An exhibition of book illustrations from Soviet Lithuania promises to take you back to a forgotten art
Vibrant, imaginative and most of all, cheap. That’s been the connect that many, especially those growing up in the 70s and 80s, had with children’s books coming out of the erstwhile Soviet Union (many of which were translated into regional languages). While some remember the Sputnik series, others recall stories with giants and tzarinas. However, what has left a lasting impression are the illustrations that accompanied the stories. With inspired renderings and influences like surrealism, art deco and paper-cut, the artwork is a chronicle of the times and the genius of its makers.
Now a new generation will be introduced to it, with Tara Books organising an exhibition of Children’s Books Illustrations from Soviet Lithuania. Featuring work spanning from the 1940s to the 1990s, it provides a clear picture of the art and cultural milieu. “We thought it was a chance to connect with the past; to see how things travelled across borders and languages. Today we think that the internet has made us a global village. But we were one earlier too, in other ways,” says V Geetha, the editorial director at Tara Books.
Curated by Dr Giedre Jankev-iciute, a researcher at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute, the exhibition—which opened in 2011 in Bologna, Italy—travelled across Europe before coming to Chennai. “We’ve all grown up with these illustrations and some of the artists, like Telesforas Kulakauskas, Birute Žilyte and Stasys Eidrigevicius are considered exceptional personalities of national culture,” explains Jankeviciute, adding that she is bringing down a modified version of the Bologna exhibition, with some interesting works that were not presented earlier, “like illustrations to the Lithuanian children’s ditty, Two Little Cockerels, by Vaclovas Kosciuška, a brilliant example of illustration in the art deco style.”
Art of the matter
While many of the illustrators had to conform to certain state policies—the books were once tools for disseminating the Communist ideology—they were also given creative freedom. Many drew from folk traditions, some turned to history and others looked to modern, stylised forms like paper-cut art. “The artists understood that illustrating was designing whole space entities—not separate pictures or double pages, but the visual component of the text. They were convinced that children’s imagination had to be developed,” says Jankeviciute, adding that contemporary artists still follow their lead. For Tara Books, the exhibition which includes books, originals of illustrations and virtual images, is also a way to show that global isn’t just about the West and “the sameness of it all”.
July 25, at the Book Building (Thiruvanmiyur), from 6.30 pm. Details: 24426696
Surya Praphulla Kumar