by Vladimir KAZANEVSKY / Ukraine


Vladimir Kazanevsky


This article tells of the development of the cartoon in the Soviet Union. It considers the major stages in the evolution of the art of graphic cartoons prior to and after the 1917 revolution. The article critisizes socialist realism as the sole creative method of Soviet artists and the erroneous practice of implanting ideology in art. The author cites reasons to explain why the cartoon has been turned into hack-work, analyzes the renewal of this art in the late 1960s and examines the sources of the new trend: the cartoon of paradox or the cartoon of absurd.

The cheap popular prints, lubok, may be looked upon as the first Russian cartoons which appeared under the influence of amusing German drawings in the seventeenth century. One of the most striking prints is named “The mice burying the cat,” representing a jesting procession Peter I. liked to arrange in St. Petersburg.

The drawings of artist L. Venetsianov who edited “The Cartoons Journal for 1808” were the first original cartoons in Russia. That same year the journal ceased publication because of a relatively inoffensive drawing showing a dignitary/bureaucrat. The painters I. Ivanov and I. Terebenev responded to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with patriotic works; the latter issued 43 sheets of cartoons.

In 1846, the comic collection Yeralash’ (Muddle), began publication. Its contributors were M. Nevakhovich and other artists whose creations were affected by the French cartoonists.

The artist N. Stepanov was one of the most outstanding cartoonists of the nineteenth century. His works stood out from the interminable trivial vulgar cartoons, plagiarist sheets dashingly imitating the French cartoons because of their craftsmanship. The artist showed his invention and mastery in the field of patriotic caricatures; in the cartoons representing Napoleon III, Stepanov succeeded in embodying all the unique peculiarities of the Domiet school, considered to be the highest achievement in drawing at that time. However, in the epoch of savage tsarist terror in Russia, the cartoon was firmly kept within the limits prescribed by the Third Department, playing only an entertaining role, at best criticizing the social conditions.

In 1861, the chief of the Third Department, Count Bludov, gave the order to look over all engravings before publishing them. Even the most inoffensive cartoons by N. Stepanov, P. Boklevsky, V. Timm, and M. Nevsky were prohibited. Cheap popular prints and engraving plates were destroyed all over Russia. Zealously, Moscow Governor-General Zakrevsky ordered factory-owners to hack to pieces all the old copper plates. Bells were made of them. Thus, the cartoon fell into decay. The true works of cartoon were lost among the vapid works of copycats who took the types directly from works of famous artists; such an occurrence was particularly frequent in the patriotic cartoons.

A rise in the art of cartoon took place in the late 1860’s. The album “Familiars” was published by Stepanov; yet the first issue drew a distinction between the funny cartoons, which raised careful laughter, and the socially significant ones, which played a leading role in the reconstruction of social life. Stepanov determined the aims and purposes of the new cartoon: “… the denial of the false in all its manifestations in life and art,” and so the cartoon became more expressive and active under his influence.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought about renewed interest in the art of the cartoon; at that time the social activity of the masses sharply increased.

In 1905 there appeared more than four hundred satirical journals and newspapers. However, under the conditions of severe censorship, a number of those journals disappeared after only one or two issues. The editors and artists were continuously fined and arrested by the authorities. The brilliant cartoons of prominent artists V. Serov, B. Kustodiev, and I. Bilibin could be found in satirical journals at that time.

Only a few of those many hundred journals have survived after the defeat of the first Russian revolution, and the oppositional cartoon ceased its existence for a time.

In 1917, a new theme prevailed in the works of cartoonists. After the downfall of the monarchy, Russia kept silent for fear, paused with significance and then rose in applause of the new regime. The Moscow journal Budilnik (Alarm Clock) changed its name to Svobodny Budil’nik (Free Alarm Clock). The Petrograd weekly journal Novy Satirikon (New Satiricon) published a supplement under the name Eshafot (Scaffold). The orgy of political cartoon without censorship spread widely. The drawings of that time made fun not of only the concrete phenomena but also the vices of an obsolete social system.

The first cartoons were published in the Bolshevist newspaper Pravda in 1912. Exhibiting a low artistic level, these cartoons played an applied role in political propaganda. Such a trend determined the common direction of the Soviet cartoon for years.

As early as the eve of the Great October socialist revolution of 1917, a Moscow journalist predicted the regularity of art decadence: “The political life draws away the most gifted peoples from all the spheres of art and the decadence will follow.” Meanwhile, the cultural life gained in extraordinary intensity in the post-October period. The first Soviet satiric newspapers and journals became available: Solovey (Nightingale), Krasny D’yavol (Red Devil), Begemot (Hippopotamus), Lapot (Bast Sandal), Pushka (Cannon), Smekhach (Laughter). At the same time, gifted cartoonists whose names were widely known in the country before the revolution, contributed to the antibolshevist journals Bich (Whip) and Satirikon (Satiricon). But from the first years of Soviet power nonconformity was vigorously eradicated, and in 1918 those journals ceased to exist; a number of cartoonists had to emigrate, and others adapted by collaborating with the Soviet publishing houses.

