The Lubki (singular Lubok) are a type of folk art particular to Russia. They are simple printed pictures, either woodcuts or engravings, and are usually hand coloured. They were sold by street merchants originally as an alternative to much more expensive icons, but the themes depicted soon broadened from religious depictions to a great variety of secular subjects. They became popular in Russia at the end of the 16th century and survived as an art form until the beginning of the 20th century. Lubki provide a unique insight into Russian culture, because of the wide range of subjects depicted and because of academic interest in them during the 19th and 20th centuries. Lubki colouring became almost a cottage industry in rural Russia, people would buy Lubki to colour them and then sell them on for a profit.
The origins of the word Lubok to describe these prints is still debated, three main theories exist to explain:
- Lub is the thin layer of wood under the bark of the lime tree, not useful for carving, but when pressed and dried was used for roofing shingles and for writing or drawing on. These lub panels could have inspired the name for later printed pictures.
- In Central Russia, lub is also the name for limewood itself, used as the wood block into which the picture was carved and subsequently printed from. Could the name of the prints be derived from the material they were printed from?
- The lubok sellers used woven bark baskets to carry their wares in, the word to descibe these baskets was and still is lubianka.
Dmitrii Rovinskii (1824-1895) was the most extensive collector of lubki, his nine-volume treatise on them is still the definitive work on the subject. He sorted the lubok into these major classifications:
In style, Lubki were inspired by icons and retain a very Byzantine/medieval way of constructing the scene. For example, there is no mathematical perspective, the size of the figure dictates their importance. There is no sense of time, a scene may depict a hero in several different places, doing different things, and be shown from multiple viewpoints. They are extremely colourful, watered-down tempera was used for colouring, which allowed the drawing to show through, with its expressive, simple quality of line. Early woodcut examples are very monumental, due to the lime blocks not admitting much detail to be carved. After the introduction of copper engraving plates in the 18th century, the lubok became much more detailed and elaborate, and more text was used to describe the scene.
The lubok style became an important influence in 20th century Russian art after an exhibition by the artist Mikhail Larionov entitled "Icon Originals and Lubok Pictures", displayed in 1913. Avant-garde Russian artists such as Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Vasily Kandinsky, and Natalia Goncharova were heavily influenced, and the lubki style in art is today seen as homage to pre-Soviet Russia, perhaps a yearning for the past, or to invoke rusticity and simplicity.