An elephant pink crawled outta the sink and snuggled up in my bed A purple mole’s in the goldfish bowl, he’s trying to steal a drink*
Today’s post was originally planned as a panegyric to Larry Marder’s Beanworld, but I quickly realized that attempting to write about it was a bit like trying to dissect a joke. Here I am, then, doing a 180 degree turn to talk about a Soviet cartoonist.
Evgeniy Milutka (Евгений Милутка, b. 1946) was a teacher of Russian literature by profession, but his proclivities clearly lay elsewhere. After teaching in middle school for a few years, he officially switched to the career of a cartoonist in the early 1970s, and quickly rose to the ranks of the best known caricaturists in the USSR, in part thanks to his long-lasting (from mid seventies to mid eighties) collaboration with satirical magazine Krokodil(see Krokodil Smiles: Cartoons in the USSR).
I am most interested, however, in the new, kid-oriented direction his work took in the 1980s, namely the cartoons/comics published within the pages of Веселые Картинки (something like ‘funny pictures’ in translation), a literature-bent humour magazine for kids. Founded in 1956, it was still sort-of around (with some financial issues) when I was a child, and my grandfather, who was always very preoccupied with making sure I grew up knowledgeable and smart (sorry, grandpa?), was kind enough to buy me a subscription.
The first thing that jumps out is that Milutka’s strips are really weird. Green elephants, watermelon men, mosquitoes capable of lifting a person, bats in a cavern made out of teeth, a giant spider wearing running shoes… a lot of it is most delirious delirium tremens. Milutka could aptly handle a variety of styles, but his basic, more recognizable modus operandi is extremely Slavic. The other interesting thing about his work, though you have to take my word for this, is how he squeezed in some distinctly unchildlike content into his strips. He was, after all, a caricaturist, with a keen eye honed by the sometimes subversive Krokodil.
Here is a selection from within the pages of Веселые Картинки from 1991 to 1996, which is pretty much the period I was able to follow in person.
I hope you enjoyed these despite the language barrier! I’ll wrap this up with two fun illustrations from the early 90s:
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!
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. »
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.
The following images have been selected from the collection seen above and kindly scanned and framed by co-admin RG.
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.
Many years after the fact, political caricatures are hard to appreciate properly, generally speaking – politicians’ names get forgotten, events become blurry in the collective memory, and what was surely witty and acerbic just seems incomprehensible. They’re of great historical interest, and often of considerable artistic merit, too, but it’s not something I’m particularly interested in. That being said, nothing rekindles my enthusiasm like an octopus, especially if he’s sprawled all over the map of Europe, or, heck, the whole world. Power is an aphrodisiac!
I have no system – I tried including images that aren’t seen too often in articles of this kind, or ones that are stylistically striking.
But let’s go back to the 19th century, seemingly the golden age of tentacled propaganda. The line between propaganda and social criticism is blurry, of course – with my environmentalist tendencies, I think of the following trio, all condemning stabs at Standard Oil, attacked for being an unlawful monopoly, as perfectly justified attacks drawing attention to a serious problem.
The following trio take on the same map, making for interesting compare-and-contrast material. The years may go by, but Russia continues to be grabby… Incidentally, as I am Russian, apparently these Tentacle Tuesdays of mine were pre-ordained by Fate.
Speaking of Russia…
And speaking of communism…
Lest I be accused of all this having no relevance whatsoever to today’s political climate… well, fortunately some traditions die hard, and tentacles as a representation of an all-encroaching evil are here to stay!
I wasn’t going to let the other party off the hook… Or is it one and the same?
Despite his father’s insistence on a commercial career, French illustrator Jean Effel (1908-1982) pursued studies in music, art and philosophy. When his attempts to become a theatrical writer failed, he switched gears and started working as a caricaturist for newspapers in the 1930s. By the 1940s, his work was widely known and widely published, mostly in socialist/communist newspapers sponsored by the French Communist Party. After the second World War, he also branched out into book illustration (his work on Fables de la Fontaine is quite charming). Today, he’s mostly remembered (if barely) for his La création du monde (The Creation of the World).
