Images of the Yakut graphic school and why they should be studied in the era of overproduction of digital images
Alexandra Generalova
In the 50-60s of the XX century, printed graphics experienced, perhaps, the strongest rise in the history of Soviet art. Independent graphic schools appeared in the national republics, including Yakutia. Today, young artists are looking for ways to actualize the Yakut graphic heritage: they literally take it out of their grandmother's closets and transfer it to social networks. This is not source studies, but a desire to give contemporary artists unexpected "references", different from the Instagram feed.
Youth of the North: Merch and Grandma's Bookshelf
Alexander Innokentiev illustrates the album covers of Yakut punk bands, draws posters for the band Sonic Death and bombards graffiti on the streets of Yakutsk. For six years, Alexander studied at the St. Petersburg Stieglitz Academy as a computer graphics and animation artist, and then returned home to Yakutia. In his works, the influence of the classical school of drawing, anime, black metal aesthetics and Soviet graphics of the 60s can be traced.
Alexander Innokentiev. Poster for the short film "Aital", 2020
The last topic is dedicated to one of the projects in which he is involved — the instagram book_graphics_of_yakutia. Alexander conducts micro-media about Yakut book illustrations of the Soviet era together with his girlfriend Anya Byastinova. Her grandmother's bookcase is an endless source of material for Instagram. "Anya's family are representatives of the Yakut intelligentsia, and a huge library has gradually accumulated in their house. What we have posted is the hundredth part. It was interesting for me to fix this phenomenon, to be inspired by something, and to adopt something," says Alexander. Another blog about Yakut art, that Innokentiev is related to is the Yakut Paintings group on Vkontakte and the Tumblr group of the same name. In addition to painting, there is a significant collection of prints from the 50s and 70s. This blog was invented and filled by musician Anatoly Chiryaev until 2017. Innokentiev took up the initiative in 2019.
For the Yakut punk label "Yunost Severa" (Youth of the North) Alexander drew a merch that can be mistaken for a linocut from some Soviet novel about youth (however, the Republican children's newspaper of the same name "Yunost Severa” still exists today). In fact, the "tube" analog noise in the picture was created in Photoshop. Alexander was engaged in etching and still periodically makes linocuts, but most often processes his drawings in graphic editors.
Alexander Innokentiev. "View from the window of the disappearing Pledge", linocut, 2020

"I feel the generation gap. In the 50-70s, linocut was a relevant and economical technical solution for the book industry. The technique influenced the visual language: the artists of that time produced monumental, integral figures. Now plastic solutions typical of printed graphics are reproduced in Photoshop."

The merch "Youth of the North" echoes the linocut "Listen to the World" (1965) from the series "My North" by the artist Afanasy Munkhalov, one of the remarkable masters who brought Yakutia's graphics to the international arena in the 1960s. The artist spied the plot for this sheet during a trip across the tundra as part of a project of the Scientific Research Institute of Language and Culture of the YASSR.
Traveling through Srednekolymsky ulus, Munkhalov made sketches from the costumes of local peoples. Together with the art critic Innokenty Potapov, the artist stayed in the yurt of the newlyweds. In the evenings, the couple listened to the radio and one day Munkhalov said: "Oh, they are listening to the world." They listen to the world, but soon the world will see them.
The boom of graphics and the birth of the national scene
It is believed that the Yakut graphic culture began to take shape in 1956, when the artist Elley Sivtsev returned to the republic after the Surikov Institute. In Moscow, he studied in the workshop of Evgeny Kibrik, a student of Pyotr Filonov and illustrator of books by Alexander Pushkin, Yuri Tynyanov, Romain Rolland.
Almost all the heroes of the Yakut art scene of the 60s studied at Surikov - Afanasy Munkhalov, Valerian Vasiliev, Lavrenty Neofitov.

In the 60s of the XX century, printed graphics experienced the peak of popularity in the USSR. The process took over the whole country, and national graphic schools began to form in Yakutia, Khakassia, Buryatia, in the northern regions - those that are commonly called the "Russian North".

In the print, the artists had the opportunity to speak in a low voice about intimate everyday life, which consists not only of labor feats. Although, even purely socialist and revolutionary subjects acquired a human dimension precisely in graphic sheets, and not in easel painting of the "harsh style".

Soviet Yakut graphics - what kind of phenomenon was it? The documentary "The Schedule of Valerian Vasiliev" by Ivan Barkov and Elena Vasilyeva, which was released in 2016, tells about it in the most accessible way.

The story of Valerian Vasiliev is very similar to the story of contemporary young Yakut artists. Architect Yuri Kholmogorov says in the film: "It was a completely different time. There was a need to get out of a small town into that big world." Vasiliev studied at the Stroganov School as a furniture artist, and in his spare time he traveled to Leningrad, the Baltic States and even Prague, where he made many architectural sketches. The range of the artist's aesthetic interests included both Mexican contemporary art and the graphics of Swiss Hans Ernie, who was close to surrealism.
Vasiliev V.R. "Worker" Linocut. 1965
Vasiliev V.R. "Light" 1965.
After studying in Moscow, Vasiliev returns to Yakutsk, but instead of working in furniture production, he decides to devote himself to graphics. Moreover, the hand was already stuffed after the student's practice with a tree. "He was a designer and knew the material — this gave him a big head start compared to academic painters. They, as they would say now, did not own new technologies," the architect Kholmogorov explains in the film. For Yakut artists, linocut was also a return to the practices of folk craftsmen - wood and bone carvers.

