RUSSIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS
IN RUSSIA THE CONCEPT OF BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AS A SPECIAL KIND OF ARTISTIC ACTIVITY APPEARED AT THE TURN OF THE 19–20TH CENTURIES, INTRODUCED BY THE "MIR ISKUSSTVA" (WORLD OF ART) MOVEMENT ALONGSIDE OTHER ARTISTIC CREATIVE ENTERPRISES OF ITS MEMBERS.
The global aim of the artists of the "Mir Iskusstva” movement was to create a unified style to be applied in all spheres of everyday life; they were the first in Russia to claim "the book" as "a small synthesized piece of art", while architecture was considered to be "a large" one.
Children's books were created by famous artists such as Alexandre Benois, Mstislav Dobuzhinski, Ivan Bilibin... They illustrated Russian and world folk fairytales, as well as fairy-tale-romantic stories by Russian and foreign poets and writers. The refined cultural education and exceptional artistic taste of the miriskusniki made it possible to harmonize the stylistic peculiarities of book illustration with the most vivid characteristics of the national and folk style and still match the period, with the epic narration of the fairy-tale or a poem. Little children - both readers and viewers - received a kind of historical education through book illustration. It is true that in the works of art created by the miriskusniki the children's world was very remote from that of actual reality, but what a wonderful fantastic imaginary world flourished in their colourful pages!
The highest achievements of the miriskusniki's children's books were the works by Georgi (Yegor) Narbut (1886-1920). To this day one cannot fail to admire his unsurpassed creativity, the colourful magnificence of his illustrations, and his accurate attention to historical detail and period atmosphere. The decorative style of Narbut influenced a great number of book illustrators, and his own works are considered classics in Russian children's books illustration.
In pre-revolutionary Russia there was another field of book illustration - one which broke all traditions, and was in polemic opposition to the stylistic and retrospective tendencies of miriskusniki.
The futurist book shocked readers with its clumsiness, the amateur style of its presentation, and use of some absolutely inadequate materials (sometimes even wallpaper). The futurist book was often very thin - almost a kind of a brochure, printed either lithographically, or by heliograph. Thus any hand-made written book turned to be an original masterpiece of its creators. The futurist editions of Alexei Kruchenykh, Olga Rozanova, the Burliuk brothers (David, Nikolai and Vladimir), Velimir Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich and other representatives of the Russian avant-garde still impress the reader with their expressiveness, absolute unity of word and image, and by the energy of their artistic gesture. The stylistic devices of the futurists became another source for children's book illustration in the 1920-1930s.
The revolutionary upheaval in Russia found specific realization in children's books, which were published even during the most tragic and tough times. As well as traditional folk fairy-tales some brochures with propaganda texts and illustrations were also published. A folk lubok-style is apparent, which had a visual character resembling that of the "Okna ROSTa" (Windows of the Russian Telegraph Agency), as well as the style of political posters, the design of propaganda trains and many other propaganda devices of Soviet power.
The left-wing artists cooperated with the new government established in the former Russian Empire by the most extreme left political party, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic party headed by Vladimir Lenin. Russian avant-gardists sincerely believed that their world view and their aims coincided with those of the Bolsheviks. They regarded their role as to create a new art and, following this line, to strive towards the creation of a new just society and a new human being.
It is common knowledge that the majority of the artists had been and were "utopists", leading a struggle for the creation of a new art adequate to contemporary reality. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks exploited the centuries-old utopian dreams towards a quite different strategic direction. But at the dawn of the Soviet era nobody could foresee future repressions, and the creative activity of the avant-garde artists led Russian art to the forefront of world art for the first time in its history.
The connection of suprematism - the most radical trend in the Russian avant-garde - with the needs and requirement of the new political power and simultaneously with traditional fairy-tale motifs was vividly manifested in the book "Suprematic Tale about the Two Squares in Six Constructions" designed by El Lissitsky in Vitebsk in 1920 (published in Berlin in 1922). In this edition one can see all the fundamental elements of the new children's book - an orientation towards a playful visuality, and a balance of text and plastic elements. "The book enters through the eye and not through the ear"’, claimed the founder of Russian design who later would brilliantly develop the algorithms applied for the first time in the children's book.
Children's books - a young and new kind of art - developed rapidly and energetically. In the 1920s the two Russian capitals - Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad and Moscow - become the two centres of children's book production.
Petersburg was the birthplace of almost all the miriskusniki, and thus it was only natural that the publishing traditions established by them flourished in that city. In Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924), immediately after the two revolutions, the process of formation of the famous Leningrad school of the children's book started; the school had been functioning for almost fifteen years and had produced some outstanding results.
