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Read the article for what is hidden behind the idyllic picture of family gatherings, what the peasant does not want to think about, and why the crow is bigger than a man.

An exhibition “Life is a Struggle” has opened at the Museum of Russian Lubok and Naive Art. It presents popular prints from the museum’s funds, united by the theme of hardships and troubles in the life of an ordinary person. The curator of the exhibition, Daria Kosynkina, chose five amusing pictures, as popular prints are also called, with the help of which artists of the 19th and 20th centuries talked with their contemporaries about sad things, and told them why they are interesting.

What is splint

Simple pictures depicting ordinary everyday scenes and supplemented with simple text (humorous rhymes or song words) got their name from the name of a thin layer of wood – bast. The image was manually cut out on it, black paint was applied and pressed against the paper.

Lubki appeared in the 17th century and instantly became very popular. If there was a fire in the house, splints were taken out along with the most valuable things. To buy one such scroll, an ordinary peasant had to save up. Ofeni, traders of popular prints, who collaborated with printers and workshops, enjoyed special honor and respect.

At the beginning of the 18th century, popular prints turned into a means of propaganda, they began to desperately ridicule topical issues. A special decree was issued, according to which each picture must be censored before being sold and receive a corresponding inscription on each copy.

Pictures of the 17th and 18th centuries are almost impossible to see today – they are practically not preserved, but later works are still found.

“Luchina, birch splinter!” (1875)

The splint, illustrating the folk song “Luchina, a birch splinter!” Is an excellent example of how a seemingly cheerful and cheerful picture contradicted the text. At first glance, an unknown artist depicted an idyllic picture: girls are spinning in a warm, cozy hut, a torch is burning, a cat is quietly going about his business. You can understand what kind of plot actually stands behind this only after reading the text below: it turns out that one of the heroines conceived adultery. The only thing left is to outwit the sisters of her husband so that they go to bed and wait for their secret lover.

The technique, when something bad was portrayed in a cheerful way, had a therapeutic effect and was very popular. To an ordinary person, a spectator, this gave hope that all difficulties would eventually be overcome. This thought helped both people in secret relationships and spouses who suspected they were being cheated.

The print was printed at Streltsov’s printing house, one of the most famous in Moscow. But it was painted, probably by hand – this is noticeable by the untidy contours. Such work could easily be entrusted to poorly seeing old people or even children.

“They don’t tell Masha to walk behind the river” (1894)

In the second half of the 19th century, chromolithography, a method of printing color images, began to gain wide acceptance in Russia. The drawing for each color was made on a specially prepared separate stone. Then the prints of the paper sheet were made – as many times as required for this or that color image. Some shades (orange, green) were obtained by mixing two other colors. Thus, in total, the craftsmen needed about 10 stones.

Sad stories got even brighter and more accurate embodiment. Lubok “They don’t tell Masha to walk across the river” of those. A naive country girl Masha was beaten for committing a terrible offense – she went on a date without permission. The image is divided into two parts: the first shows the punishment scene, and the other, which occupies the main part of the composition, is the very date for which the girl disobeyed her parents.

In general, artists were very fond of assigning most of the drawing to something pleasant, rather than the other way around. This approach was inspiring and made life easier to see. Lubok “The Poor Man’s Share” based on a poem by Ivan Surikov is made according to the same principle. The peasant’s dream, where he dines with his family at a rich table, occupies the central part of the drawing, pushing aside the image of the real state of affairs – in fact, the family is forced to ask for a piece of bread.

“Maintaining health” (1987)

Over time, little has changed in the popular print culture. The prints made in the USSR continued the old tradition of production: craftsmen made a drawing, and then painted it by hand – as it was before the advent of chromolithography. Many Soviet artists who worked in this genre, like their predecessors, spoke of topical issues. The optimistic approach to the problem also remained – largely thanks to the bright shades of the new colors.

Nevertheless, at some point, the Soviet popular print became very similar to an agitation poster: it talked about the dangers of drunkenness, promoted a healthy lifestyle. For example, a popular print made in 1987 by the artist Larisa Lekhova has survived. She was inspired by the playful poems of the famous poet Nikolai Zabolotsky – they can be read in the picture:

If a person is invisible

Skinny and pale – very simple!

Don’t sit on a chair, seat,

Come out for a walk in the air …

From that, fellow, you fade,

That the air in the apartment is heavy …

“The people live on coupons …” (1989)

At the dawn of perestroika, there were pictures that were completely different from popular prints in their usual form – but they were. For example, in 1989, the artist Gennady Aleksandrov decided to turn to one of the most relevant topics at that time, choosing an unexpected embodiment for it. Instead of a cheerful drawing made in bright colors, we see a simple black and white. And the plot about the queue, consisting mainly of elderly people, brings only sadness. The author does not give any solution to the problem or a bright dream.

Black Raven (1992)

Honored Artist of Russia Lyudmila Ulybina created the Black Crow splint in accordance with all the canons: a bright drawing, outwardly – no sadness. At the same time, it is based on one of the saddest songs.

The first thing that catches your eye when looking at the picture is a raven hovering over a young man hiding in the grass, much larger than him in size. This is a deliberate game of scale. Since ancient times, artists have used this technique when they wanted to show the great importance of a particular animal or bird – for example, they depicted a giant nursery hen and a tiny person next to it. The raven was considered the herald of inevitable death, he personified that important force that cannot be overcome – this can explain his size in this work.

Ulybina created a whole series of popular prints, in which she turned to eternal problems. And of course, despite the brightness and gaiety of the pictures, there are not at all funny plots here. For example, about a simple peasant who, over many years of work, was able to make only a goat, a cow and a goose, or about a shepherdess who met a ferocious bear in the forest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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