In Valerian Vasiliev's series "Old Yakut Masters", the central place is occupied by a sheet of "Sardaana" depicting a carver of choron vessels for kumis. In his left hand, the master holds a sardaana flower - a kind of Daurian lily that grows in Yakutia and is a symbol of happiness. "The master loved and knew his nature. It helped him to be an artist," Vasiliev himself wrote about this engraving.
Over the years of living at a distance from his nature, the artist has acquired his own graphic language, and with it a new look at his culture.
Vasiliev V.R. "Sardaana" Linocut. 1967.
Alexander Innokentiev tells about the same thing. "After I entered the Stieglitz Academy, I looked at the Yakut culture from the outside. When you live there, you are part of the context and take everything for granted. It was in St. Petersburg that I began to be inspired by the Yakut nature, images from mythology and everyday life. Nostalgia greatly influences inspiration — images smooth out, progress and become more expressive. A very specific and interesting situation has developed in Yakutia: traditional beliefs, animism, Christianity and Soviet heritage have mixed up. A super unusual thing is to go to the forest and feed the spirits of the forest."

The appeal to folklore for a modern artist (and the Yakut graphics of the 60s were precisely modern artists) is thin ice. The image should be visually fresh, while preserving the symbolic complexity of the plots of the folk epic. Before proceeding to the series about Olonkho, Valerian Vasiliev studies the volume "The Art of the West and the East" by the American researcher B. Rowland Jr.
He synthesizes the techniques of oriental art of the past and his own style.
Vasiliev's graphic images end up on the covers of a series of records by Olonkho company "Melody".

Sometimes references to Olonkho are not noticeable at first glance, because the work does not illustrate the epic, but weaves its elements into the picture of everyday life. For example, in the graphic sheet "Happiness" by Afanasy Munkhalov, the tree seems to be a reference to the great tree of life Aal Luuk Mas, connecting all three worlds of Olonkho: Upper, Middle and Lower.
Afanasy Munkhalov. "Happiness". 1969
Karamzin V.S. "Soldier of the Civil War" Linocut. 1967
Shepard Fairey, Obey Giant Posters
In V. Karamzin's linocut "A Soldier of the Civil War" - a Red Army soldier turns into a hero of the Yakut folk epic. And not only Yakut. The profile of the soldier resembles the "faces" of the stone monolithic statues of Moai from Easter Island. In modern art, perhaps the most famous work in this aesthetic is Shepard Fairey's street art campaign called Obey Giant with a stencil image of a French wrestler. If you remove the budenovka from the head of the soldier Karamzin, and the flag from his hands— it will be difficult to understand when, by whom and where this work was done.
Printed graphics in the era of overproduction of digital images
The place of young artists' graphics in the modern Russian art market is quite clearly defined. Graphics are needed as an "entry point" into collecting for those who are willing to spend a very small amount on a sheet, sometimes only 5-10 thousand rubles. ​​As the main medium, printed graphics are practically not chosen even by graduates of graphic faculties of art academies. The print language, which was modern 60 years ago, is now perceived as archaic.

"It seems to me that now the art of printed graphics is not popular. Young authors are more interested in digital, because the audience coverage is huge: you can get orders from advertising, game development. Many artists illustrating books now are inspired by digital art or anime. The illustrations themselves are mostly created immediately in graphic editors, so we see Photoshop brush strokes. In digital, the artist has no limitations of tools and materials: it is very attractive. A designer goes to behance, looks for similar successful projects and gets into a vicious circle: people from the same industry are inspired by each other," says Alexander Innokentiev.

In Soviet times, when books were published in millions of copies, graphics were truly a mass art. Now, Instagram, Twitter or NFT marketplaces can only be compared with this phenomenon — that's where digital artists find their audience. Oversaturation of artistic images in social networks has the opposite effect: the indistinguishable art of "bold glossy 3D" falls into the zone of banner blindness in the viewer.

"The artist is most influenced by watching. It turns out that digital artists look only at digital artists, and Soviet graphics and design do not fall into their field of view. If someone works with the aesthetics of the linocut of the 60s, then I perceive it rather as a tribute to the past. The thing is that there is no rethinking - just copying the effects by digital means."

We search for fresh images, wandering on the Internet, but more often we find what we have already seen.
Therefore, the linocut "Evil" by Afanasy Munkhalov, which contains all the most popular media images of death, seems to be in tune with time no less than the collages of the world's most expensive digital artist Bipla (Mike Winkelman), who creates comic and phantasmagoric works devoted to topical political and social topics and using references to pop culture phenomena.
Afanasy Munkhalov. "Evil", 1966

Note: you can learn about some graphic works from the collection of the Art Museum of the Sakha Republic in an interactive form on a virtual tour of the exhibition "Art of Yakutia".