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Children's Illustration

© Yelena Yasen. Good Fortune of Russian Children or Another Chapter in the History of Russian Avant-Garde. Chapter 1. 1995

© Yelena Yasen.  Good Fortune of Russian Children or Another Chapter in the History of Russian Avant-Garde.   Chapter 1.  IMRC (Institute of Modern Russian Culture at Blue Lagoon). 1995 (updated in 2016).  Editing by Natalya Shneyder, Television Writer and Producer.


As it was mentioned in the Introduction, Lebedev became the Art Director of The Children’s Department of the State Publishing House in Leningrad in the beginning of 1925. Another important event took place in Lebedev’s career that year.  He produced illustrations to The Circus (Note 1: С Маршак. Цирк. Ленинград, 1925). It would be more accurate to say, however, that Marshak composed his poem lines to illustrate the pictures created by Lebedev (Note 2: В. В. Лебедев, стр. 90).

In terms of its charm, sense of joy, magical impact on the viewer, simplicity of means, and innovative techniques Lebedev’s The Circus can be compared to the famous Circus of Calder, also created in the middle of the 1920s (Note 3: J. Lipman & M. Aspinwall, A. Calder and his Magical Mobiles, Hudson Hills Press, Inc. with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1981, pp. 22 – 31).  Similar to Calder, Lebedev was always fascinated by circus performances.  The beauty of a human body as well as its muscularity attracted the artist throughout his entire life.

V. Lebedev, The Circus, 1925, from the author's book collection

V. Lebedev, The Circus, 1925, from the author’s book collection

Yet, there is a difference between Calder’s and Lebedev’s interpretations: the performers of Calder’s series are three dimensional, partially mechanical toys, who belong totally to the closed circus world.  Lebedev’s performers are the products of the Soviet graphic language of the 1920s; they are direct descendants of Lebedev’s Okna ROSTA (revolutionary posters of the 1920s) and just as their predecessors project a strong feeling of dynamism typical for all aspects of art produced during that period (Note 4: В. В. Лебедев, стр. 90).

Visual impact of Lebedev’s characters can be easily compared to the impact of the famous Malevich Sportsmen’s series of 1928 – 1932 (Note 5: K. Malevich 1878 – 1935, p. 182).  Another close analogy to Lebedev images would be Lissitzky’s illustrations to Jewish children’s stories created during the same period.  Having been representatives of the same Avant-garde movements, both artists employed similar art methods—the suprematism approach combined with the folk art tradition (Note 6: Tradition and Revolution, The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-garde Art, 1912 – 1928, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1988, p. 109).  But while Lebedev utilized the Russian “lubok” style, Lissitzky “was clearly inspired by Jewish folk art.” (Note 7: Tradition and Revolution, p. 109).

Another appropriate parallel to Lebedev’s Circus is Lissitzky’s Story of Two Squares (История про два квадрата). This children’s story about two squares had become an internationally recognized manifesto of Russian suprematism, in which “the highest level of expressiveness was reached through very restrictive selection of contemporary artistic means” (Note 8: Н. Харджиев, Искусство книги, # 3, p. 154; E. Ковтун, Книжные обложки Русских художникоа начала 20-го века, Ленинград, 1977, p. 13). In fact, in these two art projects both artists were experimenting with the same spectrum of ideas, (“different stages of shape, matter and weight in space) which Lissitzky was researching on in his famous architectural utopias, Prouns (Note  9: Б. Хазанова, Советская архитектура первых лет Октября, Moсква, 1970, стр. 26). However, while Lissitzky restricted himself by two-dimensional, geometrical (suprematist) forms Lebedev, on the other hand, included in his designs figurative elements and details, since his ultimate purpose was to express the spirit of the new epoch conveyed through the dazzling circus performance.

The Circus was conceived as a cascade of tricks: every page illustrates one of them.  The participants of the performance look vibrant and, at the same time, toy like.  They involve the spectator (adult as well as child) in the dazzling spectacle, created as a celebration of color.

