A Mexican engraver revives a mostly-forgotten Russian printmaking tradition

Lubok-style modern engraving by Alejandro Barreto, representing Russia and Mexico. Photo used with permission.

In late 17th-century Russia, houses and taverns were often decorated by a unique form of art: the lubok (or lubki in the plural) were cheap woodcut prints widely sold in markets, most often depicting scenes of everyday life, although also — and surprisingly so, as that wasn't very tolerated at that time — satire of religious and state figures at times.

Eventually, the lubok became so popular that even the monarchy began producing its own patriotic cuts in the 19th century. But this form of art fell into oblivion after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and is now mostly known in academic circles or obscure subcultures in Russia.

Fast-forward a century later and the lubok emerges across the world in the studio of Mexican engraver Alejandro Barreto, who discovered the tradition as he was learning Russian. He became fascinated by it and decided to produce his own lubki portraying traditional imagery of his native Mexico.

I talked to him about his artistic and intercultural journey. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Filip Noubel: The Russian lubok is part of a very interesting but little known culture, even in Russia. How did you get acquainted with it?

Alejandro Barreto: Fue durante mi proceso de aprendizaje del idioma ruso hace unos 10 años, en algún libro pude apreciar el grabado lubok referente al Gato De Kazán y me enamoré a primera vista ya que fue mi primer contacto como grabador con una de estas piezas. Fue curioso darme cuenta cuando viví en Rusia, que la gente común casi no conoce esta manifestación artística pese a que es un testigo antropológico vivo de su historia. Los niños los ven en los libros de escuela, pero en realidad no saben que estas imágenes son lubok, ni cómo se hacen. Mi motivación principal para aprender ruso fue lo exoticidad del lenguaje comparado con el español que es mi lengua natal y la fascinación que me produjeron las caricaturas soviéticas de la casa fílmica Soyuzmultfilm.

Alejandro Barreto: It happened while I was learning Russian about 10 years ago, I found a lubok engraving in some book, referring to the [image of the] Cat from Kazan [The Cat from Kazan – a city in Russia, is one of the most iconic images of the lubok]. I fell in love at first sight because this was my first encounter, as an engraver, with one of these lubok pieces. It was strange to realize, when I was living in Russia, that ordinary Russians hardly knew about this artistic tradition even though lubok is a living anthropological witness of their history. Children see them in textbooks but they don’t know these images are lubok and how they are made. My main motivation for learning Russian was that it is an exotic language compared to Spanish, which is my native language. I also had a fascination with Soviet cartoons produced by the Soyuzmultfilm studios.  

The cat of Kazan, known as Кот Казанский in Russian, one of the most iconic images of the lubok tradition, believed to date from the 18th century. Some historians describe it as a possible caricature of Russian Emperor Peter the Great. Wikimedia commons CC-BY 3.0

FN:  The lubok is sometimes described as the Russian ancestor of satire, comics, and social critique. Do you agree?

AB El Lubok es un documento histórico en sí mismo, consigo viene una cantidad fabulosa de información, valiosa en todos los aspectos de las épocas donde tuvo su auge (Siglo XVIII-XIX) hay algunos estilos de vida rurales, los cuales hoy en día que se conocen gracias a estos grabados, canciones, anecdotarios, leyendas, chismes. Lubok era un medio de comunicación impreso y humorístico que podía abordar cualquier tema, tal y como lo hicieran las gacetas europeas o el mismo periódico actualmente. Siempre he pensado que el bajo precio, el humor y la manera colorida de pintarlos fueron aquello que enganchaba al espectador a comprar los impresos incluso para decorar las puertas o paredes de su casas.

AB: The Lubok is a historical document in itself, providing a fabulous amount of information that is valuable for all aspects of the 18th and 19th centuries, when it had its peak. It provides information about the way people lived in rural areas that are known today thanks to these engravings, songs, anecdotes, legends, gossip [many lubok have, besides images, texts incorporated into their frame]. Lubok was a printed means of communication full of humor that could address any issue, just as European gazettes did then, or newspapers do today. I have always thought that the low price [of the lubok printed on thin paper], the humor, and the colorful colors hooked the audience. People would buy the prints and even decorate their houses’ doors or walls.

Alejandro Barreto working on a lubok. Photo used with permission.

FN: How do you use the Russian lubok in your art and collection process? How do you share your passion in Mexico and online?

AB: Para mí el lubok ruso es una gran fuente de inspiración y objeto de estudio. Para poder compenetrarme y adaptarlo a la cultura mexicana, en mi país hice una tesis doctoral que explicaba la historia y formalidades de este arte en comparación con la gráfica popular del taller TGP, Manuel Manilla y José Guadalupe Posada de principios del siglo XX en México y con los cuales comparten muchos géneros de estampa narrativa y humorística. Siento que fue el mejor ejemplo para poder dar a conocer a los mexicanos lo que es y representa un lubok en Rusia. Mi trabajo llevó un proceso donde tuve que apropiarme las herramientas y estilo burdo de lubok para crear estampas que hablaran de la cultura popular y la historia de México. A esa serie le llamé lubokus.ru.mx, logré realizar un acervo amplio de piezas relacionadas a este tema México-Rusia, para poder ser presentadas en exposiciones en varias partes del México, Rusia y el extranjero, tan solo el año pasado se presentó en Bulgaria y en Polonia.

