Illustrations bring books alive

[b]Art takes many forms, from vivid pictures and sculpture to song, dance and original design solutions. All spheres of creative thought are part of our cultural achievements. Book design and printing is part of Belarus’ legacy, upon which we continue to build. Illustrations and innovative design contribute to encouraging readers, of course.[/b]Over the past century, the art of Belarusian book ma­king has evolved. Since the time of the first printers’ traditions, established by Frantsisk Skorina, talented painters have sought to enhance manuscripts with their images. Naturally, certain styles became popular and trends emerged, reflecting the socio-political situation, as well as the processes of Belarusian statehood acquisition.
Art takes many forms, from vivid pictures and sculpture to song, dance and original design solutions. All spheres of creative thought are part of our cultural achievements. Book design and printing is part of Belarus’ legacy, upon which we continue to build. Illustrations and innovative design contribute to encouraging readers, of course.

Over the past century, the art of Belarusian book ma­king has evolved. Since the time of the first printers’ traditions, established by Frantsisk Skorina, talented painters have sought to enhance manuscripts with their images. Naturally, certain styles became popular and trends emerged, reflecting the socio-political situation, as well as the processes of Belarusian statehood acquisition.
The best examples of book illustration are just as famous as certain works of literature, music, architecture, painting and cinematography. Think of Nicolay Seleshchuk’s illustrations for Belarusian fairy-tales and those by Boris Zaborov, Vasily Sharangovich and Georgy Poplavsky: all illustrators of classics by Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas. Now, the finest contemporary artists embellish editions.
Belarusian art critics have done much to enhance the prestige of domestic book art, studying its development. However, until the 1980s, most studies reflected the characteristic features of Belarusian illustrations rather than placing them within the sphere of Soviet fine arts. The first to note the distinctive features of Belarusian illustrations was Doctor of Art History V. Shmatov.
Each period of Belarusian book art history has its own flavour, having evolved — as all spheres of art. The 1920-1950s were a time of experimentation while the 1960s saw the publishing industry become more widely established, with printing methods allowing mass distribution.
Training and the adoption of wider experience brought more modern design to books, with the 1970s becoming a time of graphic perfection. New methods came into vogue in the 1980-1990s and the concept of the ‘Belarusian school of a book graphics’ was established.
Around a hundred years ago, few publishers paid attention to the quality of materials used in creating books or in maintaining quality in binding. Tastes were eclectic and, of course, Russian trends greatly influenced those in Belarus. Artistic life in Belarus revived through exhibitions and publishing activities, cultural-educational organisations and museums, with many artists emerging. However, the main Belarusian editions of the pre-revolutionary years failed to make a great aesthetic impression, merely following trends in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Vilnius.
In fact, a certain pan-European `modern` style reigned, although 1920s Belarusian illustrations were guided most by easel graphics and paintings.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many European states, including Belarus, were keen to develop new artistic models, preserving the viability of art and its real presence in human life. Industrial goods’ design was given more consideration and book illustrations followed suit in desiring to be attractive to the ‘common man’.
In the 1920s, Belarus took part in early European creative experiments, inspired by architecture, painting, books and journalistic sketches. Revolutionary change and social tension urged on innovative book design, although many were scathing of the results; some editions remained unpublished — some edited only decades later.
One of the first decrees of the Soviet Union concerned book publishing, stating that publishing houses could subsidise editions deemed ‘socially useful’ — whether submitted by societies or individuals. Books needed to be affordable and easily readable by the populace, disseminating new public ideas to the masses. Editors and artists bore great responsibility.
Belarusian book art was greatly influenced by Vitebsk trends between 1918 and 1922: a classical vanguard of revolutionary histrionics and features of Italian futurism. Constructivist and Supremacist artists were sympathetic to other artistic styles, creating a ‘world art’ movement even before the October Revolution.
The Vitebsk national art school hosted Marc Chagall, who became well known as an illustrator of works of fiction such as Gogol’s Dead Souls and Jean de La Fontaine’s Fairy Tales.
