Making Sculpture with Matches: A Cure for the Summertime Blues

The Cotsen Curatorial Blog is going on vacation until August 7th, but a golden oldies will be run once week to help keep away the summertime blues…   The first in the series offers ideas for some safe and sane projects that can be made with safety matches.

Dog days are here. It’s so hot and humid that all kinds of mushrooms are popping up in the grass, but that’s no reason for being bored and out of sorts waiting for school to start! There are zillions of great crafty ideas in the collection of activity books in the Cotsen Children’s Library.

paulinchenSome people can’t resist playing with matches, like Heinrich Hoffmann’s Paulinchen, shown at the left. If she had lived to adulthood, perhaps she would have discovered the creative potential of the match as a building material. Constructing things with matches is a much safer way to have fun with them, although it is possible to dream up projects that require considerable outlays of time and money, plus studio space. All the replicas of famous buildings below were made entirely of matches by retired British carpenter Brian Wherry.

article-0-14D81796000005DC-125_634x409Twentieth-century activity books for children feature many doable projects creating little sculptures from matches and found objects. Three of my favorites are beautifully illustrated books from Denmark and the Soviet Union published during the early 1930s. This Soviet pamphlet by Eleonora Kondiain offers wordless pictures for making things out of acorns and matchsticks. About all that is needed is a table top and a jack safeknife.

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Getting started. Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki [Acorns and Matches] Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 3 (cotsen 18308)

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Acorn and matchstick piggies from Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki, p. 5. Cotsen also has Kondiain’s little book with instructions for making a doll from straw and for whittling a stag from a twig.

Matches can be stuck in potatoes for the same purpose too, although it raises the question whether perfectly good food should be used this way… Kuznetsov’s illustrations of the match-potato sculptures make it look as if anything done to the potato is completely reversible before peeling, cutting up, and popping into a pot of boiling water. Would anyone care if the vegetables had been part of a cat or equestrian figure a little while before dinner was put on the table?

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A sculpture of potatoes, matches, string, etc. I. P. Meksin, Kartoshka [Potato] illustrated by K. V. Kuznetsov. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 7 (Cotsen 21419). Opinion in the office was divided as to whether the animal being ridden is a bull, a reindeer or a donkey. Or none of the above…

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This is clearly a cat. Meksin, Kartoshka (1930), p. 4.

The really ambitious crafter can build backdrops so the figures can be arranged in tableaux. For inspiration, look at the scenes E. Fetnam created and Kay W. Jensen captured on film in Nodder and Propper [Nuts and Corks]. The cover design makes delightful use of matches and mixed nuts…

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A kangaroo family conversing in E. Fetnam’s Nodder og Propper. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Hansen, c.1933, p. 29 (Cotsen 95045).

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Now can you make this friendly ladybug without instructions?

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To see more activity books in the collection, check out Cotsen’s virtual exhibition about the Pere Castor books

Harry Potter Duels Tanya Grotter: The Magic of International Copyright

Covers of five volumes in the Russian Tanya Grotter series. Gift of Elena Alexeyeva. Cotsen in process.

Maybe you haven’t heard of Tanya Grotter (or her magic double-bass). But J. K. Rowling has, and she isn’t exactly happy about Tanya . . .

Tanya Grotter is the eponymous main character of a series of Russian fantasy novels written by Dmitri Yemets (Дми́трий Емец). Published by the Moscow based publisher Eskmo, the series began in 2002 with Tanya Grotter i Magicheskii Kontrabas (Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double-Bass). The series follows a young girl with magic powers. Orphaned when her parents are killed by an evil sorceress, she receives a distinguishing scar on her nose during the attack. Subsequently, she is poorly treated by her foster family (the Durnevs, her distant relatives) until she leaves home and finds her true place in the world attending the Tibidokh School of Magic. Sound a little too familiar?

Perhaps also suspiciously similar, “Grotter” in this Cyrillic type looks an awful lot like “Potter” with its free standing stylized “Г”. Pictured here the front board of the 2008 edition of Таня Гроттер и исчезающий этаж (Tanya Grotter and the Vanishing Floor).  Gift of Elena Alexeyeva.   Cotsen in process.