For me, the Russian lubok is a great source of inspiration and an object of study. To be able to understand and adapt it to Mexican culture, I did a PhD thesis in Mexico that explained the history and rules of this art compared to the popular graphic of the Taller de Gráfica Popular [a leftist artist collective founded in Mexico in 1937] with people like Manuel Manilla and José Guadalupe Posada. The popular Mexican graphics shared with the lubok the same kind of stories and humorous prints. I felt that this was the best example to help Mexicans understand what a lubok is and what it represents in Russia. My work led to a process where I had to appropriate the tools and crude style of the lubok to create prints that talked about Mexico's popular culture and its history. I called the series lubokus.ru.mx, and managed to make a large collection of pieces related to this Mexican-Russian theme. I presented them in exhibitions in various parts of Mexico, Russia and abroad. In 2019, Bulgaria and Poland exhibited them. 

Lubok entitled “Melquiades Herrera rumbo a la academia de San Carlos” (Melquiades Herrera on the way to the San Carlos Academy). Image by Alejandro Barreto, used with permission.

FN: How does the lubok relate to other forms of pop art that you collect?

AB Sin lugar a dudas lubok es el antecesor de los comics rusos, creo que es muy importante el papel que juegan con las historietas y también como antecedente del cartel soviético. Encontré parecidos muy interesantes a nivel formal e histórico con grabados populares de otras culturas como en el nordeste brasileño con la literatura de “Cordel” la cual involucra rimas con narrativas de carácter popular con grabados y se venden a bajos costos. Tuve mi propia oportunidad de hacer mis cordeles lubok alrededor un tema muy mexicano: “Lucha Libre”. También he visto otras manifestaciones que gozan de muchas similitudes con lubok como los pergaminos de patua en Bengala, India y luboks que he visto de otros países eslavos como Bielorusia, Ucrania y Kazajos. 

AB: The Lubok is, without a doubt, the predecessor of Russian comics. I think they played a big role in developing modern Russian comics books and are also the precursor of Soviet propaganda posters. I found very interesting similarities with popular engravings of other cultures in terms of format and history, such as the Cordel literature of northeastern Brazil, which displayed rhymes and popular narratives and were sold inexpensively. I had the opportunity to make my lubok art revolve around a very Mexican theme, the Lucha Libre [wrestling]. I have also seen other art forms that share many similarities with lubok, such as the Patua scrolls from Bengal and India, or the lubok that I have seen in other post-Soviet countries such as Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Lubok titled El Monstruo Metálico de Kazajistán (The metallic monster of Kazakhstan). By Alejandro Barreto, used with permission.

FN: What do you like most about lubok art? 

AB: Desde que estudio el tema lubok soy un fanático, he realizado mis grabados inspirado en ellos, pero también en mi viaje a Rusia pude obtener algunos impresos originales lubok de varios temas, desde grabados de la biblia ilustrada por Vasily  Koren (La primera en ruso de 1692 y con la cual llegó la técnica del grabado en madera a ese territorio como antecedente del lubok popular) hasta impresos sobre anecdotarios, hechos insólitos y relatos políticos satíricos.

Yo amo la estética de la representación de las figuras. Me doy cuenta de la ingenuidad del pueblo ruso de aquellas épocas, ante hechos extraordinarios, aquellos impresos eran interpretados de una manera muy pura, es decir se hablaban de animales exóticos o de monstruos sin tener una referencia real o fotografía y las representaciones al ser hechas a base de relatos, los hacían unos personajes maravillosos emanados del mundo Naïf.

AB: I am a fan since I have started studying the lubok and I have made prints inspired by them. During my visit to Russia, I was able to obtain some original lubok prints illustrating various subjects, including Bible engravings illustrated by Vasily Koren (the first Bible printed in Russian in 1692 that launched the technique of wood engraving that preceded the one used for the lubok) but also anecdotes, unusual facts and satirical political stories.

I love the aesthetics of the figures represented on lubok. I realize the ingenuity of the Russian people of the time. These prints were interpreted in a very pure way in the face of extraordinary events, that is to say that they depicted exotic animals or monsters without having a real reference or photograph. The representations were based on stories and they made wonderful characters, coming from a naïve from of art.

Lubok entitled “Cantinflas Rumbo al teatro de los insurgentes” (Cantinflas Rumbo at the Theater of the Insurgents. He was a famous and popular comedian of early 20th century). By Alejandro Barreto, used with permission.

FN: Can the lubok relate to a form of Mexican culture, art, or humor?

AB Como decía anteriormente, en México hubo un periodo muy importante del grabado mexicano con la construcción de nuestra nación a finales del siglo XIX y principios de siglo XX, donde la restructuración del país estaba gestionándose, la cultura mexicana comenzaba a notar sus primero atisbos como nación moderna. Había mucho castigo por parte del gobierno y la clase poderosa, eso gestionaba ciertas condiciones para el grabado se convirtiera también en una arma de protesta, al ser accesible, hablar por el pueblo, levantar la voz de la crítica y el humor. Una nación saludable para mi forma de ver debe tener sentido del humor y debe ser crítica y tanto lubok como nuestro grabado mexicano comparten ese capítulo en sus respectivas historias. 

AB As I said before, in Mexico there was a very important period of Mexican engravings coinciding with the building of our nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when our country was being restructured. At the time, Mexican culture began to experience its first glimpses of modernity. The government and the powerful classes were very repressive, and that [repression] molded the conditions so that engravings would become, too, a weapon of protest. It was accessible, it spoke for the people, it raised a voice of criticism and humor. In my view, a healthy nation must have a sense of humor and be self-critical. Both the lubok and our Mexican engravings share that chapter in their respective stories.

More of Barreto's art can be seen on his Instagram account.

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