Constructing the Soviet Child: Early Soviet Picturebooks by Marshak and Lebedev

Sara Pankenier, Stanford University

In February of 1924, the Central Committee of the Communist Party decreed that one of the Party's major goals in the area of publications was to develop a special kind of literature for children. Indeed, from its inception, the Soviet state invested great resources in the socialization of its future citizens, since the child was central to the utopian project, as recipient and guarantor. Prominent figures engaged in the question of literature for the Soviet child, including Majakovskij and Gor'kij from the literary vanguard and Lenin's wife Krupskaja from within the political arena. Thus the poet Samuil Marshak and the graphic artist Vladimir Lebedev were part of a greater project when they rose to the cause of constructing a new aesthetic for the Soviet child in their picturebook collaborations in the years that followed. Yet their work was a uniquely successful product of the constellation of forces in the post-revolutionary period, including the theory and practice of the avant-garde.

For a short time, the artistic practice of Marshak and Lebedev united the aims of utopian politics and avant-garde art as smoothly as it united the graphic and verbal arts within its form. Drawing on Constructivism and other contemporary movements in the arts, these works advanced the aesthetic practice of the avant-garde with their innovations in book arts. This eventually would lead to the establishment of Lebedev's school of Soviet book illustration in Leningrad. Close examination of Lebedev's theoretical statements on graphic design reveals points of contact between the aesthetic theories of Formalism and Lebedev's attention to children's perception. This paper explores the intersection of avant-garde aesthetic theory and new approaches to the child's perception in the early picturebook collaborations of Marshak and Lebedev. After placing their work in historical, artistic, and theoretical context, it traces the implications and development of these ideas through the illustration of their practice.