The history of cartoon development in the USSR is inseparably linked with the making of socialist society. The Communist Party thrust its ideological orientation on the country, ruthlessly eradicating undesired manifestations in art, and controlling creative activity of artists.

.In 1922 the satiric journal Krokodil (Crocodile) was created and its founder K. Yeremeev called upon its artists to devote themselves exclusively to the service of proletarian art. He wrote: “Friends, we shall work in another manner. The letters about everyday needs of workers will help us. … The pure humor was fabricated often. The facts of life, the trustworthy events, the remarkable sharp conversations in the shop, store, and the street must be the basis of cartoon.” The cartoons of D. Moor, V. Deni, M. Cheremnykh, Kukryniksy, L. Brodaty et al. appeared in the first issues of the journal.

Then Stalin’s dictatorship of the thirties toughened censorship; the trend to obey art of the “highest” interests greatly increased. The cartoons of the first Five Year Plan were directed against those who had been declared the enemies of the Soviet state by the Stalin government. The ideological orientation of creative work was stressed by the Resolution of All-Russia Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) of April 23, 1932, about the reorientation of literary and artistic organizations and the direct instructions about socialist realism as the only one method in Soviet art.

“Formalism” and “naturalism” in art were subjected to sharp criticism in the columns of the Party press, as all the press in the country belonged in fact to the Communist Party. In the mid-thirties a radical change came about for Soviet graphic art: the strong detachment of graphic artists-realists were overcome, and all the works inconsistent with socialist realism were expelled. This trend determined the development of satiric graphic arts. A high professional standard was reached by the cartoonists, but the treatment was kept within limits of themes permitted by the censorship. Cartoons became the illustrations of the reports in the news­papers and journals. The limitation of creative freedom decreased con­siderably the artistic level of cartoons. The myriads of stereotyped figures of British lions, Uncle Sams, colonizers with topis on their heads, racists in Ku-Klux-Klan clothes, “sharks of imperialism,” bribetakers with itch­ing palms. All the pictures were supplied with plenty of captions. Such a phenomenon of stereotyping is partly accounted for by the collective “prospering” in satiric journals (as well as in some writers’ organizations). The so-called temisty (those who were given the predetermined themes) created topics for the pictures discussed at the editorial board meetings. The themes approved for publication were created by the artists who did not often invent the topics at all. The topical cartoons were quickly disastrous. B. Yefimov, the very famous Soviet satirist, described the work of “Cartoonists-pressmen” as follows: “… here the creative production process amounts to hours and minutes rather than days and weeks … The work often must be created in a hurry, in the presence of a messenger, or the picture must be drawn in the editorial office looking at the latest TASS [Telegraph Agency of SU] news. So the creative process becomes the “creative productive one”; the cartoonists had to change from artists to hacks.

During World War II, cartoons supported the patriotic spirit of the Soviet people. Satiric placards and “TASS Windows” (the artists Kukryniksy, V. Deni, M. Cheremnykh, N. Radlov et al.), and satiric drawings in the newspapers and journals unmasked the hated enemy.

Then, in the postwar years, the main role of Soviet cartoons was the same — political propaganda. L. Samoilov, artist-cartoonist, characterizes the successes of Soviet cartoons as follows:

It was the beginning of sixties. The Communist Party adopted the resolution for the further improvement of agriculture, against the drawbacks disadvantaging to its development, and the cartoonists having an inherent energy in getting things done responded with the single-minded exhibition “Weeding.” The artists-cartoonists and the poets-satirists responded with lightning speed to piratic crossing of the USSR’s frontiers by American reconnaissance “U2” aircraft with the special exhibition, followed by the collected cartoons. The Communist Party adopted the historical resolution to develop the chemical industry in our country. And the reaction was immediate — the exhibition, a placard series calling to join all the forces in order to fulfil this resolution. (Samoilov 1976: 65)