During the 1920s and through to the middle of the 1930s the production of Soviet children's books developed. The very process of their design was extremely creative, centred on the idea of using the volume of the book and the space of its sheets to apply new plastic compositions worked out for "grown up" Russian avant-garde art. Further, the artists working with children's book illustration were active participants in the avant-garde epoch of "Sturm und Drang" ("Storm and Stress").
The biography of Vladimir Lebedev (1891-1967), whose contribution to the art of children's book illustration cannot be overestimated, is a typical example. In the 1920-1930s he won the reputation of a real master and was called the "king of the children's book", while the Leningrad group was called "Lebedev's school".
Lebedev began working in the field of book illustration in the early years of the Soviet Republic. He already had a unique experience of creating everyday reality which enabled him to make a truly revolutionary action; after breaking with the tradition of the miriskusniki's fairytale illustration with their cultivation of a fictive childish world, Lebedev turned to contemporary reality. He approached the child as a small human being in the process of exploring surrounding everyday life, who needed a trustful experienced teacher and tutor.
In his coloured lithographic book "Chuch-lo Adventures" (Petrograd, 1921 - published in 1922) Lebedev carried on the experimentation of the Russian futurists: he wrote and hand-painted the book himself on lithographic plates.
It was the starting point for a number of future editions illustrated so vividly and with such expressive force that they formed an absolutely independent part of the book, and were often understandable without any even very laconic explanatory text. These picture books were meant for very little children who knew no letters and could not read. The albums "Verkhom" (On Horseback) and "Okhota" (Hunting) by Lebedev, "Vot tak kartinki" (What Beautiful Pictures!) and "Vsyakaya vsyachina" (Farrago, or All Sorts of Odds and Ends) by Vladimir Konashevich, "Volnye Ptitsi" (Free Birds) and "Ptentsi" (Fledgelings) by Evgeni Charushin and many other books defined the "picture- book" genre.
These newly invented methods were developed and mastered by Lebedev in the famous book "The Elephant's Child" (Petrograd, 1922), a fairy-tale by Rudyard Kipling translated into Russian by Chukovski and Marshak. "Chuch-lo Adventures" and "A Little Elephant" became a manifesto for the creation of the new children's book. Uniquely they symbolized the birth of a new school - "Lebedev's school" - of book illustration, a graphic art that revolutionized the children's picture book.
If we concentrate our attention on the most typical characteristics of Lebedev's first book "The Elephant's Child", its one-dimensional approach to depicted objects, unbroken by any illusion of space, is noticeable, as is the white sheet of paper as the medium on which the action takes place; the denial of any linear shape; a plasticity of images based on the combination and opposition of pictorial spots; the selection of the most typical peculiarities of the anatomy and movement of the animal body; and the distinct contrast between generalization and a sudden detailed elaboration of the form. The laconic language of his graphic images stressed their funny vividness and the enthralling appearance of the scenes depicted.
These newly worked-out principles of book art illustration, with their strict construction and architectonics were based on the achievements of both suprematism and constructivism; the synthesis of these two avant-garde directions of art development, supplemented by Lebedev's own discoveries in artistic language, formed a highly special and individual style of the artist.
There was another, no less significant tradition in book illustration connected with the name of Georgi Narbut and his beautifully decorated books. Such artists as Sergei Tchekhonin, Dmitri Mitrokhin, Yuri Annenkov and others developed their own interpretation and application of Nar- but's approach to book illustration. Another pillar of the Leningrad school - Vladimir Konashevich (1888-1963) - became the most active propagandist and follower of Narbut.
Unlike the restrained pictorial images of Lebedev who used the white sheet of paper as a medium, Konashevich's illustrations are built on a multi-subject visual story; they are stuffed with precise and intriguing details, animated objects, depicting the landscape and interior background so meaningful for genre scenes.
These revolutionary changes in the Russian children's picture book were supported by the institutions concerned. In 1923 the publication of the children's almanac "Vorobei" (Sparrow) was launched, which later on became a monthly magazine "Novi Robinzon" (New Robinson). The man who initiated and inspired the artists and writers to group themselves around these editions was the outstanding children's poet Samuil Marshak (1887-1964). In 1924 he headed the newly-formed Children's Department of the State Publishing House (GosIzdat). The children's magazines "Chizh" (Siskin) and "Yezh" (Hedgehog) which were published in Leningrad later became legendary, and were also Marshak's creations.
