had just been left there briefly by the traveler, while taking a break from carrying them.

Cuban artist Yoan Capote’s Nostalgia is a brick filled suitcase – perhaps reminding us of the dangerous voyages the people of Cuba have taken across the seas at the risk of drowning to the bottom of the sea with their heavy baggage. Indian artist Subodh Gupta showcases a common piece a luggage used by the weary traveler – a rolled up mattress that can be unrolled for sleeping on, when the traveler gets tired. 

Portable City Chinese artist, Yin Xiuzhen, shows a suitcase which carries an entire beloved city. Pieces like this make one realize how difficult it is for immigrants and refugees to leave their hometowns, not knowing if they will ever see them again.  The bright and cheerful color of the suitcase shows how much the artist loves her city.