The origins of the Russian prints called lubki (singular lubok) appear to stretch back to the 1500s, when the art of block printing was introduced to Russia from Eastern Asia, around the same time German Hanseatic merchants brought the first printed books to Moscow. As Adela Roatcap remarks:
The oldest surviving lubki, according to Roatcap, were printed in Kiev (present-day Ukraine) in 1625 and depicted Orthodox religious figures and scenes. Indeed, lubki are thought by many scholars to have first gained popularity as a cheap substitute for religious icons and were used by people of the lower and middle classes to decorate the walls of homes and taverns.
The lubki featured here are from the collection of Dimitrii Aleksandrovich Rovinskii, a high-ranking jurist in nineteenth-century Moscow, who devoted his spare time to his greatest passion, Russian folk art. In 1881 he published the first instalment of his twelve-volume Russian Folk Pictures, displaying reproductions of his collection along with commentary — a book which has now been digitized and made available online by the New York Public Library. In the book, unsurprisingly, one finds no small number of religious themes.
But there is also plenty of secular subject matter. Probably two of the most famous of these secular prints are of cats. The first is the 1760s lubok titled The Mice Are Burying the Cat — a carnivalesque scene making fun of Russia’s emperors and empresses. The caption above the cat reads: “The Cat of Kazan, the Mind of Astrakhan, the Wisdom of Siberia” (parodying the elaborate title of the Russian leader).
The second is titled simply Cat (or The Cat of Kazan) and is sometimes attributed to the artist Vasili Loren (see lead print above). Here, again, the subject is ostensibly one of Russia’s leaders — Peter the Great, who, after a trip to Louis XIV’s clean-shaven court, issued an edict forcing Russians either to cut off their beards or pay an annual tax. The caption above the creature’s head reads: “The Cat of Kazan, in the manner of Astrakhan, by reason of Siberia, lives gloriously, manages agreeably, and farts sweetly.”
The “spirit of medieval popular humor,” in the words of scholar Dianne Ecklund Farrell, permeates these colorful forerunners of comic strips. A fascination with animals, monsters, and caricatured human figures is everywhere evident. While we non-Russian-readers don’t always know exactly what’s going on in the prints, we are impressed and delighted by them nonetheless.