At the same time, the so-called “pure humor” was not greatly esteemed in the USSR. “Graphical jokes” or “amusing trifles” were the customary labels for the satirical drawings. The Soviet critics and cartoonists themselves did not welcome the cartoon of the absurd together with the abstractionism, pop art, avant-garde, and other genres of art. The Western classics were not only rejected but were not understable, as was “bourgeois” art on the whole. The famous Soviet cartoonist L. Samoilov criticized the artists M. Henry and R. Topor in his book Cartoons, Cartoonists, Reader. He wrote: Henry’s drawings are imbued with the gloomy, sepulchral humor … The naked man is eating his own left arm, then the right one, then both legs. And the apotheosis comes: the head with the putout tongue, with the eyes seeming to be goggling out of it. Doing his utmost, one can conjecture “the theme”: this man is said to make his life a misery by nagging … Topor’s acreative activity is characterized by mortal hatred for the man as a whole. The manner, repulsive per se, stylized in poor medieval engravings (“retro?”) or in bad amateur illus­trations from the gutter press at the close of the last century (“kitsch?”). Hands breaking eyes, fists shaking up the human faces as if they were a pillow, the faces grated as if they were a potato — in truth, all that was represented by the artist with pathological lust. (Samoilov 1976: 87)

An impression is produced that the real philosophical sense of creation of classics of Western cartoons is hidden from L. Samoilov. Works inconsistent with socialist realism were sharply criticized at that time and were prohibited from public exhibition. However, in the period of Khrushchev’s thaw, a new trend appeared in the development of the Soviet cartoon. The new cartoon made its appearance with the traditional cartoons which as a rule supplied explanatory captions illustrated often as the “topics.” For example, the explanatory captions shed light on the “topic”, and they were completed products together with the really weak cartoons supplied with the captions not only under the drawings but also with explanatory legends on graphic grounds. Let’s trace the sources of this phenomenon.

The origin of the so-called cartoon of the absurd or the cartoon of paradox (there is no more exact term) — called in the USSR the “wordless” cartoon — can apparently be traced to the midthirties in the USA. But its origin is very complicated. Its appearance was absolutely readied by rapid progress in art at the beginning of the century. Schopenhauer’s doctrine of overcoming the rationality and reflecting the essence of the idea in works of art; Bergson’s intuition; “conceptualism of cubists;” divisionism of futurists; illogical topics of metaphysical paintings; intensification of expressiveness as the artistic method of expressionists; “the logic of dreams”; creativity as the phenomenon of the subconscious of surrealists; the art of the absurd deprived of common logic and sense; the reappraisal of artistic creativity related to the break of the principle reflecting the reality with artistic means; the negligence of constructions and designs considered — all this, in one way or another paved the way for innovative ideas in the art of the cartoon.

.Jacques Lefeuvre, the famous investigator of cartoon art, believes that the contemporaneous cartoon was formed under the influence of surrealism. “The movement of surrealism,” Lefeuvre writes, “made the minds ready to accept the strangeness of the world and then to find out that the world is not so rationally designed as it had been believed before” (Dmitrieva 1973: 256). However, it should be noted that the modern cartoonists are greatly influenced by the art of absurd.

In particular, this influence is reflected in the stylistic metamorphosis of the cartoon. The art of the absurd bears upon the philosophical anthropology of existentialism reflected in Heidegger’s statements: “Each one becomes similar to the other. This residence near each other dissolves absolutely their own existence in the manner of living of the others just in such a way that the others fade away more in their distinction and definition.” From here on appears the deindividualization method of Theater of the Absurd heroes who often have no name at all (Beckett’s Unnamed) or the various heroes have the same name (lonesco’s Jack or the Submission, The Bald Soprano). One of the characteristics of the stylistic metamorphosis of the cartoon is the deindividualization of heroes. In contrast to traditional cartoons, which are characterized by the vivid impersonation of heroes, the characters of “worldless” cartoons are very much alike in their appearance — for example, the artists’ crowds, as the adherents of the traditional school, consist of a great number of caricatured old men, men, women, children. Crowds in the works of adherents of the new cartoon are represented as a similarly stylized exaggerated group of little men feeling some internal unity. And each author selects his own stylized heroes differing from the characters of other painters (the people represented by one painter have huge funny noses, short legs, large feet, small arms; those represented by another have little heads, are stumpy …).

In some way or another modern cartoonists proceed in their creation from the main principles of the art of the absurd. Many brilliant cartoons by artists with standing reputations in the humorous graphic arts resemble a scene frozen from the plays of the theater of the absurd.

The main difference in modern cartoons from the traditional ones will be seen in the identification with the contrasting approaches of lonesco and Brecht to the creation. lonesco wrote, “… realism, be it socialist or not, fails in reproduction of true reality. It makes the reality narrower, falsifies, represents in wrong perspective.” Recognizing Brecht as his ideological opponent, lonesco points out, “I don’t like Brecht just because he is didactic, ideological. He is not primitive; he is naive. He doesn’t give anything to meditate on; he himself is a reflection, illustration of ideology; he doesn’t teach me anything, he only repeats” (Kulikova 1980: 176).

