The cultural life of Ukraine and Russia in the early 20th century was marked, among other things, by the emergence of a coterie of masters of book design who reached the summits of graphic arts, thus developing a new style of Russian book design.
When speaking of that. landmark period in the history of Russian book design, we cannot but associate it with the name of Heorhiy Narbut who made an invaluable contribution to the development of graphic arts in the immediate pre revolutionary years. Even today Narbut’s legacy serves the artists of Ukraine as a model of the creative application of folk art and the usage of aesthetic folk principles. Narbut is justly considered to be the founder of Ukrainian graphic arts. Narbut’s entire creativity is closely connected with the artistic traditions of his homeland. He lived a short life (1886—1920), but managed to accomplish much.
Narbut spent his childhood on a Ukrainian farmstead. Later, he studied at the gymnasium in Hlukhiv, a provincial town with a rich historical background (in the 18th century, it was the capital of the Ukraine). During the first ten years of his life, Heorhiy held neither brush nor pencil in his hands. The drawing lessons in the gymnasium were of no use, as he would later say. His first endeavours in graphic arts were inspired by the scenery of his native land as well as by the traditions of Ukrainian folk art. It was in the gymnasium that he became acquainted with Old Rus script and learned to write it. Soon afterwards his imagination was caught by books illustrated by I.Bilibin. Imitating that artist, Heorhiy began drawing pictures using Russian fairy tale motifs.
When twenty, Narbut set out for Petersburg where he met Bilibin. The master recognized the boy to be a gifted artist and helped him realize his ambitions. He promoted the publication of illustrations done by Heorhiy in Hlukhiv, advised him and even invited him to live in his home. Working at the same table with the famous master, the young artist followed all the stages of the latter’s work very attentively. Studying and absorbing graphic art in this manner, Narbut revealed more and more explicitly his own inclinations and individuality. He didn’t cling strictly to the illustrated text, a fact which distinguished his work from that of Bilibin, but felt at ease creating an original graphic accompaniment to it. Narbut concentrated on the decorative side of his creations, striving for greater expressiveness of drawing line as well as for harmonious compositional arrangement. Enthusiastically studying the world of animals, insects and plants, Narbut was always willing to illustrate fairy tales, the heroes of which he projected as toys. None of Narbut’s creative works after 1910 bears either formal or thematic similarity to the works of Bilibin. Some of his drawings are reminiscent of A. Benois, D. Mitrokhin, M. Dobuzhinsky and S. Chekhonin, all of whom were members of the “World of Art” Society, as was Narbut himself. His work was characterized by the consummation of its architectonic quality and by the peculiar elasticity of lines drawn by the confident hand of the virtuoso. Among the classics who influenced Narbut’s art, the young artist owed much to Diirer. Narbut discovered Diirer for himself while residing in Munich (1909).
Narbut’s illustrations of fairy tales by Andersen and fables by Krylov marked a milestone, not only in the artist’s creative career, but in the history of Russian graphic art as a whole. Here, for the first time, Narbut used silhouette as the chief means of expressiveness.
At one point, he would be inspired by the pseudo-Chinese decoration on Petersburg china (“Nightingale” by Andersen) and at another, by the works of F.Tolstoy, a Russian artist of the first half of the 19th century.
Narbut’s illustrations of books issued to celebrate the jubilee of the Patriotic War of 1812 — “Russia Saved” and “The Year 1812 in Krylov’s Fables” — were an immense success. Here the artist drew people’s bodies with the heads of animals, a combination which produced a striking effect. This expedient was earlier resorted to by T.Grandville in his illustrations of fables by La Fontaine. Animals dressed as people and having human habits are projected by Narbut in his drawings for Andersen’s fairy tale “An Old Street Light” which takes us to Denmark. This picture has imaginary as well as actual impressions behind it; the street light depicted has quite a real prototype, still standing somewhere in Chernigov.
