The cat of Astraján marries LA CATRINAThe story
of the luboks
Text by Alejandro Barreto*
One fine day in 2008, just like that, I woke up with the firm conviction of learning Russian. Why? I simply felt it was necessary and had to start as soon as possible. It is worth noting that when I started, I was quite discouraged because I found it very complicated, much more than when I heard the Russian songs in the children’s Soviet cartoons with simultaneous translation on channel 11 in the eighties. Everything seemed “pretty and Russian,” even Bolek and Lolek (although they were Polish).
However, I thought of the importance of Russian as a language. The Russians are known worldwide for their high educational ability, their engineering, medicine and aeronautics. We know the history of ancient tsars, the ex-Soviet Union, communism, folkloric art: seni and kamárinskaya; we know the matryoshkas, balalaikas, Anastasia Romanova and Rasputin, Siberia and the Gulag archipelago, Misha the bear, Dostoyevsky, Ana Karenina, Aleksandr Pushkin, the Palekh lacquer boxes, the samovars, Master and Margarita, the borsch and we’ve (perhaps) danced to the Kasachok. But facing my fascination with all this emerging-cultural-Russian mass, I discovered little by little as I went out of my way for seven years seven years ago trying to understand that exotic language, so different to Spanish, I always kept a special place in my heart for the moment when I’d discover that thing that would make the ultimate connection with the largest Slavic country in the world. I, as an engraver, had to discover the Russian graph, how it was, – I didn’t mind how folkloric it was, or how unpopular people thought it was – I knew that when I found this manifestation, I would fall in love at any cost. A love blindly compromised.
Among my expectations, I always yearned to see the culture of several friends from Russia reflected, in any style of engraving. I also expected to see how the traditional representation of the human figure so characteristic of their icons would be reflected, since nearly all Russian illustrations denote traces of Byzantine art. Russian artists keep in their genes the beauty of Byzantine representation, for example, children’s books have delightfully crude images: wolves, foxes and bears with ferocious jaws, but with dreamy faces, just like some characters with lost looks are usually represented in profile, hieratical representations, etc. Russian tales tend to become magical of a sudden; they are unpredictable, just like the arrival of what I longed for.
When I finally found real Russian graph, it was like the epiphany of Rus: the revelation of the Old Slavic world. The images were crude, not pretentious at all, sober, mocking and had the most musical name I had ever read in Cyrillic, it was called LUBOK.
The luboks were something that suddenly appeared in my life, just like that, magically, like in the stories. We made such a connection that it was like a demonstration that had been there forever, but I forgot about it one day, and the next, it appeared just like that, as if I had lost it for a while and then got it back. It was then that, as I studied it, a fascination for observing it simply awoke in me, for their stories, and additionally, for my own society, Mexican society.
The lubok is a popular style of engraving, made with birch wood from existing woodcuts, widely known in Russia. This ancient genre of traditional figurative art is constituted with images of different thematic nature, created by ordinary people from the villages. They were originally conceived as drawings and as cheap prints later, accessible to people of all social sectors. They had subtitles in languages commonly used, such as “staroslavyanskiy” (ancient ecclesiastical language) or “drevneruskiy” (ancient popular Russian) and were designed for mass distribution.
However, thanks to its rustic style, the lubok achieved great popularity in Russia because, on the one hand, the vastness of the Slavic territory and, on the other, the religious heritage that spread out religious images throughout it. The popular style of lubok drawing distorted ornamental elements of Byzantine art to make it popular and profane. The luboks operated under the basic principle of graph: images were serially stamped as in the printing houses of the 17th century. Therefore, the lubok word in Russian not only depicts the style of artistic expression, but it also appoints the board or matrix made of wood with which they were reproduced. These types of artwork were greatly purchased and widespread in Russia in the 17th century until the early 20th, and it even led to a style of free literature for the masses that fulfilled its social function as an approximation of reading for the poorer and less educated segments of the population. Although they initially began as simple drawings in single sheets, they eventually implemented new engraving techniques from France, which benefited manufacturing and made them increasingly more complex and better artistic level.
