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The Matryoshka

Autumn Allegiance to Art:

Art Precedes Culture


There has not been a government (taxpayer)-funded study on this subject, but I have always been of the belief — professional, personal, and intuitive — that art precedes culture. Art is a predictor of the repository of what used to be known in a society as culture.


I am, in fact, quite passionate about this topic.


I see the artist as a prophet, whether or not that person wishes to be one. Art is so essentially intuitive that the creation knows more than the creator where the “art” is heading: toward the future, from out of the past.


The present moment is a blink in time that the artist “sees” in her quest to produce the innermost images and ideas that seemingly come from out of nowhere. But those fertile seeds were planted years, even decades, before the pen hits the paper, the paintbrush strokes the canvas, the finger touches the piano key.


Of such celestial energy and driven desire is art, true art, mastered and made real for the world to see. Culture is the accumulation of those fantastic fragments and awe-inspiring bits and pieces of art that form, within that aggregation, an art form all its own: national heritage, national inheritance, national identity, national CULTURE.

For me, “culture” is best defined by my trusty old Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (published back in the day when colleges taught real subjects and subjects really within the repository of “culture”):


4(a) development, improvement, or refinement of the mind, emotions, interests, manners, taste, etc. (b) the result of the refined ways of thinking, talking, acting, etc.


and


6. the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period: civilization.


As you can see, or read, these definitions pretty much wipe out the uncivilized dreck that is spewed online, across various mediums, and increasingly even in museums!

It has gotten to the point where faux culture now obliterates art. Ignorance has become so chic that if an ignoramus does not know something, then he believes it’s not worth knowing!


This dastardly state of artistic affairs can be corrected only through bringing into the present, and moving toward the future: the past.


In defense of The Past; in defense of civilization (or civilisation for the British, one humongous progenitor of Western Civilisation); and in defense of my theory that art amongst the people of any nation is predictive of where that nation is going, perhaps even the rate at which it progresses or declines: I offer the following history of the Matryoshka doll.

In NOCTURNE, Amelia Prescott receives the Christmas gift of Matryoshka dolls. This novel takes place in 1888-89 in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.  I had to fudge just a bit with the true history of the Matryoshka since this incredibly innovative doll form did not begin to evolve in Russia until 1890, and who knows when it appeared in America? I researched this question and no one knows.


The glory of the adorable Matryoshka is the function that it originally and principally played in Russia, a country that was fundamentally an empire but perhaps not truly a nation. Regions still reign supreme in that vast land mass of a country; Communism did nothing to unite peoples from north-south-east-and-west, other than to bind them together in their abject misery and their absolute, often fatalistic, hope to escape that misery.

The Matryoshka doll, lowly and lovely, emerged as a symbol of national identity for Russia during the years prior to the Revolution of 1917. This symbol is obvious if one understands the survival mechanism of the Russian peoples: the secrecy with which an individual had to live his life. The hiding of selves within selves almost formed a national self. It’s a major miracle that Matryoshka herself did not become an Enemy of the People!


The latter years of Tsarist Russia saw the explosive assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 on the streets of St. Petersburg. A bomb tossed at the ruler assured the dirty deed, although the act was carried out by a member of the terrorist group, “People’s Will.”

Prophetic, that one! The son of this Tsar, Alexander III, then came into power with a large iron fist that commanded the rounding up and arrest of newer usual suspects. The assassins were locked up, along with anyone involved in secret meetings. Secrecy, in itself, was outlawed while paranoia within the potentate grew.


It is human nature to desire that which is forbidden, and it is entirely in the nature of a Russian to crave that which has been banned. Thus began the creation of art that sought to graphically voice the fears of the Russian peoples: their way of life, their traditions, and their lives were in horrifying jeopardy. Late Tsarist art is wondrously alive with symbols and signs that the Russian people of today can find most telling, perhaps too telling.

The Russians of the late 1800s made arts and crafts a means by which to preserve their way of life and the traditions that made them Russian. Their grave concerns were not too different from the French of Provence creating the santons after their bloody Revolution from 1787-1799 sacked the ancien regime and attempted to banish religion. The French Catholic Church was seemingly abolished with one blood-thirsty stroke of the sans-culotte-sword!


Sometime around 1890 in Russia, Vasily Zvyozdochkin, craftsman and wood-carver, made the Matryoshka doll from a design created by Sergey Malyutin, painter, architect and stage designer. Malyutin painted these wooden figures that would become a defining symbol of the covert attempts by the Russian peoples to save traditions that were in danger of being lost to time, to all time.

Time matters so very much to any artist. He lives not by the clock on the wall, but by the clock in his creative self. The heart counts each ticking of that clock. It was thus an artistic feat by this craftsman and this painter to form these nesting dolls whose form was not original to Russia.


The origin of the idea of nesting dolls came from either of two dolls designed in Honshu, the main island of Japan. One prototype is the Daruma doll, a benevolent gift given to mothers of newborn children to grant good health and protection to mother and child for one year. The other possible antecedent is the fukuruma nesting doll. It is possible that both dolls provided inspiration for the Matryoshka.


The fundamental design and idea of the nesting toy, however, date back to China. In approximately 1000 AD, nesting boxes were crafted during the Song Dynasty.

From China to Japan to Russia, and then throughout the world — that world goes round and round as artists journey within their minds, in a mode of time-travel, evermore in search of free expression. It’s a very small world, after all, when we consider the universal, inter-national human yearning for the higher sensibility that is art.


The history of the Matryoshka is the history of culture at its highest issue —- speaking from within and within and within and within — the truths that were suppressed and stifled and stomped upon, but never silenced.


Art speaks all that the citizens of any nation cannot say, with definition and with clarity, and with cherished beauty. The artist sees first what the lesser-gifted individual cannot discern. It is therefore his duty to dare to show and tell, to write and sing and paint and fashion — the works writ large as the predictions of the people of any cultured nation.


Any nation that refuses to honor the artist, the real artist, is a nation in danger of self-destruction. The artist must perforce be the rebel with that cause, to speak the truth that may, heroically, cost him his life, cost her her liberty. At stake is the cost of a culture, the venerated civilization that once rose to the greatest of heights. For any such society to rise no more is antithetical to life, and to art.


Art precedes culture. Without art, there is no culture.


Take a look at the world and see those truths, not vanishing, but striving valiantly — to live. And live with those truths in your heart, the way an artist lives — passionately reaching toward the future with a profound love of the time-honored past until you, too, see Paradise.