Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where the Surreal and the Modern March Hand in Hand: Russian Children’s Books

Where the Surreal and the Modern March Hand in Hand in a World of Tractors and Typewriters: Russian Children’s Books by Marijana Dworski.

Early 20th Century Russian graphic design is an underappreciated and little known genre in this country, but is now gaining recognition. In the wake of a number of exhibitions on the Russian avant-garde and programmes on Russian art, it is certainly worth pursuing for pleasure and even for profit.

Daunting the Cyrillic script may be, but the rich and colourful tradition originating in the Russian popular woodcut prints (Lubok) of the 17th and 18th centuries gives these books an immediate charm and appeal. A deep empathy with nature and folklore, combined with strong colours and bold designs, set Russian book illustration apart from western European trends of the time. Book art after the 1917 Revolution certainly differed radically in style from what came before, but colour and a magical realism remain dominant features.

Certainly, conventional children’s books, like the tales of Moka and Mishunk (an elephant and a bear) existed, but the artist that many consider the greatest and most ‘Russian’ of book illustrators was Ivan Bilibin. A member of the influential Mir Iskusstvo (World of Art) movement, Bilibin was profoundly influenced by Japanese woodcuts as well as Russian vernacular wooden architecture and the folklore of the ancient Slavs. Having studied under Ilya Repin, he developed a distinctive style which became immediately popular. The ‘Skazki’ (fairy tales) and editions of Pushkin illustrated by Bilibin have become enormously collectable and, although he was so prolific, are now hard to find. In the 1970s, however, Progress Publishers of Moscow reprinted many of these books and, although not the ‘real thing’, they are undoubtedly worth tracking down.

One colossal figure in the history of twentieth century Russian graphic design is Dmitri Moor.
(Dmitry Stakhievich Orlov), known almost exclusively for his iconic propaganda posters inciting Revolution and Death to Imperialism. But, like all artists, he tried his hand at other forms of graphic design. A little known children’s book, illustrated by him and published in 1913, has come to light: the story of Chiki Chiki the Magpie. Again, strong colours dominate. The stark black and white of the magpie against the deep maroon background foreshadows the technique of his emotive political posters.

The 1917 Revolution caused huge upheaval, but despite a broken infrastructure and recurrent paper shortages, the nineteen twenties became the Golden Age of the publishing. The experiments of the Russian Futurists, and later, the Constructivists with type, design and the printed word served not only to spread the ideology of the Revolution but book illustration and design became a refuge to those who dared not dissent too explicitly. The post-revolutionary explosion in publishing catapulted the production of children’s books to new heights and, as ever, children’s books, like art, were not created merely to entertain. New Soviet publishing houses dedicated to producing books for children (DETGIZ, Molodaia Gvardiia, Detskaiia Literatura) churned out copies in their hundreds of thousands. As with most contemporary Russian publishing, low quality and acidic paper was used, ensuring an early demise. Few examples survive.

Propaganda was a major motivating factor throughout the Soviet period but the creation and design of children’s books was used both by the innovators and the disaffected. The surreal and the modern marched hand in hand in a world of tractors and typewriters. Vladimir Lebdev, one of the greatest graphic artists of the time, used a bold and assertive form of caricature employing a technique resembling cut paper images. Important for his poster design, he will also always be remembered for his collaboration with Samuil Marshak, children’s author and poet. Together these two extraordinarily talented individuals produced numerous children’s books many of which were published at the Raduga publishing house. ‘Tsirk’ or Circus is one of the most famous of these children’s books and was reprinted in the 1970s.

Later, post-war Soviet children’s publications draw on the diverse heritage of the enormous Soviet Empire, encompassing well over 100 peoples in fifteen republics. From the westernmost Baltic States through the Russian Steppes to Siberia and far Kamchatka, folklore, proverbs, customs and traditions are all incorporated in the captivating, illustrated children’s literature of the 1970s and 80s. Colour and form in Russian art still echo those days that shook the world, the heyday of the Russian Avant-Garde.

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