The page’s compositions represent, in fact, the colors of the rainbow. The Circus’ actors wear, for the most part, red, yellow, and blue costumes.  The equipment has the same colorful correlations.  All-in-all, the drawings are rendered in primary colors that look particularly picturesque and create a feeling of optimism.  In addition to the contrasting colors, a contrast of textures greatly enriches the graphic design.  For example, the piebald horse’s skin and its red smooth horsecloth have different textural qualities so that the combination of both creates a very colorful contrast.  The juxtaposition of color and texture is carefully considered.  Lebedev had much experience of this kind of juxtaposition in his numerous posters, Okna ROSTA (see in Introduction regarding Lebedev’s Okna ROSTA).

The joyful, almost magical quality of this book is achieved by more than its colorfulness and the artist’s knowledge of graphic design principles. Lebedev’s method of using the book page’s surface is ingenious:  “In drawings the main role belongs to lines and spots.  But the artist’s attitude towards the visual surface of the page is also important.  In paintings, the canvas surface is not visible.  In drawings the surface of the page is an independent factor of artistic expressiveness the role of which can be very significant (Note 10: А. Бакушинский, Русский рисунок за десять лет Октябрьской революции, стр. 11).

In Lebedev’s interpretations the white page is not just an inert background for pictures but is an active element that radiates an abundance of colors as well as artistic ideas. All the drawings are permeated with white; not one graphic form is isolated from the space of a white field.  As a result, a harmonious balance arises between the two material stages that are transformed into the language of graphic forms, and so all the colorful forms can be compared to corporeal objects; in the meantime, a white field of the page provides the atmosphere in which those objects exist.

Thus, the clown’s shoes seem to be ready to turn down next second, as if they are not attached to his fat, short legs, but are free entities of their own. An avalanche of invisible sparks seems to be running down along the juggler’s slender legs.  We can almost feel him stamping his feet mischievously. Speaking about the juggler, it is worth mentioning that his costume is based on the colors and symbols of the American flag, which adds an additional semantic meaning to the juggler’s image.  The artist’s use of the white book page creates a tremendous dynamic effect.  The cheerful characters are transformed from a static, geometric design into charming, vital images.

Lebedev’s use of black is no less interesting than his use of white. In The Circus black looks like a bright color because the artist uses it sparingly for quite special details.  The black color here is able to contribute to the colorful effect of the book’s design.  In addition, it creates an exceptional optical effect.  Only black has the quality of drawing the spectator to the design.  It serves to sandwich colors between the black forefront and the white field behind the depicted objects.  The buttons on the black juggler’s outfit, for example, look like thumbtacks attaching his figure to the book’s page.  Black is the limit of the drawn object on the side nearest to the viewer.  White holds the opposite side of the depicted object.  Lebedev was able to maintain the flatness of the book page with the help of this method.  He understood the rules of conditional graphic space.  It is evident that Lebedev was in complete command of his medium.  In The Circus he applied the suprematist experience masterfully.

It is not only the use of color that creates the dynamic atmosphere of these drawings but also the mastery of line. Lebedev’s drawings can give perfect depiction of any part of the human or animal figure, but they go beyond this in expressing the motions and emotions of those human and animal figures as well.  The artist’s ability to render a general idea of any object and, at the same time, keep its individual traits is remarkable.  One of the critics of those days wrote about Lebedev’s… “mystery which was to simplify images in such a way that they still kept their individual attributes.  Very few of Lebedev’s imitators possessed the same ability.  Among Lebedev’s images one can find many elementary ones, and yet they seem to be totally unique.  They are like Anderson’s characters who speak only for themselves(Note 11: Е. Голлербах, Современная кнжная обложка, Ленинград, 1927, стp. 26).

At this point it is easy to see why this book was acknowledged as a graphic masterpiece of the 1920s. «The book’s drawings exploded the ordinary book page, or to put it better, they organized it in an absolutely new way. These unprecedented drawings made a strong impression on the viewer.  They were executed with a sense of humor, brightness, and joyful colors, and they were to determine the appearance of the majority of children’s books during that time (Note 12: Рассказы по памяти, 1971, стp. 23). The popularity of Lebedev’s book was unbelievable.  For years “the book market variegated with numerous The Circus’s imitations.” (Н. Пунин, В. Лебедев, стp. 12; many examples of children’s books of the 1920s can be found in the Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library).