Marshak and another renowned Russian author Kornei Chukovski (1882-1969) were tremendously active in the field of new children's literature. Having started in 1917 with the first new kind of children's book - "Vania i Krokodil" (Vania and the Crocodile) - later it was published as "Crocodile", the first of its kind, Chukovski remains in the history of Russian culture as the author of popular children's poems in which he used fairytale subjects, though introducing absolutely realistic details. To this very day little children in Russia believe in the "true" adventures of the evil Barmalei, and the kind doctor Aibolit (the proper name derived from the two Russian words: "Ai" (Oh) and "Bolit" ("It hurts me"))...
In a surprisingly short period of time a new children's literature with a wide range of literary kinds and genres was formed in the USSR, whose creators considered that the enormous and complex world should be accessible to the child. Their task was to prepare a child for an active and creative mode of life, to give an orientation towards a correct life.
Nobody rejected traditional folklore fairy-tales - the main spiritual source in previous times - which constituted only a part of the literary flood which was titled "books for children". The genres of the new literature embrace poetic fairy-tales about contemporary everyday life, science-fiction short novels, lyrical novelettes about Nature, stories about contemporary technical achievements, as well as educational popular-science essays on all spheres of knowledge - mathematics and biology, as well as history and philosophy.
Life in all its diversity was depicted in the literary works of the talented writers and artists who formed the core of the Leningrad Department of GosIzdat. As a real enthusiast Marshak attracted and cooperated with such authors as writers Boris Zhitkov, Vitaly Bianki, Mikhail Ilyin, Elena Danko, and poets Eugeni Schwartz, Nikolai Oleinikov, Nikolai Zabolotski, Alexandre Vvedenski, Daniil Kharms and many others. They wrote without making any allowances for "inexperienced little children". Their works were examples of real literature, producing the highest aesthetic effect on grown-up readers also: this was the most typical characteristic of the golden age of children's books. The "children's" poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky belong as much to "high" poetry as do his other famous poems for "grown-ups".
Vladimir Lebedev headed the artistic editorial board of the Leningrad department. Nikolai Tyrsa, Nikolai Lapshin and Vera Yermolaeva became his colleagues and co-workers. Some time later Lebedev's disciples Alexei Pakhomov, Eugenia Evenbach, Tatiana Shishmareva and Eduard Budogoski joined them. At the end of the 1920s some talented young artists - such as Yuri Vasnetsov, Valentin Kurdov, Eugeni Charushin - appeared on the scene. It was they who worked out and created a new artistic system which determined the design of the new Russian children's book.
Those men of letters who concentrated their creative efforts on works of poetry and prose meant for young readers and listeners were aware of the primary importance of illustrators and artists. Chukovski, the author of "Thirteen Amendments for Children's Poets", gave the following commentaries to the first amendment: "Any poem meant for children must be graphical, because poems written by children are, so to speak, poetical drawings. Those poems which are not provocative for an artist, won't do for children".
Among all the kinds and genres of children's literature generated by the social changes that took place in the 1920s the most peculiar genre was that of the popular-science book, which was without previous analogues.
The new world was full of new things - like the aeroplane or the electric lamp - which completely changed everyday life. In the eyes of many these things were humanized, interesting and kind objects, and Mikhail Tsekhanovski (1889-1965) managed to realize and visualize in his books a popular admiration for this reasonable technical harmony. The artist himself was an outstanding pioneer in book design who turned a conditional spatial-time dimension of the book into the real spatialtime dimension of cinema.
Tsekhanovski turned to children's book illustration in the mid-1920s and immediately revealed an ability to present a "psychological" portrait of different objects, showing the smallest details of the mechanisms concerned and demonstrating their most typical details. The peculiarity of Tsekhanovski's drawing was the special magic of the objects depicted; he created poetic works even when drawing a simple tool, making the image concrete and reliable.
Many books illustrated by Tsekhanovski were published in cooperation with Boris Zhitkov (1882-1938), a writer who told children about the true wonders of the surrounding real world and who made his stories interesting, fascinating and enthralling.
The name of Boris Zhitkov was connected with Marshak's book "Pochta" (Post). Its first edition was issued in 1927 and became a turning point in the fate of Tsekhanovski. Marshak's poems told a real story: a letter sent to Zhitkov followed his travels through many countries, and it reached the addressee only when he returned to Leningrad.
Tsekhanovski made his illustrations dynamic in the form of a long twisted road: each turn of the page visualized another sight, and such a contrasting arrangement of pictures composed the whole of the book.
