Culture- ART FEATURE- Ars publica: Revolutionary book art

This past fall, the University of Virginia Art Museum hosted "Regeneration," an exhibition exploring work by contemporary Chinese artists who grew up under the anti-intellectual strictures of the People's Revolution but who are now flourishing in the post-Mao era. Now UVA's Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library takes an intriguing look in the opposite direction with the exhibition "The Firebird and the Factory: Modern Russian Children's Books."

Where "Regeneration" examined art loosed from state-imposed communist guidelines, "The Firebird and the Factory" looks at how Bolshevik Revolution-inspired artists and writers re-imagined children's books as vehicles to promote the new socialist agenda. According to a 1919 statement by avant garde artist El Lissitsky, whose geometric illustrations for A Suprematist Tale About Two Squares are on display, "[Books] are to our time what cathedrals with their frescoes and stained glass were to ages past— books have become monuments to modernity."

Prior to the 1917 Revolution, books belonged to the elite domain of the Russian aristocracy. Illustrations in a 1904 alphabet book by imperial artist Alexandre Benois depict luxury goods, leisure activities, and landed estates. Not so the graphic and modern 1925 alphabet book by avant gardist Vladimir Lebedev, which employs tools of the proletariat, like shovels and axes, to illustrate the Cyrillic letters.

Well-organized and with excellent signage (informative without being cumbersome), "The Firebird and the Factory" shows how children's books shifted from lavishly produced volumes of folktales and folk songs, illustrated in art nouveau-influenced style by Ivan Bilibin and his student Georgii Narbut, to books teaching about industry, transportation, labor, and efficiency. Although often printed on cheap paper with limited palettes, the strong-edged images in the latter reflect the Bauhaus, Cubist, and de Stijl movements going on elsewhere in Europe. 

A particularly interesting case displays books bashing anti-socialist practices, directed particularly at the U.S. Nearby another case reveals how some artists, such as poet Osip Mandelstam, resisted the government mandate to celebrate the strong laborer.

Placed side by side, these books reveal an important political story. Nevertheless, it's thrilling simply to see such powerful early 20th century Russian art. Viewers not only have the chance to sigh over Bilibin's gorgeous illustrations for Aleksandr Pushkin's 1907 The Golden Cockerel, but they also can admire the geometric strength of Aleksandr Deineka's artwork for the Soviet book The Electrician.

When Russians became Soviets, the revolution may not have been televised (ala Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 Beat poem), but it was beautifully published.

"The Firebird and the Factory: Modern Russian Children's Books" is on view at the University of Virginia's Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library through April 9. 243-8969. 


1 comment

I am seeking the original 1904-ediyion of the
"Russian Alphabet in Pictures"by Alexander Benois