Even the most talented artists, such as Lapshin, Ermolaeva and some others were, for a while, dominated by Lebedev’s powerful vision. Everyone knew The Circus.  It brought to life dozens of imitations; M. Gorky, and R. Rollan were delighted by the book.  When V. Mayakovsky found out from 22 year old writer, L. Kassil, that Kassil did not know about Marshak’s and Lebedev’s work, he reacted as follows:  “How come do you not know about the lady moving along the wire?!  From The Circus! I see you know nothing!” (Note 13: Я думал, чувствовал, я жил, Воспоминания о Маршаке, Москва, 1971, стp. 84; with time Kassil had become one of the most famous Soviet children’s writers). The Circus style established the solid paradigm for the style of Soviet children’s books of the 1920s which was based on modern urban reality.  This was a paradigm of Matisse, Leger, Calder, Picasso and many other leading artists of the twentieth century.

As an illustrator Lebedev worked very closely with Marshak. They created many innovative books together: Today and Yesterday, The Ice-cream, The Luggage and others (Маршак, “Мороженное”, Радуга, 1925; “Вчера и сегодня, Радуга, 1925; “Как рубанок сделал рубанок, Ленинград, 1925; “Багаж, Ленинград, 1926, etc.). In addition, Lebedev published his own splendid projects for children during the 1920s: Kipling’s Small Elephant (“Слоненок”), a series of drawings The Hunt (“Охота”), etc. (Note 14: some of Lebedev’s books of the 1920s, including The Circus, were published by the private publishing house “Raduga” because of technical difficulties of that period.  In the 1970s “Khudozhnik RSFSR” published the best selection of Lebedev’s books of the 1920s: Vladimir Lebedev, Ten Books for Chidren (“Десять книг для детей”, Ленинград, 1976).

All those books manifested a new stage in the development of Russian children’s graphic design. Up to that point, Russian graphic art for children was dominated by the “World of Art” artists (Note 15: see note # 26, Introduction about the “World of Art”). Sophisticated art-nouveau forms were the most typical ones for the “World of Art” style. Lebedev’s innovative approach offered a completely different artistic archetype:  powerful combinations of primary colors synthesized with energetic geometrical (suprematist) shapes.  On the other hand, Lebedev employed a very important accomplishment of the “World of Art” artists.  It was based on the idea that any book is an indivisible organism with strong architectonic qualities rather than a mechanical mixture of separated pages.

The Circus became the most perfect expression of Lebedev’s creative system (Note 16: the most important of Lebedev’s statements regarding his creative system were published in the Literature Contemporary (Литературный современник, 1933, #12, pp. 204-206). This system included the suprematist experience, the dynamic attributes of futurist vision, and the utilization of the folk art tradition–all features of the latest art achievements of the beginning of the century.  Any combination of these features had to be as economical as possible in order to reach the maximum expressiveness of graphic images (Note 17: It is worth it now to recall again Lissitzky’s Story of Two Squares, in which “the highest level of expressiveness was reached thanks to the most restrictive selection of contemporary artistic means“; Н. Харджиев, Искусство Книги, № 3, стр. 154.  Also see note # 22, Introduction and # 8, present chapter). These features were profoundly incorporated into convincing depictions of natural forms. Finally, the drawings were visually interconnected with the white background of the book page.  But after all, the very first criteria for all the elements of Lebedev’s system was children’s perception.  One of the most distinguished colleagues of Lebedev, V. Favorsky, wrote regarding the importance of this kind of criteria:

A book for adults can be something valuable or it can be nothing. But a children’s book should always be of the highest quality in terms of its contents as well as its pictures.  It should project a celebratory feeling.  In fact, it should be magnificent (Note 18: Владимир Конашевич, стр. 86; also see note #79, Introduction regarding studies of children’s perception’s throughout Soviet history).

