Saturday, September 28, 2013

What does this Rainbow promise?

Written by Olga Bukhina

Sometimes, it is easier to see a good thing from afar. In Soviet Russia, the ‘twenties and the ‘thirties were amazing in term of the artistic endeavor in children’s literature. The best artists were involved into illustrating children’s books written by the best writers and famous poets (who, as we know, often were banned from an adult audience). Many of these books are well forgotten in Russia; others are published again and again, but with quite different illustrations. And now so many of them are resurrected in London in this huge book.

Published by the Redstone Press and edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, Inside the Rainbow. Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times collected the crème de la crème of the children’s book production of these years even though the focus of the book is rather on the illustration than on the text.

The preface is written by Philip Pullman. Pullman is mesmerized by the richness of colors and the intricacy of lines. He naturally associates them with the two most important artistic movements of the 1920s, constructivism and suprematism. He understands that these children’s books cannot be seen without the context of the general art scene of the time. Of course, Pullman also understands that “[d]arkness was gathering; all the hope and excitement of the early revolutionary years was being snuffed out.” Nevertheless, he, first of all, sees “lovely primary-coloured geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun.”

The opening text by Arkady Ippolitov of the State Hermitage Museum is appropriately dark and pessimistic. It tells about the political and cultural background of the time when these books were written and published. The October revolution destroyed the old culture and brought the new one. Down with princes and princesses, down with Ivan the Fool and Baba-Yaga. In the 1920s, “Young Pioneers populated the territory once inhabited by executed princesses and lords.” It was time for a new present, and especially for a new, sparkling communist future. We all know what happened next. Ippolitov again and again brings the reader back to reality—to countless besprizorniki (orphans and neglected street children), and to the dark shadow hidden behind the bright book covers, the shadow of the Kremlin dictator.

But history lessons aside, let us for a moment just look at the images and the titles of the books. Known to each and every child in Russia, What is Good and What is Bad by Vladimir Mayakovsky illustrated by Alexei Laptev in 1930, shows adorable Soviet kids, the bad ones on the left, and the good ones on the right. Samuil Marshak’s Ice Cream with the famous Valdimir Lebedev’s illustrations (1925) brings forward the best of constructivism in clear colors and industrial shapes.

The white and dark blue M. Makhalov’s photographs and photomontages of The Journey inside the Electric Lamp by N. Bulatov and P. Lopatin (1937) is one of the examples of the particularly valued educational function of children’s literature in the Soviet Union. The famous Soviet artist Alexander Deineka illustrated the book called The Electrician by B. Uralsky (1930) using the brightest shades of yellow, orange, and red. After all, this is a book about light. Remember, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” The light is the future.

Suprematist El Lisitzki is so recognizable in his own book About Two Squares (1922). One square is black (he was, after all, a friend of Malevich), and the other is red. Kornei Chukovsky together with Vladimir Konashevich; Samuil Marshak again and again with Vladimir Lebedev; Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Shterenberg—delightful combinations of a writer and an artist.

Osip Mandelshtam’s poetry for children was “forgotten” for two generations. Before showing his kids’ poetry, the book, of course, quotes Mandelshtam’s famous poem:
          To read only children’s books, treasure
          Only childish thoughts, throw
          Grown-up things away
          And rise from deep sorrows.

Knowing Mandelshtam’s horrible fate, it is a bit eerie to look at his children’s books. The illustrations by Boris Ender to Mandelshtam’s Two Trams (1925) are constructivist through and through. The F. Dmitriyeva’s illustrations to the amazing edition of his The Kitchen (1927) in Azerbaijani are full of primary colors and heavily ethicized.

Personally, my favorite image is Lidia Popova’s back cover to Sergei Neldikhen’s 9 Words (1929) with the big black dot and the price, 12 kopeks.

Alas, all this excitement of bright colors and intricate shapes should not trick the reader. One of the opening photographs of the book is of Soviet children in the northern town Norisk under the poster which read “Thank you great Stalin for the happy childhood.”

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