Friday, 17 June 2016

A new childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The wonderful new world of Communism, seen through a child’s perspective, never looked so good

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Thomas-Blaikie-colour-176What memory is more powerful than our childhood picture books? Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket… Christopher Robin and his animal friends peering over the bridge, waiting for the sticks to heave into view…

This new exhibition at the House of Illustration is an extraordinary revelation: the first years after the Russian Revolution were a period of great energy and experimentation. Conveying the thrill of the wonderful new Communist world through children’s books, printed in millions, was a huge priority. The result was outstandingly dynamic, innovative illustration, very different from the kind of nostalgic, pastoral, miniaturised images offered to British children. Some of the material on show, such as the strange Two Squares, one black, one red for Communism – which triumphs eventually – is almost abstract and could easily be by Joan Miró.

The political agenda is saved from grimness by the sheer creative zing of the artwork. There’s an amazing picture of cows by Yevgeny Charushin, intended to illustrate the productivity of farms – but what luscious cows in different colours packed onto the page. Red Neck, a story of one who refused to give up his red scarf when threatened by a bull, has a geometric design with drawings recalling Picasso. The imagery is uncluttered, often symbolic and not realistic – just the kind of thing that children like and understand. But even the most world-weary adult would enjoy the five-metre long, double-sided pull-out illustration of The Five Year Plan by Aleksei Laptev: this is such a bold, exciting piece of graphic design with a predominant colour scheme (yes, red) and all the elements ingeniously linked to lead up to the final revelation of the growth expected by 1932. Even the illustration for weights and measures, with the weights and their heavy shadows marching diagonally across the page, is exciting.

Inventiveness extended to a radical merging of text and illustration not seen in the West for years. One book even doubled as a toy, with pages that could be cut to reassemble the characters in different clothes. Make the trip to Granary Square (itself a fascinating new restoration with good cafes) to see this highly unusual and special exhibition.

Showing until 11 September at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1: 020-3696 2020,

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