Along with Lissitzky’s The Story of Two Squares, Lebedev’s The Circus was the best possible example to Favorsky words.  In this book Lebedev realized his creative system in the most perfect way. Lebedev’s system is known today to every Russian art critic who studies the art for children.  It became a foundation for the development of such a phenomenon of Soviet graphic art as “Lebedev’s School.”  E. Kovtun, one of the best-known Russian specialists on Russian Avant-garde, defined “Lebedev’s School” as follows:

Not only very different artists, but sometimes antipodes collaborated in The Children’s Department. … That is why the expression “Lebedev’s School,” which one can read about in many modern publications, is not precisely correct.  In the books, produced by The Children’s Department, one could have found interactions of very different artistic methods–pictorial, geometrical, constructivist ones etc. …  Having been a very wise advisor, Lebedev never violated any artist’s own artistic preferences.  On the contrary, he tried to help each and every artist to develop his/her unique artistic vision. … His only demand was to perceive a book as an indivisible organism, and consequently to structure it with regard to such a perception (Note 19: E. Ковтун, Книжные обложки Русских художников начала 20-го века, Ленинград, 1977, стp. 13).               

V. Ermolaeva, The Train, 1929, from the author's book collection

V. Ermolaeva, The Train, 1929, from the author’s book collection

One of the most distinctive representatives of Lebedev’s school became V. Ermolaeva, his closest collaborator at The Children’s Department. Like Lebedev, Ermolaeva was very interested in the relationship between suprematism and the folk art tradition.  During the 1920s she collected objects of Russian folk art and studied them in the GINKhUK laboratory of color (Note 20: see note # 53, Introduction). Before her collaboration at The Children’s Department Ermolaeva had already tried her hand at children’s illustration. A Little Hare or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (“Зайчик или 1, 2, 3, 4, 5”) is one of her first children’s books.  The design of A Little Hare is not as magnificent as that of The Circus, but there is a faultless sense of color in Ermolaeva’s illustrations which is the greatest achievement of the book.  The abundance of color became the most distinctive characteristic of Ermolaeva’s later works.  She brought out the picturesque quality of graphic design so contrary to strict geometrical forms.

During her work at The Children’s Department, Ermolaeva published many children’s books, e. g. Samovar (“Самовар”), Fishmen (“Рыбаки”), Little Dogs (“Собачки”), etc. (Note 21: Д. Хармс, Иван Иванович Самовар, Гос. Издат, 1920s, В. Ермолаева, Собачки, Гос. Издат, 1929, Рыбаки, 1920s, etc.;  examples of Ermolaeva’s books can be seen at the Slavic and Baltic Division of The New York Public Library). The Train (“Поезд”) was one of the best (Note 22: В. Ермолаева, Поезд, Гос. Издат, Ленинград, 1929). This story is about eight boys who decided to go to different places in the world.  Every page has a picture of one of those places.  Thus the spectator can see different lands and cityscapes.  The book gives the sensation of immense spaces that change impetuously, one after another.  It is important to remember that motion is a favorite topic of twentieth century art.  However, there is a noticeable difference between the depiction of motion in The Train and in The Circus.

Ermolaeva ‘s book uses the same device for every page–semantic contrast–to show the possibility of smoothly taking in many sights.  Fascinating little carriages ride across the middle of every page, dividing it into two opposing parts, such as the sky and the shore, the forest and the jungle. This method of semantic contrast is strengthened by the contrast of colors.  The contrasting colors do not want to yield to each other in their resonance.  The brown-red hues (depicting the desert or cityscape) literally fight with deep blue and lilac (of the sea or the night street).

The folk tradition is evident in the use of the strained interplay of colors. Ermolaeva demonstrates exquisite taste adopting the use of bright paints found in folk art into her illustrations. She obtained the same brightness and powerful impression that Lebedev had in The Circus.  But Lebedev was able to achieve an artistic balance because he used primary colors restrained by strict geometrical forms.  Those forms softened the brightness of the colors and brought a sense of harmony into the graphic design.  Ermolaeva’s method, on the other hand, demanded the use of hues.  However, her drawings did not look like painting reproductions–she never forgot about the main role of the book page.  In other words, while she gave maximum color to the page, Ermolaeva simultaneously kept the page’s white field (Note 23: see note 11).

When Ermolaeva began to work in the Children’s Department, she used montage and “comparison of silhouettes” method, as Lebedev did in The Circus.  She demonstrated similar skills in the combination of different rhythms and colors.  Pictorial design later replaced montage as her primary approach.  After a long search Ermolaeva discovered a way of combining pictorial and graphic methods into one.  Her books show the psychological reaction to the extreme emotional asceticism of the Avant-garde movements.  If Lebedev had expressed an emotional spirit within geometrical forms themselves, Ermolaeva offered a way of substituting graphic design for pictorial one.

