Art from the heart

Exibition of dolls by swedish artist

Renata Summo-O'Connell
June 1, 2006

The suggestive ambiance of the OE Club in Borgo Allegri is perfect for showcasing ‘Poupées’, an exhibition of very different dolls by Swedish artist Anita Matell. There are Japanese-inspired ‘dragon babies’, an African sleeping doll lying in her banana leaf; Swedish solar dolls and the most beautiful porcelain Cendrillon in exquisite rags. Some of these dolls are like sculptures, absorbing authentic creatures that one would never think of as mere objects. A wide range of materials, colours, textures, fabrics, shapes and traditional themes feature in the exhibition, which is a platform for Matell’s thought-provoking craftsmanship.


Trained by the best doll-makers, including Austrian artist Sylvia Natterer and Piere Durdilly, creator of the fi rst Corolle doll, Matell does not make her dolls in series. ‘It is a question of the heart,’ she says. Each hand-crafted doll is unique. Intrigued by the exhibit, I went to interview the artist in Paolo Carandini’s unique atelier, a place which inspired Matell to create some of her dolls in collaboration with this innovative leather craftsman. Before meeting with Matell, I was aware of her long association with representation through the human body: she has spent much of her life as a professional dancer and trained in New York with Balanchine for three years. I  imagined that, for Matell, dolls may be the embodiment of something but I wanted to know more.


During the interview my main pressing question was simply, ‘why dolls?’

I cherish the human form and, from my dancing experience, have a love of proportion and do try to give that to my dolls. They have to be right: the face has to feel right. It is like you already knew it Dolls are not objects for me. I feel that I am giving life to a doll. I know, first of all, that I am going to touch a child somewhere. For me dolls are about mother and child, or father and child: they are a link, they are about that wonderful love, that love of kindness that is present between parents and their children.


Your materials are so particular, what is your relationship with them?

In the basement of my Paris home I have heaps of materials collected over the years. I have always been a poor-rich girl. In New York as a dancer, I didn’t have much money but there was always enough to buy just a small piece of an exceptional fabric. Over the years I have  accumulated many fabrics and other types of materials. I love hand-made, hand-dyed felting. It’s very expensive but so beautiful! My relationship with materials is very funny too. For example, once I bought an entire sheepskin, with beautiful long curls but a little yellow. I wanted to wash it to make a medieval doll with fair hair as in Sweden there is a love for medieval themes. I washed the wool and of course it became all fuzzy albeit very white. So my medieval dolls became rococo ladies! My materials always have a history. Like our dragon babies: the fabric comes from a re-edition of precious historic fabrics that were at Paolo’s house. I love noble materials, cotton, linen. I sew by hand with special thread: I like to use materials that have a life in themselves.


Tell me about your techniques.

Techniques are delicate processes. For example, my babiesI fill them with soft washed wool. I want them to be soft and warm for a child to hug. Stuffing is a very delicate operation: it has to be perfect. Porcelain dolls are slow to make, as casts require time and can be complex. What makes my work disinct is also the use of different mediums: clay, fabrics, porcelain and paper.


How do you see yourself?

A doll artist. An artist that respects craftsmanship, the skill of the hands in any work and art form. To work with your hands is complementary to intelligence: one has to do more than just using hands. I like people and my doll-making has to do with this too.


I had decided to pursue this interview because I had felt very intrigued by the freshness of home dolls that Anita Matell had displayed over Easter at Paolo Carandini’s workshop. I had gone to the Poupées exhibition with interest but thought – wrongly - that I would simply see more variations on the same themes. Instead in Poupées, this ballet dancer turned doll-maker reveals in each doll not only poignant, tender creatures but also a vision of the world that places art at the very core of human interaction. In that sense, Poupées is a celebration of what Matell says in her invitation: Designing, Writing, Imagining have been my daily faithful companions and when my heart demands to live through my hands they become: dolls.

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