- Another Soviet artist associated with Tatlin and the con- structivists who profoundly influenced Russian modernism was Vladimir Vasilevich Lebedev (1891–1967). He embraced Bolshevism and designed bold, flat, neoprimitivist agitational propaganda posters for ROSTA, the Soviet news agency. This work proved to be excellent preparation for designing picture books for children. Lebedev learned to simplify, to reduce forms to their basic geometric shapes, to use only brilliant primary colors, and to tell a story visually and in sequence. “In the twenties,” he explained, “we fought for mastery and purity of art; we wanted fine art to be descriptive, not illustrative. Cubism gave us discipline of thought, without which there is neither mastery nor purity of professional language.” With the growth of the Soviet children’s book industry under Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s, Lebedev became the father of the twentieth-century Russian picture book.
- In such graphic masterpieces as Prikliucheniya chuch-lo (The Adventures of the Scarecrow, 1922), Azbuka (Alphabet Book, 1925), Morozhenoe (Ice Cream, 1925), Okhota (The Hunt, 1925), Tsirk (Circus, 1925) (Figs. 15–38 through 15–40), Vchera i segodnya (Yesterday and Today, 1925), and Bagazh (Baggage, 1926), often in collaboration with the poet Samuil Marshak, Lebedev devised a flexible, modernist shorthand for figures that he reduced to their simplest shapes against a vast white background and relieved only by bright, flat harmonious color and some contrasting texture. Like his French contemporaries, Lebedev cultivated “infantilism” in his work by borrowing the fresh, spontaneous, naive techniques of children’s art. “When
- I make drawings for children,” he explained, “I try to recall my own consciousness as a child.” He was also extraordinarily inventive with various typefaces. Lebedev, more than anyone else, brought the picture book up to date.
- Freeing his designs of any gratuitous detail, Lebedev illustrated Marxist parables on the superiority of the Soviet system to capitalism. Lebedev was an agitational propagandist at heart. But a good communist, he insisted, “doesn’t deny the necessity of an individual approach to illustrations. And the more the art- ist shows his personality in his work, the more effective will his art be, the deeper it will influence the reader, the closer it will bring him to art.” The Communist Party thought otherwise. During the Great Purges of the 1930s, Pravda denounced Leb- edev’s picture books for their “formalism,” and he was forced to capitulate to the dictates of socialist realism, the state-supported style, by replacing his hard-edged designs with lush, benign fluff. He always regretted the compromise.
- During the years immediately following the 1917 revolu- tion, the Soviet government had tolerated advanced art while more urgent problems commanded its attention, but by 1922, it accused experimental artists of “capitalist cosmopolitan- ism” and instead advocated social-realist painting. Although constructivism lingered as an influence in Soviet graphic and industrial design, painters like Malevich who did not leave the country drifted into poverty and obscurity. Like Klutsis, many artists vanished into the gulag. However, constructivism underwent further development in the West, and innovative graphic design in the constructivist tradition continued through the 1920s and beyond.
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