I have been interested in woodcuts and old prints for a very long time. I love the clear graphic quality, the strong expression and the crudeness that gets straight to the point without excessive decoration. Russian Luboks is what I’ve been looking into lately, and I’m getting more and more fascinaed the more I learn…
A lubok is a Russian popular print, characterized by simple graphics and texts derived from literature, religious stories and popular tales. Lubki prints were used as decoration in houses and inns. Early examples from the late 17th and early 18th centuries were woodcuts, then engravings or etchings were typical, and from the mid-19th century lithography. They sometimes appeared in series, which might be regarded as predecessors of the modern comic strip. Cheap and simple books consisted mainly of pictures,
The lubok was originally invented in China. From there, it came to Europe. In the beginning of 17th century, the first of these woodcuts appeared on Russian counters, depicting saints and Biblical scenes. The Tsar and his family members hung luboks in their rooms, nobility took after the royalties and step by step luboks left the palaces and reached the huts.
The earliest surviving lubki were printed near Kiev in 1625. They were commissioned by the Russian Orthodox clergy near Kiev. Lubki depicting Russian saints, their miracles and teachings were useful in their never-ending feuds with their Polish, Roman Catholic neighbors.
Russian lubok was primarily influenced by the “woodcuts and engravings done in Germany, Italy, and France during the early part of the fifteenth century”. Luboks were typically sold at various marketplaces to the lower and middle classes. This type of art was very popular with these two social classes because the lubok provided them with an inexpensive opportunity to display artwork in their houses. In addition to the images, these folk prints would also include a short story or lesson that correlated to the picture being presented.
Travelling peddlers, spread lubki from village to village. Favorite topics were advertisements, political or religious events, often in satirical form. Biblical scenes were popular as well as folk tales. Calendars, farmer’s almanacs, astrological guides, hagiographic collections, manuals depicting the latest fashions and guides on how to choose the right wife – with instructions on how to achieve wedded bliss by beating her into submission – sold very well. Azbuka (alphabet books) printed on rough gray paper were common.
]The Koren Picture-Bible, 1692-1696 established the most prominent style of the original lubki woodcuts
The Russian word lubki derives from lub, the carvable inner bark of the linden tree on which woodblocks were originally engraved. The word lubki also stands for ‘bast’, the fiber that grows between the inner wood and the outer bark of a linden tree. Bast was also used to make the baskets in which lubki were stored before they were sold. The Latin word for book, liber, is also derived from the Sanskrit word lupti or lubh, meaning ‘to peel, or strip away’ – referring to the bast or inner bark of a tree. In the ancient world, tree bark was used as writing material where papyrus or parchment were not available.
Printing was done quickly. Engraved blocks of linden wood were carved and inked with a mixture of soot and burnt sienna diluted in boiled linseed oil. Simple presses speeded up the production and whole villages colored the prints with natural dies – reds, purples, yellows and greens. Exposed to light, the prints faded rapidly – but it didn’t really matter: new lubki were available for a cheap price.
By the middle of 19th century every literally every peasant decorated his home with luboks. Children used them to learn how to read. In these times, many famous Russian novels and poems were “retold” by lubok printers, so common people got to know Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov. Although these retellings were usually primitive and inaccurate, it was venertheless very hard for a peasant to get a real book. It was around this time that a figurative meaning of the word “lubok” appeared: “bad art” or “cliche art”.
Lubok “died” in the beginning of 20th century, soon after the October Revolution of 1917. Libraries and schools were opened in villages, and luboks became unnecessary.
Russo-Japanese War Luboks
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 began on February 8, 1904, at Port Arthur with a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy. At the time, “Russia was an established European power with a large industrial base and a regular army of 1.1 million soldiers. Japan, with few natural resources and little heavy industry, had an army of only 200,000 men”. Because of the staggering difference in military defense, Russia assumed itself to have the upper hand before the war ensued. Luboks depicting the overconfidence of the Russian army were created because censorship laws at the time did not allow satirical magazines to subsist.
With the use of satirical, often racist cartoons, luboks displayed pictures such as, “a Cossack soldier thrashing a Japanese officer, and a Russian sailor punching a Japanese sailor in the face”. These luboks, produced in Moscow and St. Petersburg, were anonymously created and recorded much of the Russo-Japanese War.
Perhaps due to the Russians’ overconfidence, “During the battle, the Japanese generals were able to size up their opponent and predict how he would react under certain circumstances. That knowledge enabled them to set a trap and defeat a numerically superior enemy”. Therefore, the Russian government eventually stepped in with its censor laws and stopped the creation of more satirical luboks. All in all, around 300 luboks were created during 1904–05.
Sources: Various books, essays and Wikipedia. I got lots of information from a very interesting essay on a site I simply can’t seem to find anymore. Whoever you are – all credit to you for the pieces I borrowed!