A rare lubok with original colour shows five Orthodox icons with scenes from life of Jesus, each accompanied by a figure of a Sibyl, predicting the event. The sibyls were women believed were oracles in ancient Greece. Some prophesies were later interpreted by Christian authors as predicting the coming of the savior Jesus Christ.
Lubki: Prints for the Russian Masses
Lubok (лубо́к; Lubki, plural) were extremely important elements of Russian poplar visual culture from the second half of the 17th Century until the Russian Revolution. They are broadside prints usually featuring simple graphics, often accompanied by explanatory text. They focused on a variety of topics including, sacred religious icons, pre-Christian Pagan imagery, folk tales, satire, political propaganda, and humour (which sometimes crossed the line into the ribald), amongst other subjects.
Importantly, lubki were amongst the only Russian prints targeted towards the lower and middle classes. They were cheaply produced, and thus affordable, featuring narratives generally comprehensible by images alone (for the benefit of the illiterate), while the text was usually written in vernacular language, accessible to everyman. In this sense, they were the forerunners of the comic strip. They were often sold at public markets, and were displayed on the walls of inns and private homes. In many cases, lubki were the only artworks affordable by the masses.
The first lubki were produced as woodcuts during the second half of the 17th Century, and while inspired by popular Western European prints, from the outset that assumed their own distinct Russian style and content. The earliest lubki followed the ‘Old Russian’ style, as see on church frescoes of the Upper Volga, and as popularized by the Koren Picture-Bible (1692-96). Tempera paints were often applied, in resplendent hues, lending flair to what were often simplistic, albeit beautiful, deigns. Russian scholar Alexander Boguslavsky observed that lubki are “a combination of Russian icon and manuscript painting traditions with the ideas and topics of western European woodcuts.” While most lubki were privately printed, from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, they were issued by the Tsarist regime for propaganda purposes.
During the 18th Century, the style and colouring were maintained, yet the diversity of subject matter increased, while the medium changed to engraving and etching.
Many 19th Century lubki followed a traditional design and colouration scheme, yet were printed through modern techniques, such as lithography and photoithography. Printed on cheap paper, and hand coloured, such lubki are of an extraordinary appearance and tactile quality, unlike anything printed in Western Europe or America. Their archaic style, mixed with modern techniques, often leads uninitiated Westerners to mistakenly believe that they are 19th reproductions of much earlier prints.
During the second half of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the imperial government and patriotic printers sponsored ‘war lubki’, explaining military events and the exploits of the Russian armed forces. While some lubki-like prints were produced in Russia after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet propaganda poster and flyers largely replaced the genre.
While many individual lubki were produced in sizeable quantities, their ephemeral nature has ensured that their survival rate to the present day is very low. Indeed, any recorded titles are now thought lost, and many existing piece are known in only a single or handful of examples. Unlike most historical Russian books and manuscripts, which were geared towards elite audiences, lubki provide unparalleled insights into the beliefs, customs and humour of the Russian masses during era when their thoughts and aspirations were seldom recorded.