"6 Strings a Playing" Russian Balalaika

Russian Balalaika

People/Country Russia 
Instrument: Balalaika
Border:  Khokhloma
Corners: St. Basil’s Cathedral domes
Dry point etching

Добрый день [ Dobryj den ] Hello

String Instrument: Balalaika

The distinctive triangle-shaped Balalaika is often associated with Russian folk songs and folk dances, and has been part of Russian culture since the late 17th century (1688).   This instrument has only three strings, but actually comes in a variety of sizes (small to very large) to provide variations from piccolo balalaika to bass balalaika. The modern version was created in 1880 by Vasilii Andreev.

Figure and folk attire:

Thank you, Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (https://www.wikiart.org/en/nikolay-bogdanov-belsky/balalaika-player)  As I was researching this instrument, I came across a painting “Balalaika Player” by the artist Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky done in 1930. I instantly fell in love it. On one level, it might be that I’m the mother of two boys, and found this little charmer most lovable, with his pensive look. But it was the artistic elements that really engaged me. I thought you might be interested in how the mind of an artist works, how one image can inspire another.  The first thing  I noticed (and I’m sure you did also) is the background, which  of course sets off the nearly monochromatic figure and the red shirt that connects of the figure to his setting. You may be  familiar with the work of contemporary artist Kehindy Wiley, who painting a portrait of former President Obama. If you thought that his “busy,” dramatic, almost wall-paper-like  background was a new idea, you can see, artists have used the idea for some time. Think of Matisse.  This etching series doesn’t allow for that, but I’ll try to remind myself of it when next I paint.  The other thing that captured my attention was the pose. I’ve been looking at a lot of images, most are straight forward front views, with the instrument parallel to the picture plain. But this one provides a subtle angle that positions the balalaika so the neck seems to extend toward the viewer.  I loved that simple compositional element, and  I use it for inspiration as I created this etching.  (Of course, I had to remember to think of  everything in reserves because it is a print.)

Sarafan: The figure in this etching is wearing a typical Russian outfit consisting of a jumper (a long skirt that hangs from just under the arms ) called a sarafan and a white blouse with stitchery  trim.  Peasants have worn variations of this attire since the 9th century, despite Tsar Peter the Great's ban on traditional cloths in 1700 in favor of Western European fashions. Today, sarafans are consider folk dress and worn mostly at celebrations and folk festivals. 

Border: Taking its name from a village in the Novgorod region of central Russia, Khokhloma is the folk art of hand painting wood in bright red, gold and black colors. The shapes are usually berries, flowers and leaves in a curvy, flourished style. The idea of painting wood to look like gold, without actually using gold, was adapted from the technique of painting Orthodox religious icons. It involves a five-step process using tin foil (for shine), paint, gold leaf, and high temperature to produce the gold-like lacquer.  Originally made by monks for Russian nobility and the Royal family, by the 19th century is was used for everyday utensils and tableware. Today it is identified with Russia and is a popular tourist souvenir. I've attached a white-line linocut print I created of two such souvenirs brought back from Russia by my parents. 
Corners: Onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral (officially Pokrovsky Cathedral)
St. Basil’s Christian Orthodox church, located in Moscow, Russia’s Red Square, was built in only six years and consecrated in 1561.

To me (and I think most viewers), St. Basil’s Cathedral looks like a fantasy creation or an elaborately decorated cake. Not surprisingly, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, as it is a mix of Byzantine, Muslim, Renaissance, and 16th century Russian styles, and is completely unique. Interestingly, the main part of the church is built of red brick, which was a new material at the time.  It wasn’t until the 1670s that the original gold gilded domes were replaced with the colorful domes we have come  to know. The domes are covered with sheets of colored metal. Hundreds of pieces of various sizes and shapes have been fitted together and riveted  into place. Four of the dome patterns are shown in the corners of this etching.

References and Links
( Note: I do not endorse or mean to promote any of these sites.) 
  • Dorofeeva,  Evgenia A Brief History of  the Sarafan. The Russion Fashion Blog. 7/2013. https://www.russianfashionblog.com/index.php/2013/07/history-sarafan/
  • Russian Embroidery. https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/individual-textiles-and-textile-types/samplers/russian-embroidery
  • About Russian Khokhloma. https://www.greatrussiangifts.com/about-Russian-khokhloma/
  • (https://tmora.org Museum of Russian Art)
  • (therussianstore.com)
  • The Roof Construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral 29/6/2012 https://www.kiddroof.com/roof-construction-st-basils-cathedral/
  • 17 Fun Facts About St Basil’s Cathedral. 9/10/2020.https://www.listerious.com/facts-about-st-basils-cathedral/
  • Russian Embroidery. https://www.russianfashionblog.com/index.php/2013/05/russian-embroidery/

Camellias and Russian Souvenirs

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The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin