RESTART : Comic art from the Russian Avant Garde (Lubki)

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If there is a place, other than Russia, where you can enjoy seeing Russian Avant Garde art works, this is Thessaloniki (Greece), as amazing as it may seem! The State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki hosts  the Costakis collection with 1.275 masterpieces of prominent Russian Avant Garde artists. As you can imagine, I am a frequent visitor because, even though, this is their permanent collection, the art works are not exhibited all year round  but rather in smaller numbers once or twice a year. The current exhibition showcases about 400 works and ….off I went to spend a few hours there.

This time,  the ‘Lubki’ caught my attention as I was not familiar with them. A lubok is a Russian popular print, and its subjects were drawn from  literature, religious stories and popular tales. These prints were naive and decorative mainly and could be found in  Russian houses and inns (17th , 18th century) and were also characterised by large abstract, text incorporation and  intense colours.

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               Figure 1. Author unknown, “The Mice are burying the Cat”. An 18th-century Russian lubok print
Figure 2. Kazimir Malevich (1914)
Figure 3. Vladimir Mayakovski. ‘Hey, Sultan, you should stay in the Porte/Or you’ll get your mug messed up in a fight’. 

 In the beginning of the 20th century, a number of Russian avant-garde artists (among which were Malevich, Mayakovsky, and Aristarkh Lentulov),  questioning the authority of the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts, formed the group Segodnyashnii Lubok (Today’s lubok), which produced satirical anti-German and anti-Austrian posters and postcards to support the Russian war effort.  By adapting the style of lubok to their posters, they aimed at making them readily accessible to the masses and effective as a way of strengthening national morale. At the same time, influenced by the modern tendencies of the West (Symbolism, Fauvism, expressionism) and seeking a liberation from the imitation of ‘real forms’ , it is by no surprise that this new form of art flourished rapidly in the constantly changing Russia of that period.

Figure 4 & 5. Kazimir Malevich (1914)

The traditional characteristics of the lubki were transformed in the hands of these artists (in terms of colour, composition and drawing). Mayakovski’s printed verses, included mostly below the drawings, for example, were utilised by many examples of the group’s works. With the passing of the time, the stories and the characters also started becoming more complex. Mayakovski even started creating booklets of such stories.

Vibrant colours, story boards, verses below the drawings or, at other instances, words coming out of the characters’ mouth signify the beginning of an art deriving from a naive/traditional form intricately  transformed to appropriate the needs of a modern social situation that kept evolving.

Unfortunately, this form of art, although so promising, succumbed to the USSR totalitarian control over the arts by the end of the 1920s forcing the artists to return to more traditional forms. Had they been allowed to develop, Russian comics might have taken such a different direction!

There is still time to visit the museum and see the RESTART exhibition until the 16th of September.

To be continued……

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