Herluf Bidstrup: The Goal of Satire Is to Speak the Truth

I’d like to talk about Danish Herluf Bidstrup (1912 – 1988), yet another talented artist of some renown during his lifespan, but who soon sank into the oblivion of time. His wild popularity in the Soviet Union at the height of his artistic prowess not only resulted in honourable mentions in various works of Russian literature, but also in the printing of a bevy of collections both old and new. He has also received numerous awards from the USSR (most notably, the Lenin Peace Prize – a bit of a contradiction in terms – and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour). Now he’s forgotten by most everyone… except by Russians, who still carry a torch for his cartoons, and publish new collections of his work to this day. He produced around five thousand cartoons during his lifetime, so there’s certainly plenty of material to collect!

In Moscow, circa 1953.

The openly anti-fascist Bidstrup had been contributing humorous drawings to various publications since 1935, but he truly found his voice in the underground (and illegal) newspaper, Land og folk, the offshoot of Denmark’s (also illegal) Communist party, which Bidstrup joined in 1943. While his work was also appreciated and published in East Germany, his obvious political stance significantly limited the scope of what could be printed. It even affected his career in his home country, as Denmark was economically dependent on then-Fascist Germany. Bidstrup himself considered that he was most accurately represented in the Soviet press, not only before and during WWII, but also after the war. In 1953, in a letter to his friend Soviet journalist Mikhail Kosov, translator of his work and main enthusiast, he wrote that « all Soviet anthologies which we have prepared together are a hundred times better than collections published in other countries… in the German version, I become more and more of a harmless humourist, and a completely toothless satirist. »

Bidstrup’s sketch of the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed.

In a sense, Bidstrup can be compared to his contemporary, French artist Jean Effel (also a favourite of Soviet citizens): both were openly communists whose work confronted social injustice and inequality. But at the end of the day, artists aren’t much remembered for their ‘social conscience’: it’s their keen eye for everyday detail and sense of humour that allows cartoons to pass unscathed through decades, to touch and amuse us some seventy years on. In that sense, Bidstrup’s cartoons are arguably more ‘dated’, more tied to his politics than Effel’s, which perhaps explains why one encounters mentions of the latter a little more often. Still, there’s plenty there to admire and chuckle at.

Bidstrup Herluf: Drawings (2017, Mesheriakov Publishing House); such a nice shade of green.

The following images have been selected from the collection seen above and kindly scanned and framed by co-admin RG.

«The circle closes.»
« On the wings of Pegasus. »
« Amateur photographer »
« Self-criticism »
« Direct hit »
« Life’s journey »
« Wife of a jazzman »
« Solitude »
« Fished out »
«The mirror of the soul »
« An extended game »
« A perfect example »

Finally, here is a charming cartoon that Soviet animation director Lev Atamanov produced in collaboration with Bidstrup during one of his many visits to the USSR.

I hope your enjoyed this walk down history’s lane. And if you’d like to see more, while Herluf Bidstrup may be relatively obscure, you can still see a nice collection of his cartoons here and here.

~ ds

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