Before the appearance of the first presses, manufacturing was of a high degree of processing, because after printing paper, the image was colored by hand with diluted tempra paints, in the purest style of illuminated manuscripts. It could have simple and unadorned prints, to works with a high degree of complexity. The image of the lubok is accompanied by a story or legend that, as a moral, is related to the image it represents.
To some extent, what fascinated and excited me about luboks was that, in their time and space, they were the forerunners of the graphic expressions of entertainment for ordinary citizens and the general public. A relevant comparison would be that from the 17th century to the early 20th century, the lubok was comparable – in its function as entertainment- to a newspaper or modern day television. Initially, the focus was religion, scenes from the life of saints and the Gospels. Others were added gradually: illustrations of Russian fairy tales, epopees, historical tales of chivalry, scenes of plowing, harvesting, the life of women in the kitchen, rituals, family cycles, besides the traditions to celebrate birthdays, neighborhood gossip, the vulgar behavior of certain women, social and political criticism, the mockery of rulers and, near the 20th century, they became primarily spokesmen of war, as it occurred with the Russo-Japanese battle (1904-1905), which led to their ban by the empire, since they revealed in their satires the military tactics, so much so, that some historians blame the luboks for the Russian defeat in this historical period. The Russian Orthodox Church too censored them in the 18th century, considering them vulgar but simultaneously ordered for the reproductions of those that spoke of the Gospels because they considered them a popular and easily accessible to the people of the villages.
The more I read the little content there was on luboks, the more excited I became thinking I could see them, see any live at some point, and even master the subject, since I discovered that it was almost unknown, even among the Russians themselves. It was then that I undertook a major step in designing this project, under the tutelage of the Doctorate in Arts and Design of the UNAM, which has become a lifestyle for me:
The research graphic and documentary project LUBOKUS.RU.MX addresses a formal comparative study between two graphic manifestations of criticism and narrative, in two different places: the popular Russian Lubok print from the 18th century in the Slavic territory of modern Russia, and José Guadalupe Posada’s prints of the beginning of the 20th century in Mexico City. In LUBOKUS.RU.MX the concepts of popular culture, identity and illustrated criticism are analyzed as artistic-expression.
The result of the research is, essentially, a series of prints featuring a narrative graphics arrangement with the original relationship of the lubok (image- text) that hybridize the style of Russian and Mexican engravings, chronologically narrating the development of popular culture, stories and iconic and historical characters in the pop life of Mexico during the 20th century.
Porfirio Díaz, Cantinflas, Emiliano Zapata, El Santo, Tin Tán, Kaliman, Towi, Enrique Peña Nieto, the mambo, the rumba, the children in the streets, the hipsters, the narcos, the killing of 1968, the earthquake of 1985, the murdering Smurfs of the eighties, the Show Bizz Pizza of Copilco, among many others, make up the history of LUBOKUS.RU.MX, which merely seeks to make a critical account of the Mexico City culture, with Russian humor of the 18th century. These engravings (like the originals), are written in ancient Russian, ecclesiastic Russian and modern Russian, taking up certain ornaments and fret work with floral motifs of the same interpretation as the modern luboks by illustrator Andrey Kuznetsov.
This project aims to bequeath a series of works to be exhibited in the museum of traditional Lubok engraving in Moscow. A Spanish research on Russian luboks compared to a demonstration of Mexican popular prints, like the work of José Guadalupe Posada, artistic heritage of brotherhood between the two countries and a legacy for the Russian people to know the humorous story of the Federal District in cultural familiar terms. And finally, a documentary that accompanies the exhibition, with support from the UNAM and private initiative, the documentation on the realization of this project, supported by the opinion of specialists in culture, Mexican cinema and television, history, art and memorabilia of the Mexican people.