Constructivist illustrations were common to editions printed in Vitebsk, Minsk and Gomel, while bold Supremacist covers stood out to buyers. Most books were published in paperback, being cheaper, with their futuristic and Supremacist ideas brightly embodied in their layout and cover design. Collage, photography and montage were used to good effect, with lithograph methods used for covers and relief printing for text.
Vitebsk Constructivist artists El Lissitzky, L. Khidekel and I. Chashnik were guided by the same principles as Kazimir Malevich, the founder and head of UNOVIS (‘The Champions of New Art’) art association. From 1919 to 1922, he was among the leaders of world art, creating fundamental works and using lithographic printing to disseminate them. He printed his Suprematism. 34 series (1920) as a lithographic volume, using unexpectedly modest design.
El Lissitzky — a leading Constructivist — supervised an architectural studio and print workshop at the National Art School of Vitebsk in 1919. In 1920, he designed the almanac UNOVIS # 1 and created sketches for one of the most famous books in the world: Supremacist Narration on Two Squares (published in Berlin, 1922). Meanwhile, UNOVIS members I. Chashnik and L. Khidekel published a lithographic collection entitled AERO (1920) in Vitebsk.
Of course, Constructivist artists worked not only in Vitebsk. A. Bykhovsky worked in Gomel, while A. Ahola-Valo, P. Gutkovsky, U. Izmailova, I. Korfa and B.Malkin worked in Minsk. One of the first editors of the State Publishing House of the BSSR, B. Malkin, used expressive Constructivism in his edition of A. Alexandrovich’s Shadows in the Sun (1930). In 1919, another well-known experimental artist, Minsk native V. Strzheminsky (a founder of Constructivist printing houses) worked with the Ministry of Education (Soviet Union) Department in Minsk, making an invaluable contribution to artistic book design.
In the 1920s and 1930s, book trends began to follow those of magazines and newspaper sketches. The weak printing base of that time did not allow fine art works to be shown through high-quality illustrations, so only the covers received much attention. Visual propaganda was commonplace, using posters of flat colour and Supremacist shapes.
Over time, lettering on the covers gained in importance, with geometric fonts and dedications placed vertically or diagonally. In the later 1930s, ideological policy shifted, with most Constructivist artists starting use more expressive forms. V. Dvorakovsky was a good example of Belarusian book art in the 1920s, being the first main artist of the State Publishing House of the BSSR. He had trained under V. Favorsky, who became one of the leaders of Soviet pre-war book illustration, from 1930 to 1940. His figurative language was evident in his illustrations for Symon the Musician, by Y. Kolas (1928) and for In the Swirl of Life (1929) by N. Zaretsky. He achieved a certain unity of the traditions of ‘world art’ and expressive Constructivism, imbuing works with emotion, through the use of saturated colour in decorative compositions.
The ideological aspect of the events of 1917 had no direct influence on the artistic culture of Western Belarus, which rather followed the traditions of European symbolism.
In the early 1930s, Constructivist style retained relevance yet combined images from literary works. Avant-garde artists such as M. Filippovich, V. Dvorakovsky, S. Udovin and A. Bykhovsky left the country, unable to find their place in the new Belarusian Soviet cultural creation, being called `Propagandists of slave labour`.
In the 1930s, the State Publishing House of the BSSR’s main artists were A. Tychina, M. Ende, M. Lebedeva, V. Tikhonovich, V. Basov, M. Gusev, M. Malevich, I. Milchin, B. Malkin and V. Volkov; works by more than forty Belarusian artists were exhibited in 1934, at a special exhibition of book design in Minsk.
Unfortunately, the notorious decrees of 1930-1932 denoting that all publishing occur in the centres of Moscow and Leningrad almost eradicated the development of Belarusian book, magazine and newspaper illustration, as well as posters. Much of our book art heritage from the first half of the 20th century, which included unique, low circulation editions, was lost during the Great Patriotic War.
Book art of the 1930-1950s was marked by artists’ aspiration to embrace their national heritage and traditions. Publishing slowed, with mostly propaganda editions printed in low circulation. Such artists as V. Volkov, I. Davidovich, M. Malevich, M. Gutsiev, S. Romanov and M. Karpenko concentrated on illustrations, producing paintings quite different from their contemporaries. Certainly, works from the 1940s, alongside other art heritage from this time, deserve additional study.
