At the end of the 17th century in Russia, houses and taverns were often decorated with a unique art form: the lubok (or lubki in the plural) were cheap wood engravings that were widely sold in the markets, which mostly represented scenes of everyday life, although also – and surprisingly, because it was not very tolerated at the time – the satire of religious and state figures on occasion.
Over time, the lubok became so popular that even the monarchy began producing its own patriotic courts in the 19th century. But this art form fell into oblivion after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and is now mostly known in academic circles or in dark subcultures in Russia.
We advance a century and Lubok emerges worldwide in the study of Mexican engraver Alejandro Barreto, who discovered the tradition while learning Russian. He was fascinated and decided to produce his own lubki with portraits of traditional images of his native Mexico.
I told him about his artistic and intercultural journey. The interview has been edited for the sake of brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): Russian lubok is part of a very interesting but little known culture, even in Russia. How did you get acquainted with that?
Alejandro Barreto: It was during my process of learning the Russian language about 10 years ago, in some book I could appreciate the lubok engraving referring to the Kazan Cat and I fell in love at first sight since it was my first contact as an engraver with one of these pieces. It was curious to realize when I lived in Russia, that ordinary people hardly know this artistic manifestation even though they are a living anthropological witness of their history. Children see them in school books, but they don't really know that these images are lubok, nor how they are made. My main motivation for learning Russian was the exoticity of language compared to Spanish, which is my native language and the fascination that the Soviet cartoons of the Soyuzmultfilm film house produced.
FN: The lubok is sometimes described as the Russian ancestor of satire, comics and social criticism. Do you agree?
AB: The lubok is a historical document in itself, with it comes a fabulous amount of information, valuable in all aspects of the times where it had its peak (18th-19th century) there are some rural lifestyles, which nowadays They are known thanks to these engravings, songs, anecdotes, legends, gossip. Lubok was a print and humorous means of communication that could address any issue, just as European newspapers or the same newspaper did today. I have always thought that the low price, the humor and the colorful way of painting them were those that hooked the viewer to buy the printed ones even to decorate the doors or walls of their houses.
FN: How do you use Russian lubok in your art and collection process? How do you share your passion in Mexico and online?
AB:For me Russian lubok is a great source of inspiration and object of study. To be able to understand and adapt it to Mexican culture, in my country I did a doctoral thesis that explained the history and formalities of this art compared to the popular graphic of the TGP workshop, Manuel Manilla and José Guadalupe Posada of the early twentieth century in Mexico and with which they share many genres of narrative and humorous stamp. I feel it was the best example to be able to make known to Mexicans what it is and represents a lubok in Russia. My work took a process where I had to appropriate the tools and gross style of Lubok to create prints that talked about the popular culture and history of Mexico. I called that series lubokus.ru.mx, I managed to make a large collection of pieces related to this Mexico-Russia theme, to be able to be presented in exhibitions in various parts of Mexico, Russia and abroad, just last year it was presented in Bulgaria and in Poland.
FN: How does lubok relate to other forms of pop art you collect?
AB: Undoubtedly, lubok is the predecessor of Russian comics, I think the role they play with comics and also as a precedent of the Soviet cartel is very important. I found very interesting similarities at the formal and historical level with popular engravings of other cultures such as in northeast Brazil with the literature of “string” which involves rhymes with narratives of popular character with engravings and are sold at low costs. I had my own opportunity to make my lubok ropes around a very Mexican theme: “wrestling.”
I have also seen other manifestations that enjoy many similarities with Lubok such as Patua scrolls in Bengal, India and Luboks that I have seen from other Slavic countries such as Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
FN: What do you like most about lubok art?
AB: Since studying the lubok theme I am a fan, I have made my prints inspired by them, but also on my trip to Russia I was able to obtain some original lubok prints of various subjects, from bible engravings illustrated by Vasily Koren (the first in Russian of 1692 and with which the technique of wood engraving came to that territory as a precedent of the popular lubok) until printed on anecdotes, unusual facts and satirical political stories.
I love the aesthetics of the representation of the figures. I realize the naivety of the Russian people of those times, in the face of extraordinary events, those printed were interpreted in a very pure way, that is to say they talked about exotic animals or monsters without having a real reference or photograph and the representations to be made based on stories, they were made by wonderful characters emanating from the Naïf world.
FN: Can lubok relate to a form of Mexican culture, art or humor?
AB: As I said before, in Mexico there was a very important period of Mexican engraving with the construction of our nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the restructuring of the country was being managed, Mexican culture began to notice its first glimpses as a nation modern There was much punishment on the part of the Government and the powerful class, that managed certain conditions for the engraving also became a weapon of protest, being accessible, speaking for the people, raising the voice of criticism and humor. A healthy nation for my way of seeing must have a sense of humor and must be critical and both lubok and our Mexican engraving share that chapter in their respective stories.
You can see more Barreto art on his Instagram account.