J.K. Rowling and Time Warner, the producers of the Harry Potter movies, think it does. But that hasn’t stopped Russian audiences from falling in love with the series. During a nine-month period between 2002 and 2003, Russian booksellers sold 600,000 copies of Tanya Grotter books, compared to about 1.5 million copies of Russian translations of the Harry Potter series (which are, I might add, are twice as expensive than Yemets’s series).1

It could be called “Tanya Grotter and the Unnecessarily Risque Outfit”. But this book cover is from the 2007 edition of Таня Гроттер и проклятье некромага (Tanya Grotter and the Curse of the Necromancer).   Gift of Elena Alexeyeva.  Cotsen in process. 

So in 2003 when the Dutch publisher Byblos was hoping to capitalize on the huge popularity of Emets’ work in Russia by bringing a translation of the work to the Western European book market, the Harry Potter team had a different idea. Byblos’s small edition of 7000 copies was blocked from publication in Dutch court after a short legal battle which turned on a strict interpretation and enforcement of international copyright  and an author’s authority over adaptations of their works.

Rowling is well known for keeping a tight leash on fan fiction and other adaptations of her work, often serving cease and desist letters or bringing piratical publishers to court (of which there are tons!).2 This kind of centralization is easier than one might think since international copyright controls very much favor the “original author”. According to Tim Wu at Slate: “Under the Trade Related International Property treaty [for member of the World Trade Organization], original authors ‘enjoy the exclusive right of authorizing adaptations, arrangements and other alterations of their works'”.3 In other words any work that is derivative of some earlier work (with a current copyright and vigilant author) must be officially authorized by that original author in order to be officially published.

Yet Yemets and his publishers maintain that Tanya Grotter is not an outright piracy. Rather they claim it is a parody of Rowling’s work, a characteristically Russian “cultural response” incorporating much material from Russian folklore and fairy tales.4 The series also seems to borrow from Greek mythology (for some reason) in a way that the Potter series does not.

This 2005 edition of Таня Гроттер и колодец Посейдона (Tanya Grotter and the Well of Poseidon) not only has a theme connected to Greek mythology but features a nod to Russian folklore with this depiction of a very determined and  Baba Yaga- like man (wizard?) riding a flying mortar. Gift of Elena Alexeyeva.   Cotsen in process.

Another Greek god in the 2007 cover of Таня Гроттер и локон Афродиты (Tanya Grotter and the Lock of Aphrodite’s Hair).  Gift of Elena Alexeyeva. Cotsen in process.

The whole controversy revolves around where to draw the line between theft of original content and derivation. Satire and parody are necessarily derivative. So how can we tell the difference between bad parody (bad in the sense that the satire isn’t obvious or actually critical) and good piracy (good in the sense that it obviously resembles the work that “inspired” it)? Is there any formal difference between fan fiction, parody, and piracy? Or does it depend, not on the content of the derived works, but simply on the tastes of the authors and gatekeepers of the original work and how they view and judge subsequently related works?

Witch as cheerleader on the cover of the 2006 edition of Таня Гроттер и перстень с жемчужиной (Tanya Grotter and the Pearl Ring).   Gift of Elena Alexeyeva.  Cotsen in process.

These are philosophical questions, and probably too philosophical given the subject at hand. But perhaps by reading Tanya Grotter you can decide for yourself whether or not the series is a parody or a piracy. In case you don’t (like me) read Russian, there are free (and very unauthorized) translations available in PDF on the web. Uploaded and translated by the enigmatic Jane H. Buckingham, you can find Tanya Grotter (and other Emets titles) in the links below from Scribd.com.

For your scholarly erudition and philosophical contemplation:

Tanya Grotter And The Magic Double Bass

Tanya Grotter And The Vanishing Floor

Many thanks to Elena Alexeyeva of Princeton

for her generous gift of Potteriana in Russian!