In the late 1950s artists came to understanding of the solutions for the main problem of artistic design of book — combination of text and illustrations in uniform — ensemble — complex. According to them, it was a graphics plastic which was traditionally applied earlier and which needed to be applied in book design of high quality again. The return of `graphics` into book art was seen by artists of the senior generation in the use of plate technologies and experiments in this field. However in 1950s, different kinds of gravure were limitedly represented not only in book, but also in easel graphics.
Since the early 1960s, Belarusian art develops rather dynamically, and is filled with progressive tendencies. Belarusian writers and artists started the process of deliverance from the influence of aesthetic principles of 1930-1950s. Naturalistic and excessively pompous images gave place to more diverse images and composition methods. The process of the formation of new features in book art is prompted by the development of easel and monumental kinds of fine arts. Their plastic is influenced in turn by printing plastic. ‘Graphics’ becomes one of the vivid manifestations, main tendencies in Belarusian art of book.
The generation of young artists — graduates of the Belarusian State Theatre and Art Institute — started to revive the best traditions of book art. The ‘thaw’ in a socio-political life of the country became a hope time — opened a way to freedom of creative work to young people who came through war. Young artists filled a book with full of creative generalisations, expressional and high-quality graphics, and made efforts to connect experimentation of 1920s with the present time.
But in visual and book art of 1960s there were no such development which was observed in literature. Nevertheless, the republican book-publishing structure was extended at that time. In 1963 the State Press Committee of Council of Ministers of BSSR was established for regulation of publishing activities and for enhancement of the role of publishing houses in cultural life of the country. It specified specialisation of literature edited by publishing houses. According to specialisation they received new names.
In the 1960s there was a start of author`s book illustration. Deep artists` penetration into the essence of works and their creative interpretation allowed them to create high-quality artistic and original graphic works. That time was a starting point for constellation of professionals who prevailed in book art throughout several decades. Among them were A. Kashkurevich, B. Zaborov, A. Los, V. Sharangovich, G. Poplavsky.
The artists of 1960s, perhaps, were the first among art workers to start creative reinterpreting of Belarusian national culture. This tendency was especially vividly manifested in art book design and printing graphics. Not only the images of characters mostly corresponding to national character, but also decorative motives derived from traditional folk art, were included into art structure of books. Spiritual unification with traditions and ability to transform them into modern forms were the grounds for creative work of A. Los, G. Yakubenya, V. Sharangovich. These artists continued to develop the traditions of national themes embodiment, which had been started in the 19th — first half of the 20th century by Y. Drozdovich and M. Filippovich.
An important event that contributed to progressive development of Belarusian book graphics was the opening of the graphic department and plate studio under the Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute. The leading teacher was famous Belarusian artist S. Gerus, who since 1953 taught at art department.
The early 1960s were the times when first graduates of the Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute came into art. The home-educated artists start to meet the needs of all the artistic culture of the country and publishing practice. The problem of professional training for professional fine arts of Belarus was solved during a decade, as well as the foundation of education of artists-professionals of book was established.
The first graduation of graphic artists (1959) — A. Kashkurevich, R. Vitkovsky, I. Romanovsky, I. Nemogai, K. Tikhanovich — will play a crucial role in the formation of new tendencies in Belarusian book graphics of 1960`s. All the graduates of the single higher artistic educational institution in BSSR defended their diploma thesis by works of book graphics.
The breaking of dogmatic notions about book art made artists to expand the range of creative methods and means. They turned to the understanding of already existing traditions and systems of the 1920s — first half of 1930s. At that time the tradition of improvisation in composition, painting, type plastic (A. Kashkurevich, G. Poplavsky, A. Los) got its revival. That was the time of return to synthetic principles of book graphics creation. Book design again began to be subject to the laws of creation of uniform book organism.