Ermolaeva’s method was, in fact, a suggestion of a new aesthetic ideal which the spectator desired after the endless artistic experiments of the beginning the twentieth century. By the end of the 1920s the spectator deeply needed modern and synthetic attitudes toward nature.  There was a logic in the direction art was taking from the geometrical to the pictorial method.  One can easily demonstrate that Ermolaeva had a productive approach behind her work.  Many artists chose this light-pictorial method in the late 1920s – early 1930s.  One can recall such patterns as Lebedev’s The Ballet Dancers and his The Circus of the 1930s, N. Lapshin’s The Voyage of Marco Polo, Tyrsa’s The Military Horses (Note 24: about Lebedev’s Circus of the 1930s see Chapter 2; about Lapshin and Tyrsa works see the rest of the present chapter). As critic A. Bakushinsky wrote in 1928…

… These [Avant-garde] artists have helped to surmount the last archaisms of impressionism such as the flabby and non-constructing composition.  They have returned fine art onto a strong, analytical path solving some artistic problems in a totally new way.  But, at the same time, they have absolutely abolished the object as an artistic topic from the process of synthetic creation.  Their declaration was, that the only right way in art was the analytical and logical way of aesthetic thinking…  It seems that the drawing has to search for its new direction through the combination of analytical and light-pictorial design, in order to discover a new artistic world view (Note 25: А. Бакушинский, Русский рисунок за десять лет Октябрьской революции, стp. 9, 12).

Another distinctive Soviet critic, Boris Vipper, wrote regarding the role of the pictorial method in the history of Soviet graphic art:

In the second half of the 19th century the friendship between pen and brush was terminated. Since that point the artists have been divided into two opposing groups:  those masters of drawing, who    were pursuing the depiction of alternate states of nature, liked to use the brush to fulfill their aim (Guis, Manet).  Those, who were searching for drama and expressiveness, preferred to utilize the pen (Pissaro, Van-Gogh, Munkh and others).  A full rebirth of pictorial drawing took place in Soviet graphic art (Note 26: Борис Виппер, Введение в историческое изучение искусства, Москва, 1985, стp. 23).

Tyrsa’s The Military Horses (“Военные кони”) is one of the most appropriate examples to Bakushinsky’s and Vipper’s words.  At the same time, this is one of the best Tyrsa’s works of the late 1920s.  Two figures of little horses resembling wooden toys are placed in the center of the book’s red cover.  Doubtless this was the style of the early 1920s, with its emphasis on montage and active color contrast.  But something unexpected awaits the reader inside the book:  black and white watercolor illustrations have amazing force.  The horses which are the main characters of the book, look indomitable and full of great energy.

N. Tjersa, The Military Horses, 1929, from the author's book collection

N. Tjersa, The Military Horses, 1929, from the author’s book collection

The artist creates the effect by doing away with line. Here line is not a visible limit that separates graphic forms, such as human or animal figures, from the surrounding environment.  There are no longer any borders, only a compact pictorial stream that transforms itself from one graphic object into another.  Thus Tyrsa used a method different from that of Lebedev and Ermolaeva to express a sense of dynamism.  He used a black and white tonal design created from a white piece of paper intersected by numerous black and gray hues so that it seems the book pages start to quiver.

The Circus had an impressive sense of dynamism too, but it did not have such exquisite pictorial nuances which could only be incorporated by the use of a tonal design, the method which prospered in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Unfortunately, this method was later adopted by the state proponents of Social Realism to create a mechanical depiction of reality.

It is interesting that while Tyrsa’s technique was well developed, the same cannot be said of the meaning of his drawings. It seems as if he occasionally forgot about the semantic level of the drawings, which accounts for the senseless quality of his characters (for example, the depiction of the officer-cadets in В. Каверин, “Осада дворца” (The Siege of the Palace).

Not only Tyrsa but other founders of The Children’s Department, as well, lacked an aspect of the psychological level in the character of their 1920s books. This lack was not due to an inability on their part but to their concentration on solving some of the major artistic problems of that historical period which was generalization of reality, practically, to the symbolic level.