I learned about Jean Effel (a nom de plume; François Lejeune was his true name) from a couple of books my parents had lying around when I was growing up. He was, I believe, my first exposure to cartoons, and the warm place his work holds in my heart is partly dictated by nostalgia. Only in part, however; few would deny that Effel’s animals and humans, his God, his Devil and his various angels are charming in that plump, childlike way that young animals are irresistibly cute. Some grouchy contrarians might get annoyed by that cuteness; the rest of us will enjoy his kind world. Oh, vexations and sarcasm are part of its tapestry, but nobody stays angry for long, pranks are witty but inoffensive, and problems are creatively resolved. Effel was an atheist, but his God was so kind and paternal that even priests didn’t object to their parishioners reading his work.
To come back to my childhood, the twist in the story is that the books were in Russian: Soviet translations from French. The main collection of Jean Effel’s work was published in 1963 by the Hermitage Museum’s publishing press. The introduction calls him a « sincere friend of the Soviet Union », pointing out that Effel even learned to use Russian letters. In 1967, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, which was mostly reserved for non-Soviets, foreign prominent Communists and supporters of the Soviet Union. (Nelson Mandela also had one, as did Linus Pauling and Pablo Picasso.
It’s odd, but I can’t give you the exact date of the conception or publication of The Creation of the World: the Soviet book mentions that it was begun in 1950, English Wiki gives the date as 1945, French Wiki says 1953, Encyclopaedia Universalis (a French site) posits 1937, etc. Rather absurdly, there are a lot more detailed articles about Effel in Russian than in French, so for once I actually tend to trust the Russian side of things. It was clear that Effel genuinely liked Russians, and admired what he saw on his many visits to the U.S.S.R. I assume he only saw what he wanted to see (or what he was shown by his tour guides); still, he was clearly an idealist, a kind and gentle man by all accounts who believed in pacifism and loved animals.
A few pages from my 1963 Soviet edition:
A few years ago, I found another Russian edition in some Canadian (how books travel..) second hand bookstore, a collection in four volumes:
The back covers are also worth a look:
Oddly, Animals and Plants is marked as costing 75 kopecks, and the other three are 80 kopecks each, though this was clearly sold as a set with a slipcase.
A few other odds and ends from Effel’s multi-faceted career…
The French Postal Service issued a stamp in 1983 to celebrate Jean Effel and his sweet version of Marianne, a cheerful young woman with a red cap who symbolized the new French Republic.
« Krokodil » («Крокодил» in Russian, a crocodile) was a Soviet satirical magazine founded in 1922 and that outlasted the Soviet Union by a number of years. In 2000, it was driven to its deathbed by a general lack of interest and failing finances – no longer being relevant to the modern age, alas! – and though weak attempts were made to breathe life into it in the 2000s, it finally croaked altogether, wheezing its very last in 2008.
Right from the beginning, The Crocodile (personified by a pipe-chomping red crocodile, holding a pitchfork) featured quite a lot of satirical drawings, which were basically panel cartoons, and sometimes even actual comics. The magazine’s modus operandi was to viciously skewer various enemies of the State and the People, such as bureaucrats, alcoholics, bribe-takers, church-goers, various delinquents, ne’er-do-wells and anti-Soviet villains. Institutions were also attacked, sometimes gleefully and sometimes sternly, and that list was long, too: American imperialism and capitalism, German Nazism, colonialism, and more other -isms that you could shake a stick at.
I would not like to leave you with the impression that Mr. Crocodile was an unsympathetic fellow, however; in its gentler moments, Krokodil’s tongue-in-cheek humour could be a delight, and its savage attacks sometimes masked a subversive anti-Soviet streak. Many prominent writers and artists worked for the magazine, and some of them started their careers within its pages. Aside from a plethora of cartoons, the magazine also featured news, stories, aphorisms, epigrams, and reviews of books, films and theatrical plays, etc.
Mr. Crocodile came with an extensive family. He had a wife, the Big Krokodila, who lost her marbles in the 1930s, and two twin children, who acquired hilariously caricatural careers in 1990 – Totosha went into management and Kokosha moved to the U.S. to design men’s magazines. These (and other recurring) characters marked several generations of Soviet citizens, and many of their catchphrases have become an everyday part of the Russian language.
Without further ado, here’s a few Krokodil cartoons on very Slavic topics, like drunkenness, and general debauchery and bureaucracy, including the disappointing lack of goods (and poor quality control of actually available goods). In no particular order…