It all started with bans
The new aesthetics formed by the leaders of the first wave of the avant-garde were already supplanted by socialist realism in the 1930s. Any creative ideas that did not correspond to the official direction were branded as a favorite party cliché of “bourgeois formalism.”
Authors who fell into this category were classified as dissidents. Persecution and severe repression awaited them, from forced deportations to psychiatric hospitals to executions.
Twenty years later, during Khrushchev’s thaw, the second wave of the Russian avant-garde (largely associated with the emergence of conceptual art) and the concept of “nonconformism” uniting artists who disagreed with Soviet cultural policy. Despite the mass release of repressed citizens, the easing of censorship during this period was only indicative, and the utopias of the 1960s soon ceased to be perceived by the creative community as an opportunity to continue to operate freely. Independent art existed underground, and works almost never left apartments and workshops (but even that did not guarantee artists safety).
“Children’s Illustrator Extract”
Cooperation with representatives of the party line for nonconformists was the only option to provide for themselves without leaving the profession. Many authors in the official guise of creative activity were engaged in illustrations for calendars, cubes and puzzles. Sometimes such work was perceived by artists as contemptuous, associated with depersonalization and hackneyedness, but was practically the only acceptable way to survive under censorship.
There was also an influx of new authors in children’s publications, largely related to the thaw period. Avant-garde traditions at that time were not perceived so sharply and were even part of a big task – educating new people who are able to look at the surrounding reality through the futuristic optics of the artist. But even this path was like walking on thin ice. In the “children’s” avant-garde, the boundaries of what was allowed were determined subjectively and regularly varied by the editorial bureaucracy.
Versions of what was “good” and what was “bad” for young readers were constantly fluctuating: at first, artists were required to strive for maximum realism, then offered to add more naivety and bright colors that inspire optimism.
However, for many authors, book illustration has been a creative haven since the 1960s. Ilya Kabakov ironically called the essence of this phenomenon “an extract of a children’s illustrator”, alluding to the formation of a certain subpersonality of the Soviet artist, who adapted his vision to the strict framework of ideological dictate.
There are very unusual ways to select the “right” images for readers. For example, the Malysh publishing house conducted research on contact methods, showing kindergarten students models of books being prepared for publication. The focus group’s impartial responses were recorded and used to identify the most understandable illustrations.
Despite the frequent reflections of creative figures on the faceless “alter ego” of the children’s illustrator, many books of the second half of the twentieth century found works by authors who have preserved both recognizable style and key ideas of their informal line of art. Similar examples can be seen in the drawings of Oleg Vasiliev and Eric Bulatov, in the surreal illustrations by Viktor Pivovarov and colorful graphics by Ilya Kabakov.
About Yuri Sobolev-Nolev and the magazine “Knowledge is Power”
In parallel with children’s printing, the progressive art community was attracted by science fiction and science fiction. One of the most striking phenomena was the association of illustrators of the art department of the magazine “Knowledge is Power”.
“Knowledge is Power” is a Soviet popular science and art magazine that publishes materials on achievements in various fields of science.
Since the 1960s, the previously mentioned Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov, as well as Vladimir Yanilevsky, Ernst Neizvestny, Anatoly Brusilovsky, Yulo Sooster and other representatives of informal art have managed to work in it. This liberal group of illustrators was formed thanks to the magazine’s chief artist Yuri Sobolev.
Yuri Sobolev-Nolev is one of the key figures in the history of Soviet informal art. In addition to making a huge contribution to domestic printing design, the artist is also known as a pioneer of domestic multimedia art, a master of performance, who opened a school in Tsarskoe Selo, one of the founders of Soviet art therapy. In addition, a number of researchers attribute to his work the emergence of the second wave of the Russian avant-garde, as thanks to the influence and support of Sobolev in the domestic contemporary art, many famous names have become established.
Yuri Sobolev accepted talented authors into the largest Soviet publication, gradually forming a unique circle of friends and like-minded people.
The special worldview of the staff was reflected in the illustrative content of the Soviet popular science magazine. For example, his pages often contained stylized images referring to esotericism and Eastern sacred practices (they were taboo in Soviet culture), to which Sobolev himself gravitated during certain periods of his life. Despite the fact that the mystical illustrations fit organically into the general science fiction agenda of the publication, some images still raised questions from the editors. The head of the art department had the answer to any interpretation: “That’s not the point.”
The activities of some multipliers of the second half of the twentieth century were also divided into formal and informal. The last category of their work included experimental works, often appealing to an adult audience.
One of the most famous animators in the circle of representatives of the “Soviet underground” was Andrei Khrzhanovsky. In addition to children’s cartoons, he shot poignant and ironic works, known for his critical portrayal of reality and psychedelic manner.
Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s graduation film “Once Upon a Time Kozyavin” was literally miraculously admitted to the defense. They wanted to reject the work due to suspicions of surrealism, but the head of the VGIK department Sergei Gerasimov stood up for the student and defined the cartoon as “our socialist surrealism.”
Khrzhanovsky invited collaborators of iconic artists of his time, among whom were illustrators of the magazine “Knowledge is Power”. In 1968, the director presented the cartoon “Glass Accordion”, created in collaboration with Yuri Sobolev and Yulo Sooster. Harmonica is a rare musical instrument that has become a metaphor for true art that can transform people.
The visual component of the “Glass Harmonica” was permeated with images from world painting: the tape was filled with the heroes of Dürer, Magritte, Bosch, Bruegel, Archimboldo, Goya and other classical authors. The idea was by no means childish: it touched upon the problems of the cultural crisis of the USSR and exposed the vices of society in an allegorical manner. The film was criticized and repeatedly banned from showing.
After the premiere of “Harmonica” Andrei Khrzhanovsky again worked with Sobolev on the cartoon “Butterfly” (1972), and a year later together with the famous unofficial artist Vladimir Yanilevsky (also collaborated with the magazine “Knowledge – Power”) made the animated film “In the world of fables”. 1973).
17 years after the death of Yulo Sooster, in 1987, Khrzhanovsky together with the son of the artist Teno-Pent Sooster made a biographical film “School of Fine Arts. Landscape with Juniper “about the life and work of a representative of Soviet informal art.
The animator Yuri Norstein (creator of the same “Hedgehog in the Fog”), the famous composer Alfred Schnittke, took part in the creation of the work, the songs of Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky sounded in the film. Everything was intertwined in a deep idea: the story of Sooster’s fate became the apotheosis of the struggle of Soviet artists against the censorship of a brutal political machine.
A new era was quietly emerging in the pages of Soviet publications and in the frames of famous cartoons of the second half of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, Soviet informal art intertwined in the most unexpected areas. Maybe you or your relatives grew up in this culture: and something, of course, seemed strange, and something fell in love. Or maybe someone still has these books and magazines in the attic, while collectors around the world hunt for them and greedily buy them at auctions. All this is also an occasion to “check the storerooms” of your memory and look at long-familiar things from a different angle.