At that time, A. Posledovich, A. Los, G. Yakubenya, A. Demarin, Y. Puchinsky, Y. Kulik, N. Blazhennaya started working in the field of Belarusian book graphics. As for book design for children, the artists continued to develop the traditions of national themes embodiment which were founded in the first half of the 20s century by M. Filippovich, P. Gutkovsky, M. Malevich, B. Malkin, V. Litko, V. Tikhonovich, V. Volkov, A. Volkov, Ye. Minin.
During 1960s Georgy Poplavsky works using the etching techniques in illustrations for poem New Land by Yakub Kolas. This edition brought the first international success to Belarusian book graphics of the post-war period. In 1969 the book was awarded with a diploma at the International exhibition of graphics and book art in Leipzig.
The foundation of modern national school of book graphics which is notable among other schools was set in 1960s.
In 1970s the improvement of art structure of book acquires a reconsideration of the experience gained during the last decade. That time is marked by the expansion of artistic design of books, especially in the field of fiction. In 1972, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura Publishing House was founded on the basis of editorial offices for artistic and children`s literature of the largest publishing house `Belarus`. Artists start to reinterpret the traditions of book design, the founders of which were Frantsisk Skorina and his followers.
1980s — mid 1990s — is the golden age Belarusian book graphics, the time of domestic book publication. Belarusian artists achieved major success in design of literature for children. It was Yunost State Publishing House which was founded in 1981 and focused the experience of Belarusian book graphics on design of fiction for children and youth of different age categories. The art of book of this period features bright and highly artistic reconsideration of progressive national traditions. The book graphics of 1980s incarnates the most vivid embodiment of the idea of national-cultural revival, which revealed in the Belarusian culture in the second half of 1970s.
The work on interpretation of movable types was not carried out until 1980s. Several attempts in that business were made by students of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts. Successful type compositions and initials designs can be found in the works of A. Kitaeva, A. Sheluta, G. Matsura, A. Kulazhenko, A. Shupletsov.
The editions of 1980s obtained a stylistic and composition completeness and the level of book ensemble. The artists of book master and successfully play the role of ‘director’ of edition, whose task is the creation of semantic and dynamical structure. M. Kozlov and V. Klimenko approved themselves to be professionals of book design. These years are marked by the arrival of young artists and wider use of new technologies and creative methods. The artists of book actively participate in the Book Art Contest of inter-republic and all-Union levels. Their works are awarded with the highest prizes of this system of contests, with Ivan Fiodorov diploma. Fiction which was designed by home artists is widely represented at international book fairs. The Belarusian book graphics was first presented at the world book fair in Frankfort on the Main. The artists began to receive book design orders from foreign fiction publishers.
The works of book artists receive wide social recognition in 1980-1990s. The leading artists of book are awarded with honorary titles. The title of People`s Artist of Belarus was awarded to A. Kashkurevich, G. Poplavsky, V. Sharangovich, the title of Honoured Worker of Arts of Belarus — to M. Seleshchuk, V. Savich, L. Asetsky, S. Volkov. State awards of Belarus for achievements in the field of fine arts were given to G. Poplavsky, A. Kashkurevich, V. Sharangovich, M. Seleshchuk, V. Spavuk.
The first half of 1990s is marked by reduction of the quantity of illustrated fiction editions. There was a start of wide commercialisation of book business and reorientation of publishing strategy depending on the form of property in this field. However, the establishment of non-state publishing houses did not lead to the development of book graphics. It is possible even to say that some unique positions were lost. Many illustrators were engaged in easel creativity, started working in advertising. When the situation in Belarusian publishing houses had taken a favourable turn, they did not return. The new generation has come and its brilliant representatives were Y. Alisevich, P. Tatarnikov, I. Gordienok, T. Suchkova.
Modern Belarusian art of book acquired new notable features. In the past it was impossible even to dream of such printing technologies which would allow printing illustrations from originals without loss of their quality. The framework of prepress also changed. High technologies allow creating more dramatic editions.
Belarusian artists of book have always managed to comprehend and to embody the features of their national culture and cultures of other people in their creative works. It is shown in the works of A. Kashkurevich, G. Poplavsky, B. Zaborov, V. Tarasov and others.
