From Leningrad to London
By BRYAN KARETNYK
On July 26, the House of Illustration on Granary Square hosted an hour-long talk, From Leningrad to London, to accompany their exhibition of Soviet picture books from the 1920s and 30s, several of which are on display in the UK for the first time. The evening’s speakers – the collector and publisher Joe Pearson and the artist Otto Graphic – were charged with the task of tracing the lines of influence left by these revolutionary children’s books.
The exhibition itself, curated by Olivia Ahmad, is impressive if compact. A visual treat for readers young and old, it comprises four rooms of eye-catching illustrated works drawn from Sasha Lurye’s enviable collection (which also formed the core of Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya’s recent book Inside the Rainbow). The books are displayed alongside original sketches and paintings, with artwork by giants of Soviet illustration including Vladimir Lebedev, Vladimir Tambi and the Chichagova sisters, as well as such luminaries as El Lissitzky and Marc Chagall, who had taken up the revolutionary call to ply their trade in more "practical" endeavours. Entreated to rid Soviet youth of "the mysticism and fantasy" of the old order, artists and designers worked hand-in-hand with authors to supplant Baba Yaga and Koshchei the Immortal with the new heroes of Soviet life: construction, agriculture, transport and heavy industry. Visitors to the exhibition will even see Alexei Laptev’s beautifully illustrated fold-out Five Year Plan (1930) for children. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, there was much more to this golden age of Soviet children’s books than the strictly utilitarian: among the collection’s more striking examples are Lissitzky’s Suprematist-inspired About Two Squares (1922), an avant-garde allegory of the revolution itself, and Tambi’s haunting illustrations for The Book of Wrecks (1932), a macabre compendium of naval and shipping disasters. Books in other languages and in translation feature too, with Yiddish works by Leib Kvitko and Der Nister on display, as well as colourful Soviet editions of Walt Whitman’s "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and Rudyard Kipling’s "The Elephant’s Child" (again, illustrated by Lissitzky).
Michael Czerwinski, head of public projects at the House of Illustration, introduced the evening’s speakers. Joe Pearson was first up. With infectious enthusiasm he described the revolutionary effect of Soviet children’s publishing on the British book market, which transformed the dowdy black-and-white print of contemporary children’s books by injecting them with colour and innovative design. The Soviet editions, he explained, were the result of a discerning publication process: expert commissioning committees, close collaboration of artists, writers and publishers, "focus groups" of young readers, and the latest in printing technology to ensure that the books could be produced to a high quality, in phenomenal print runs (often in the hundreds of thousands), and sold cheaply. The end result was a slick mass-production operation, intentionally designed to quicken the creation of new Soviet man. What could be farther removed from the stagnation of children’s books in Britain at that time, languishing in small print runs and keeping children in their protective bubble of fairy tales and neverlands?
All this began to change for Britain in the 1930s, Pearson said, when colour-illustrated books such as J. M. Richards’s High Street (1936) appeared for the first time. The signal moment, however, was the publication of the first Puffin Picture Book in 1940: the initial print run of 40,000 copies sold out in less than a month, giving publishers to understand that the picture-book business was a lucrative one. Puffin went on to commission a vast list, built largely around the same models as the Soviet series. Indeed, the changing social structures and much-needed orientation towards reconstruction in post-war Britain would chime conveniently with the books’ Soviet forerunners. Women-at-work books, for instance, which had been a staple of Soviet children’s books since the 1920s, now appeared in the UK, subtly reflecting changes in gender roles. At this point Pearson presented, to the audience’s delight, one example of a book on car mechanics – showing not a boy, but a girl with pigtails examining the pedals and gear stick (her knitting stowed safely in the glove compartment).
The artist Otto Graphic spoke engagingly of his admiration for the integrated design solutions found by the early Soviet illustrators. He also spoke with charming self-effacement and humour of his own trials and tribulations in attempting to reproduce their tricky stencil and autolithographic techniques, divulging to the audience several behind-the-scenes slides with examples of his efforts leading up to the completed works. The stencilling techniques had apparently given him particular trouble, so it was not without irony that he mentioned having spotted in the exhibition Alexander Gromov’s Stencils (1931), which teaches children how to make their own. "It’s in Russian," he lamented, "so unfortunately I can’t read it."
The talk closed with a discussion of the recent reaction against digital modes of design and production, and the resurgence of analogue photography, vinyl and niche printing. However, as one audience member astutely commented, this exhibition also sounds a cautionary note: Given these books’ raison d’être – to depict the future through the latest in technological innovation and mass communication – is there not perhaps something elegiac in today’s vogue for nostalgia?
The exhibition A New Childhood: Picture books from Soviet Russia runs at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, until September 11.