A logical application of these algorithms encouraged Tsekhanovski to become the author of pictured play- albums, which were named "cinema- books". In his albums "Bim-Bom", "Igra v myach" (Playing a Ball), "Poezd" (A Train) - all were published in 1928 - the drawings were set in a certain order according to the phases of the movement. Thus if the pages of the book were turned quickly the image started to move like in an animated cartoon film. Tsekhanovski became the father of the Soviet animated cartoon - in 1929 he made a graphic film "Post" (Part I) based on Marshak's scenario.
Only a few of Tsekhanovski's animated cartoons survived, among them his unique "The Pacific 231” set to A. Onegger's music. They show him as a master who foresaw the birth of the television advertisement, an influential kind of art so popular at the end of the 20th century. Tsekhanovski's musical-graphical experiments are masterpieces, synthesizing music, graphics, dynamics, light and time. (At the end of the 20th century interactive kinds of art were used widely, including physical communication of viewers/users with this or that work of art; and the transformations and changes taking place in the process of interaction gave birth to new creative works. It is worth mentioning that this quality was initiated and developed in the Soviet children's book.)
The miriskusniki's children's book was quite different from those that came later. The brilliantly produced books of the miriskusniki were not meant to be read individually by children - they were meant to be admired and cherished, and only grow-ups were allowed to turn their pages. Consideration of child psychology led to original initiatives very different from that museum-like attitude: books appeared which allowed the child to draw, cut or construct something using them, issued in large print-runs meant to encourage interactive creative activity. Albums with blank illustrations to be coloured and cut out in order to make toys and other self-made trifles stimulated creative abilities of the children, teaching them how to interact with the wider world.
Among the most inventive masters of this kind of art were Vera Yermolaeva (1893-1938) and Lev Yudin (19031941) - the closest co-workers and followers of Kazimir Malevich. Invention was the most characteristic feature of their albums: thus children were able to create their own "material world", using scissors, glue and colour pencils. Absolutely wonderful books-toys like Yermolaeva-Yudin's "Bumaga i nozhnitsy" (Paper and Scissors) and Yudin's "Pokataemsya. Igrushki iz bumagi i kleya" (Let's Ride. Toys Made from Paper and Glue) and "Tschitalochka" (Play & Count) encouraged the child to make certain paper things, stimulating his/her understanding and perception of form, colour, composition and texture.
The famous Russian couple - Nina Simonovich-Yefimova (1877-1948) and Ivan Yefimov (1878-1959) suggested the idea of a home theatre made out of their books: "Teatr pyaterni" (The Theatre of the Palm), "Tenevoy Teatr" (The Shadow Theatre) and other books by the Yefimovs took children to a fairy-tale world of theatrical performance, turning them into little magicians.
The Soviet children's book became a noticeable phenomenon in European and world art in the decades between the wars. The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), who lived in immigration in Paris from 1925 until 1939, was impressed by the large-scale Soviet publications. She wrote: "What is decisively good in Russia is the children's book... There was nothing of the kind in my childhood.". Pointing to "the high culture of the hand and the eye" Tsvetaeva ended her analysis with the noteworthy and largely deserved words: ".the Russian pre-school book is the best in the world".
These outstanding achievements in the field of children's book art, particularly in the period from the end of 1920s through to its crushing defeat in the middle of 1930s, had another significant source rarely mentioned in Soviet times.
After 1929 - the year of Stalin's "great crucial change" - communist ideologists were becoming more and more aggressive in their struggle with phenomena in art that were "not understandable, alien to people", and strove to strengthen the power of the totalitarian system. Within three years - by 1932 - all groups of artists were abolished in a determined decision by the party and the government, and a single Union of Soviet Artists was formed. The doctrine of "social realism" declared the art of the peredvizhniki (Wanderers) a highlight in the development of world art, and the only method allowed was exact correspondence to nature and "correct" class orientation.
The all-embracing Stalinist pseudoclassicism was to become the only reigning style of the epoch. Any deviations from social realism were declared a survival of the decaying bourgeois system and were cursed as "formalism" and 'formalists".
It is no secret that the avant-garde artists - and most of all the suprematists and constructivists - were engaged in the creation of a "large-scale style", concentrating their efforts on architectural design and the creation of everyday working environments. The book had found its place - a very modest one - in the development of new styles. As the prosecution of formalist artists became more severe, the children's book became the only sphere of art where there remained any possibility to realize artistic avant-garde orientation.
The children's book, with its specific visual and decorative priorities, allowed the cultivation of high formal achievements of the Russian avant-garde for a long period of time. The colour energy, one-dimensional composition, a certain deformation of drawing for the sake of expressiveness and vividness, the use and exploitation of national styles justified the application of conditional methods, mainly plastic ones, required by the "realistic implication of the great socialist epoch".