The primary direction art was to take over the next decade was to reflect the psychological and individual qualities of the human personality. Because of this, Lebedev and his colleagues enthusiastically accepted some books by the younger artist, A. Pakhomov, a student of Lebedev at The Children’s Department (Note 27: about A. Pakhomov see a special segment of Chapter 3 of this book).

It was natural that the main direction of art in the 1920s was to search for typical features of the post-revolutionary way of life. Certainly, the new conditions of the 1930s, a more stable existence, for example, demanded expression in art.  But the process of searching for new art images, which would reflect the new features of life in the 1930s, was severely damaged by the demands of Social Realism (Note 28: see Introduction and the most part of Chapter 2).  Lebedev found himself in quite unbearable circumstances.  Tyrsa tried to change his field by illustrating classical literature which was less dangerous than conducting innovative experiments in children’s books.  Ermolaeva met the most tragic result of the regime because of her contacts with the poets of the OBEREY group (Note 29: about OBEREY see Introduction and Chapter 2). As it was mentioned in the Introduction, she was exiled from Leningrad and died in 1938.

Lapshin, the fourth member of The Children’s Department, did not managed to avoid a lot of misfortunes and frustrations either. But for some reason during the 1930s he enjoyed great success such as his victory in the contest set by the Limited Edition Club in New York (see Introduction).

Lapshin did not reach his highest artistic achievements easily. In the beginning of his career at The Children’s Department he was significantly influenced by Lebedev’s creative vision.  His charming illustrations to Our Kitchen (“Наша кухня“), by K. Chukovsky, employed the same suprematist design that Lebedev used in The Circus.  Lapshin’s more original works appeared by the end of the 1920: Black Across White (“Черным по белому”), The Sun is on the Table (“Солнце на столе”), etc. (Note 30: К. Чуковский, Наша кухня, Leningrad, 1925, M. Ильин, Черным по белому, Москва-Ленинград, 1933; M. Ильин, Солнце на столе, Госиздат, 1927, etc.  See examples of Lapshin’s works at the Slavic and Baltic Division of the New York Public Library). The most important achievement of Lapshin’s method of the late 1920s was his ability to incite the reader to open and read the book in order to learn about the mysterious, enigmatic images on the b1ok’s covers.  For example, children cannot immediately identify the five little figures on the cover of The Sun is on the Table, nor can they recognize the five different articles each figure holds in his or her hand.

Lapshin uses the artistic design to reveal the second practical function of the book. Long before his work at The Children’s Department, Lapshin was affected by the idea that a work of art is both an object, and a complex of artistic images as well.  It seems strange today that this idea was not  obvious to many Russian artists of the 1920s, and, as a result of their  serious disagreements, Russian artists were divided into two opposing groups. The first group believed in creating art to serve the spirit; the second one believed only in industrial production (Note 31: see in Russian Constructivism; besides see A. Lavrentiev, Varvara Stepanova, Edited by John E. Bowlt,  The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988). It took years to reconcile both methods and eventually create synthetic images which would simultaneously serve the aesthetic and the practical purpose; a powerful example would be Malevich’s porcelain productions of the middle of the 1920s.

Lapshin always felt that there was no such deep gap between the two major functions of art, and tried to unite them harmoniously in his books. He was convinced that a book is both a piece of art, which may contain graphic images of artistic value, and a material thing, which is used by people in their everyday lives (Note 32: Lapshin’s views can found in his Autobiographical Notes [Автобиографические записки].  See Introduction).

The artistic designs of Black Across White, The Sun is on the Table, and his other books are highly professional.  Lapshin’s drawings correspond perfectly with the contexts.  In combination with the concrete information of the chapter or paragraph, these drawings evoke the manifold moods that arise from the meaning of the text.  As a result, the drawings and the text become indivisible.  The artist obtained an authentic synthesis between the text and the depictions, in other words, between the practical and aesthetic functions of the book as a work of art.

There is one more special quality in Lapshin’s illustrations, the harmonious combination of lithographic technique and the miniature style that is typical of Far Eastern art. This combination is not accidental.  When young Lapshin studied with Lebedev at the private studio of Professor Bernstein, he had a real passion for learning different graphic techniques.  He kept this love throughout his entire life.  In addition, because of his profound study of classical Far Eastern art, he began to appreciate the charm of miniature design.  Throughout his creative development, Laphsin achieved a superb understanding of Oriental art (Note 33: in this respect he was similar to another significant Soviet artist, V. Konashevich who also creatively used Far Eastern art tradition in his work.  About Konashevich see a special segment of Chapter 2).

