Thousand words… from Lithuania

elizabeth mathew | Updated on January 23, 2018

Filomena Uðinskaitë’s cover for Naðlaitë (The Orphan) shows the influence of the European art deco tradition

Paper-cut art used by illustrator Lidija Glinskienë in Kate ir balandis (The Cat and the Pigeon)

Vaclovas Kosciuška’s illustrations for the picture-book Du gaideliai (Two LittleCocks) had a Disney-like cartoony style, yet they depicted everyday scenes

In Kelionë á griová (Journey to the Ditch), Arûnas Tarabilda’s work recalls earlySoviet experiments that integrated drawings and photos in children’s books

An exhibition of children’s book illustrations from Soviet Lithuania rekindles nostalgia in a generation of readers who connected across geographies through a common visual story

More than ten summers spent at my grandparents’ place meant entire afternoons in the humid Kerala heat dedicated perforce to the ‘library’ — a dusty old bookshelf. After endless re-readings of favourites such as the Famous Five, one summer we stumbled upon a yellowing pile of magazines filled with colourful art and stories about children with strange names — Sasha, Nikolai and Igor. Enraptured, we thumbed through the collection that once had our parents in thrall when they were around our age.

This world of exotic-sounding babushka, borscht and rubles was conjured once again in Chennai recently, at ‘A Journey across Time and Context (1940 to 1990)’, an exhibition of children’s book illustrations from Soviet Lithuania. The venue was the city-based Tara Books, a publishing house for children and adults that doubles as a bookstore and even a gallery. Curated by Giedrë Jankevièiûtë, researcher in the Department of Art History and Visual Culture at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute, the exhibition fit in with Tara Books’ focus on the international culture of the picture-book.

Bygone era

An entire generation grew up with Soviet books in the ’60s and ’70s, says V Geetha, Editorial Director of Tara Books. As the books were modestly priced and translated into local languages, they were made accessible in every way. “And despite the political repression and dysfunctional economy of the Soviet era, these books were remembered with warmth,” she adds. That nostalgia was familiar to many in the intimate gathering of Soviet-era book enthusiasts who had come, with their young kids in tow, to hear Jankevièiûtë speak about these printed works of their shared childhood.

Lithuania was an unusual choice of partner, admits Tara Books Publisher Gita Wolf, who was inspired to bring the exhibition to Chennai after visiting it at the Bologna Book Fair last year. Despite the geographical distance and language barrier, the fact that these books connected a generation through a common visual story is reason enough to believe that children’s books are a veritable source of not just art, but also history and anthropology, Jankevièiûtë says.

The Soviet Union, says Geetha, inaugurated a publishing culture that was not geared to the market. And whether or not one agrees with the ideology, the takeaway was a publishing culture that is creative, viable and not dictated by the market, something that Tara Books identifies with.

Visual storytelling

The idea for the exhibition, Jankevièiûtë explains, was initially limited to art during the Soviet rule in Lithuania, from the ’40s to the ’90s. Soon, it expanded to include history and anthropology, as the wealth of information in the children’s books of this era, especially their art, became apparent. “It is the visual documentary of a recently disappeared epoch,” sums up Jankevièiûtë. The period saw a marked change in the artistic styles of children’s book illustrators.

“The historical details provided by the books in this era are countless, as the illustrations show a palpable shift — from the imprint of communist ideologies in the Soviet images in the ’40s and ’50s to later, when the impact is much less and the focus returns to daily life, animals as people, and other themes. The shift from uniformity to individualistic material, both in terms of content and form, is visible through this collection,” she adds.

From the prints on display, one can trace the evolution of the illustrations. The pre-war Lithuanian books featured folktales and traces of western influences such as art deco, and even pop art; an increasingly Russian flavour crept in later. The ’50s saw the depiction of socialist ideals as real, while the reality was completely different, Jankevièiûtë explains. In the ’60s, the illustrations appeared to break away from the enforced Socialist realism, and previously banned techniques like paper cuts and photo montage gained prominence.

Altogether, the new layouts were brighter and more dynamic, and the focus shifted away from ideology. There was a return to pop art, surrealism and traditional Lithuanian folk art. Holding up a book by the artist Petras Repsys from 1971, she points out that the illustrations were in the Baroque-style found in medieval European books, where even the text was handwritten in an attempt to go “against anonymous typography”. The economic collapse of the ’80s saw publishing slow down drastically, with some books published after a gap of several years.

Through the five decades it covers, the exhibition shows that in Lithuania, which was forced into the Soviet Union, the artists ‘negotiated censorship and identity from within’, V Geetha says. Illustrations in children’s books were seen as art, where the visual imagery was vital — often the text said one thing and the art entirely another.

As Jankevièiûtë sums it up, much as children’s books are influenced by global conventions, they are also very local and very detailed, which makes them ideal for cultural exchange. “That’s why they travel around the world when they are translated. They provide a cultural link between different countries.”

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Published on August 07, 2015
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