Together with the burlesque development of art, the metamorphosis of humor, its evolution takes place. The scientific and technical progress with life at a brisk pace, an avalanche of information falling on a man builds up the new way of life. The “wordless” cartoon successfully satisfies the requirements of time. The overall direction of art of cartoons reorients, manifesting itself purely outward in the stylized metamorphosis. The crucial change from the use of particular satirical images in logical constructions to the illogical “subconscious” creation based on the symbolic series; from the solution of applied problems especially satiric by nature to the philosophical comprehension of reality; from the trend of stereotyped thinking to archetypal thinking (here is the common trend of modern cartoon development, the satiric graphic arts in newspapers and journals have played and will play an applied role to a greater extent). The main hero of a cartoon — man — converts from the particular satiric image into the symbol whose name is “Man”. Entering the new evolutionary phase, the cartoon raises a claim to exist as the independent genre of art. The artistic value of problem graphic arts increases — such a term could be definitely applied to the best samples of the “wordless” cartoon. The quintessence of ideas in their paradoxical reflection acceptable at a subconscious level is inherent in the works of the best modern authors, notably M. Henry, R. Topor, S.Steinberg, J. Terber, R. Serle, and A. Born.

The country which has shown the monstrous examples of absurd situations to the world, in which the absurd has changed into reality, and reality has changed into the absurd formed the “wordless” cartoon under the influence of the art of the absurd in the mid-1960’s. The “wordless” cartoon took the long way to home: from the USA through Western Europe to Eastern Europe and finally to the USSR. The new cartoon was given a hostile reception by the Soviet critics and cartoonists of the older generation in the official satirical journals, but was generally recognized by the young intelligentsia. The so-called “Club of 12 Chairs,” heading of the Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Newspaper), appearing in 1967, could be considered the craddle of the “wordless” cartoon. V. Peskov is one of the most active and gifted creators of Chudaki (Cranks) — cartoons under such headings which were and are being published in this newspaper. S. Tyunin, L. Tishkov, V. Rozantsev, and V. Bogorad should be named among those who put a new face on the Soviet cartoon. M. Zlatkovsky, who was awarded a number of international prizes, can be recognized as the leader of graphic arts (his favorite artist is R. Topor).

Year after year the “wordless” cartoon is becoming increasingly popular in the USSR. Cartoonists’ clubs have been opened in many cities; recently dozens of annual exhibitions have been organized; catalogues and selected cartoons have been published.

However, a drop in the art of cartoons can be observed at present. The apparent simplicity of putting an idea into a humorous drawing has drawn to this genre a number of amateurs. Daily up to 100 cartoons are published in newspapers and journals. The bulk of them involves poor imitations of works of leading masters. The stereotype in thoughts, the manifestations of the so-called “collective unconscious” inherent to the cartoonists creation give rise to the “reiterations” (we don’t deal with the direct plagiarism). And if such phenomena can’t be considered as borrowing in other genres of art (let’s recollect that Pushkin had given the topic of the immortal poem “Dead Souls” to Gogol), then in the graphic arts the reiteration is a nonsense, as the cartoon is heuristic in sui generis. There was the case when simultaneously with the invention of registration, a cartoon bearing the same idea was published. The “reiteration” phenomenon was of such a common character that the same ideas were materialized by dozens of various artists. For example, one collector in the USSR has obtained more than one thousand humorous drawings on the subject of uninhabited islands.

The most superficial analysis shows the professional artists to be rare among the modern cartoonists. They are mainly college graduates in different disciplines: medicine, physics, architecture, etc. But most of them are engineers, which emphasizes once more the heuristic nature of cartoons.

The modern humorous and satiric graphic arts are an unusual phenomenon. Playing other than a purely amusing role, the cartoon using hyperbole and resorting to paradox brings to obvious absurdity the phenomena inherent in modern society which are at one with the great N. Bohr, who said that ideas should be crazy enough to become truth.

The struggle of modern cartoon arts with evil consists of revealing the negative phenomena or, what is of greater importance, in revealing the negative in the apparent positive, and finally, in raising the negative committed under the veil to the absurd. While witty Guilrait and Russian Fedotov died in mental hospitals, F. Goya and 0. Domiet lost their sight at the end of their lives, and Weber was executed. Cartoon art, the modest soldier in the struggle with the Great Empire of Evil, is awake to what is going on.


(author is renowned Ukrainian cartoonist, theorist of Cartoon Art and lecturer)



Abramsky, N.: Laughter of Strong Men. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1977

Dmitrieva, N.: Humor of Paradoxes. Moscow: Inostrannaya Literatura 6, 1973


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