In the first half of the 1930s the children's book became a niche, a refuge where the most talented Russian avant- garde masters (not only working in the visual arts) could survive. The last team of the Russian avant-gardists in literature, followers of the Russian "budetlyans" and "cubo-futurists" - the poets Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedenski and Nikolai Oleinikov found their path to readers through children's books.
The Soviet authorities were busy "cleaning up" and establishing a new ideological order in "grown-up" literature and art; they found time for children's literature a little later - and the crashing defeat of the best children's book school in the world was awful, powerful and devastating. In January 1936 the Central Committee of the All-Union Lenin Communist Young League held a special meeting in order to discuss children's literature, at which the Leningrad school of the children's book received much criticism. A scathing article "On the Artists-daubers" was published on 1 March 1936 in the government newspaper Pravda, among its targets the works of Vladimir Lebedev and Vladimir Konashevich.
A certain "collective ideologist" devoted his most insulting passages to Marshak's book "Fairy-tales, Songs, Riddles", designed and illustrated by Lebedev (it was to be issued by the Academia Publishing House in 1935). The book included the best collaborative works of the famous "couple" - including their classic poems such as "A Fairy-tale about a Foolish Little Mouse", "Luggage", "Ice-cream", "Circus", "Puddle" and many others. The anonymous author expressed his indignation at "the gloomy flood of Lebedev's distorted fantasy... Here is the book ... one turns over its pages with a feeling of strong disgust, like that felt at a patho- anatomical atlas. All kinds of children's distortions that can be born only by the fantasy of a "comprachicos" are gathered here... Even such simple things as tables, chairs, suitcases and lamps are crooked, broken and dirty, depicted in such a way that one cannot look at them without disgust and cannot use them. As if a rough wild "comprachicos" has walked up and down the book and marked every page of it with his dirty footsteps. And having done his foul business, he signs the work with pleasure: drawings by the artist Lebedev... This was done not because of any mediocrity or illiteracy of the artist, but deliberately - as if copying children's primitive style. These are pure tricks. This is 'the art', and its main aim is to reach the least in common with reality" . These accusations of the party critic were not only ideological, but also criminal because the name of the "comprachicos" was used to describe the medieval monsters who kidnapped and bought children and then, having distorted their faces, sold them to be exposed at fairs or in circuses.
The second object of accusation in the same article was the book of selected "Fairy-tales" by Chukovski-Konashevich, issued in 1935 by the same Academia Publishing House. However, the latter was luckier - in spite of all such criticism the work was published, while almost all copies of the Marshak-Lebedev volume were destroyed.
But not only were the books destroyed - their creators were also prosecuted. Lebedev and Konashevich were lucky: they were not arrested, though their life and creative activity was spoilt. Vera Yermolaeva, Alexander Vvedenski, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Oleinikov, Nikolai Zabolotski, Vladimir Sterligov and Gustav Klucis - the list can be continued - were arrested, and many of them shot, while their books were confiscated from libraries and museums and burnt.
The children's picture book of the 1920-1930s was the last splash of the powerful art movement that was named the "Russian avant-garde" in the history of world art. "Best in the world", it was subjected not only to ideological prosecution but also to physical repression, from which it took considerable time to recover.
- El Lissitski. Primechaniye ne k etoy knige// Almanakh Unovis №1.Vitebsk: Unovis, 1920 (without pagination).
- The investigators of the history of the Russian book stated: 'Lebedev (he was even called "The King of the Children's Book") was really a very influential personality" (op. cit.: Kuznetzov V, Kuznetzov E., M. Tzekhanovski. Leningrad: Publishing House "Khudozhnik RSFSR", 1973, p. 78).
- Chukovski Kornei. Trinadtzat' zapovedei dlya detskikh poetov. In: Kniga - detyam. Moscow,1929, №1, p.13.
- Marina Tsvetaeva. O novoi Russkoy knige. In: Volya Rossii (Paris), 1931, № 5-6. (Op. cit.: Tsvetaeva M. Ob iskusstve. Commentaries and compilation by L. Mnukhin. Moscow, Publishing House "Iskusstvo", 1991)
- M.P. Sokoi'nikov who worked at the publishing house "Academia" and edited Marshak- Lebedev's book later remembered that he was ordered to send 50 copies to the Soviet chief officials, and the rest of the copies were destroyed. Just a few copies of the mentioned above 50 ones survived. The Marshak's book "Skazki, pesni, zagadki" illustrated by Lebedev was issued in 1971 by the publishing house "Detgiz".
Watercolour, paper on cardboard