In the early 1930s Lapshin participated in the creative competition among several hundreds artists from different countries (Note 34: see Introduction). He had to illustrate the book The Voyage of Marco Polo.  Much to his own surprise, Lapshin won this major competition, confirming his high level of skill for which he had already earned a reputation.

Lapshin made approximately 400 watercolor miniatures for Marco Polo.  The artist used a tiny vignette at the beginning of every chapter to create a feeling of having traveled around the world.  Readers could almost feel the burning heat in the desert; they went to the bottom of the ocean and watched the rare breeds of fish swimming by; they glanced through the windows of the marvelous Eastern pagoda, and so forth.

It is very important to note that these illustrations do not look like originals of Far Eastern art. We do not find typical Oriental designs such as flat relief or depictions of mysterious sights of the Orient.  On the contrary, we see numerous cityscapes and landscapes which retain their unique and concrete appearance.  Lapshin did not mechanically imitate Oriental design but built his own system using Oriental artistic ideas creatively.  His diary, preserved by the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, shows his profound  knowledge of the wide range of the world art traditions which helped him to use Oriental images so creatively:

… from the schemes of cubism and futurism through the primitives and through Old Masters to creative works of Goya, Manet, Matisse, Marquet… It became my challenge to synthesize all world art–the laconic primitive forms and the drawings of prehistoric man, children creation, folk signs, Japanese and Chinese drawings which had a profound influence on European Art (Note 35: Н. Лапшин, Автобиографические записки, стp. 70).

N. Laphshin, The Voyage of Marco Polo, New York, printed from the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934, Rare books and manuscripts division.  The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

N. Laphshin, The Voyage of Marco Polo, New York, printed from the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934, Rare books and manuscripts division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

Lapshin’s illustrations were of such fine quality that it seems the artist had followed the words of an ancient Chinese virtuoso: «Sometimes a brush is like a tender cloud; sometimes it softly drills the paper as if it were a little worm.  It can spring lightly upon the paper as a grasshopper or scratches as an old tree» (Note 36: B. Виппер, Статьи об искусстве, Москва, 1970, стp. 62).

As it was emphasized in the Introduction to this research piece the main goal of the artists of The Children’s Department was to create a new kind of book for children. This new book was to expand children’s imaginations and to give them appropriate ideas about the diversity of the world, the complexity of human feelings, the boundless opportunities of science, and so forth.  That is why the artists of the Children’s Department tried to include an educational element for every age level in the children’s books they designed.

Lapshin developed this aspect more thoroughly that the other members of the Children’s Department. For him this educational element was crucial.  He succeeded in combining interesting educational tasks, the achievements of modern art, and the classical (in his case, Far Eastern) tradition.

The best results in children’s books are obtained by combining three important elements–learning, classical heritage, and the top achievements of modern technique. This latter feature is as important for children’s books as it is for any artistic work in general.  During the 1920s – beginning 1930s the founders of The Children’s Department of the State Publishing House in Leningrad discovered this, and it was their major accomplishment.  In order to follow their discovery they studied the most important problems of contemporary art.  It was necessary to repeat the same process in the 1930s to develop an artistic style appropriate to the new period.  But Russian art in the 1930s did not have the same opportunity to search for a new artistic and spiritual ideal.  The political situation hindered creative freedom.

The next chapters of this research study will show how the best Soviet artists tried to overcome the rigid requirements of the Stalinist regime in order to save and develop the best traditions of the 1910s and the 1920s in the area of children’s book design.

Chapter 2 to follow…





About Yelena Yasen

Yelena Yasen (Елена Ясногородская): M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Russia. Work history includes: The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; Brooklyn Museum, New York; New School for Social Research, New York. Presently: College Professor, Writer, Art Designer; an author of "Russian Children's Book Illustration or Another Chapter in the History of Russian Avant-Garde" (Institute of Modern Russian Culture, University of Southern California, Archive) and more than 30 published articles in Russian and English.


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