Last decade of the 20th century was the time when complicated system changes happened in the country. They coincided with the distribution of the newest computer technologies. Certainly, this moved aside the traditional professionalism of artists. But the use of modern technologies in printing did not become a premise for exclusion of simplified decorativeness from book graphics. Time highlighted other key points: decorativeness maintained its ground and is seen in illustrations, especially in the works of young artists, due to the recognition of its ability to be organic mouthpiece of national identity features.
In the second half of 1990s Belarusian book art enters the next phase of development, gains new distinctive features, preserving respect towards individual creative manner of artist. These years can be described as the period of domination of various styles.
Such outstanding masters of book graphics as M. Kozlov, N. Sustova, Y. Zelsky, V. Slavuk, M. Borzdyko, T. Melianets still make interesting works. In 2006, at the Book Art contest, such artists as V. Rogolevich and A. Petrov became laureates of F. Skorina Prize for design of the book Victory. 1418 Days of the Great Patriotic War. One of the best editions of 2005 was encyclopaedic handbook Grand Duchy of Lithuania (artist--D. Gerasimovich). The book Mindovg. The Beginning of Ruling in design of V. Lukashik was made of special mention at many contests. The new design trend was opened by V. Olshevsky’s book Impression of Balance, or Upstairs. Here the author of the text — the artist — develops by himself the layout of edition, fills with illustrative material consisting of photos and his own products.
The design of domestic books in 1970-1980s versus world models still came short of composite solution of illustrations, aesthetics of types, and quality of layout, paper and printing realisation of original texts. Now resources for book designing and printing technologies are such that most editions (published in state as well as in private publishing houses) meet the highest standards.
Book art is associated presently not only with fiction editions. Modular approach of book design making allows designing a book systemically.
The beginning of 21st century is marked by the fact that the organisers of the Book Art Republican Contest again started to honour the winners with F. Skorina diplomas. The awards are given for book design made by Belarusian authors only. This is a good sign. The jury of the International Moscow Book Fair in 2006 awarded the group of authors with Grand Prix for the book Chernobyl. Among the authors was a well-known Belarusian book designer and publisher, Denis Ramanyuk. It is hoped that the nearest future will bring successful presentation to Belarus book at other international book forums.
The fact that now diplomas are awarded basically not for illustrations for fiction, but for works which are synthetic in nature — is the result of cooperative activity of a designer, an artist, a photographer. This makes it important to find out the methods for balance, the combination of a man-made art illustration and design in one book.
The most appreciable mark in the history of book art of 20th century was left by such excellent masters as A. Kashkurevich, B. Zaborov, V. Slavuk, V. Sharangovich, A. Los, G. Poplavsky, M. Seleshchuk, V. Savich. These book artists thanks to their author`s style, wide spectrum of art techniques and ability to penetrate deeply into the essence of a literary work could please the tastes of the most demanding readership. Their art influenced the development of other trends of fine arts. Such outstanding masters of graphics, painting, design, arts and crafts — A. Kitaeva, A. Shelyuta, V. Tsesler, S. Voichenko, M. Savitsky, M. Bairachny, V. Volynets, A. Zimenko and others enriched Belarusian book graphics with their creative achievements.
Today it is possible to mention that artistic image of domestic book became a subject of national pride. The works of Belarusian book artists are regularly exhibited not only in Belarus. They are recognised at large international art exhibitions, they are awarded with diplomas; receive recognition of art critics in specialised press. These achievements became possible thanks to the existence of national school of graphic art. It fruited as a result of efforts of wards of the most different art schools of the former Soviet Union, teachers of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts, members of the Belarusian Artists’ Union and the Belarusian Designers’ Union.
Book art is inevitably influenced by all modern problems. The complexification of literary language instigates to search corresponding semantic many-sided means for illustration and book designing.
Undoubtedly, 20th century was the time when Belarusian book art got its formation and professional development. The comprehensive and in-depth art review of the processes occurring in art, certainly, will promote to successful development of this kind of art even in the 21st century.
A book, by virtue of its nature, — is a convenient source of information for people. No other design, except a man-made artistic plastic is able to add it spiritualised and distinctive character.

By Victor Mikhailov
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