Living in Petersburg and paying annual visit to his homeland, the artist easily became enthused with different interests. He was attracted by heraldry and ancient landlords’ estates; his artistic pursuits were associated with Russian, Ukrainian and Western European architecture and portraits of Ukrainian Cossack chieftains. Narbut was charmed by engravings and jewellery of the 18th century, displayed interest in all kinds of emblems, engravings by Piranesi, Japanese colour engravings on wood and what not.
Besides illustrations, Narbut created book covers and silhouette portraits of his friends. He also drew landscapes and still lifes, architectural fantasies and allegorical compositions devoted, in particular, to the events of the First World War. Narbut became a master of applied graphic art, created pleasing toys and even designed furniture. In all these fields, Narbut was far from amateurish. His excellent visual memory enabled him to accumulate observations and artistic impressions from life, a treasury of images which always helped him work very efficiently.
Narbut was quite a humorist and used both words and pictures as media for his jokes. In his pictures, he managed to combine reality and fantasy in apt organic composition. lie had a very rich and productive imagination. “Ukrainian Alphabet,” which was à brilliant finale to Narbut’s pre-revolulionary “graphic symphony,” serves as excellent proof of that.
But there were periods in his life, particularly during wartime, when Narbut was obsessed by a premonition of ruin of everything he was used to. Later, there was a term dimmed by his illness which gave birth to sentimental and depressed works, as if born of the obscurity of a nightmare. This is especially true of the series of drawings “Architectural Fantasies” which are highly impressive because of their perfect draughtsmanship and the originality of the feelings permeating them.
Narbut greeted the October Revolution, although, like many intellectuals of the time, he was naive enough to believe in the possibility of standing apart from politics. By this time, he had come to live in Kyiv. One government succeeded another and the city passed through many hands, but Narbut’s only concerns were the State Academy of Art where he held a professorship and rectorship, protection of art monuments and his own creativity. Narbut evaluated all the cataclysms by only one critérium — whether the next change of regime would advance his artistic aspirations or not.
His works of that period stand out as having unusually enthusiastic feeling and echoing Ukrainian folklore. Under the succession of regimes of the Hetman’s government of the Central Rada and the Petlyura Directory, Narbut extended his artistic quests toward creating somewhat cold stylizations, drawing on the traditions of the Ukrainian baroque. His imagery acquired an ironical and sorrowful character which found its reflection in the “architectural fantasies.” Similar moods possessed Narbut before the Revolution. While studying in the gymnasium, Narbut came to know that his father’s scanty estate was mentioned in documents of the 17th century and, in consequence, he appeared to be an heir of impoverished, but still noble, gentry stock. This discovery possessed the artist’s imagination for quite some time. The change in Narbut’s attitude to his noble origin is best of all reflected in the ridiculous portrait of his ancestor — a Cossack with his moustache torn off and a bottle of “horilka” (Ukrainian vodka) in his hand (a playing card design) and in a personage invented by Narbut — an old-world landlord named Lupa Hrabuzdov. Narbut drew farcical silhouettes of this gentleman, issued articles signed by him and finally informed the public of the death of this “honourable figure.”
In 1918, he created a masterpiece entitled “Aeneus with the Cossacks” — an illustration of the poem by Ivan Kotlyarevsky, a classic of Ukrainian literature. This is a burlesque poem, but behind the style of parody one can easily discern a heroic epic, paying the highest tribute to the patriotism of the Ukrainian people and their faith in ultimate victory over the enemy. In Narbut’s illustration, there is nothing left of the burlesque; the theme is treated in an elated manner. The picture is dominated by cheerful light and linear rhythms and the virile faces of the Cossacks. Numerous book covers and illustrations, vignettes and headpieces designed by Narbut for publications are noted for their novelty of treatment. The artist succeeded in imparting his pictorial idiom with laconic finesse. Most of his images were raised to the level of symbols of a new social system — a worker with a gun; a Cossack playing bandura, with a ribbon stretching from his cap. On it one can see the inscription “Workers of the World, Unite!” and so on.
In Kyiv, Narbut started to work on a new edition of the “Ukrainian Alphabet.” Not only separate elements of the composition, but all aesthetic principles, bear the unmistakable mark of kinship with Ukrainian folklore.