Cotsen Research Report: Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet Books

This winter Research Grant winner JoAnn Conrad spent a month in Rare Books and Special Collections reading room poring over dozens and dozens of early twentieth-century books in Cotsen and in Graphic Arts.  Her project, “Women’s Work: Magazines, Advertising and Children’s Books in the ‘Golden Age’ of Illustration in the United States,” is one piece of a more ambitious one about the role of early twentieth-century artists who worked across media in graphic design, advertising, and children’s book illustration played in disseminating the visual language of modernism. Joann’s survey of Feodor Rojankovsky’s ABCs will be in two parts: today’s post covers books he created in Poland and in Paris

The A Б Cs of Feodor Rojankovsky

By JoAnn Conrad

Feodor Rojankovsky is probably best known in the United States for the illustrations in the thirty-eight Little Golden Books he produced from 1943 to 1970, but he also worked for other American children’s book publishers, magazines and advertisers.  Fifty years old in 1941 when he fled the advancing Nazi army and arrived in the U.S, he had already established himself as a successful illustrator in a variety of media and genres in several European countries the previous three decades. Rojankovsky’s work for child or adult audiences has a recognizable quality in its consistent use of color and expressive attention to detail, so it is possible to trace artistic influences, cultural, and publishing trends in his work as he moved through time and space, starting in Russia during WWI and the Revolutionary period, then in Poland and Berlin in the early 1920s, next in Paris during the 1930s, and ultimately in the U.S. from the early 1940s until his death in 1970. This two-part research report will focus on a format Rojankovsky consistently returned to – the ABC book – to chart his unique style with its vivid animal and fairy tale imagery, as well as his responses to the demands of different publishing, political, and artistic milieus.

In 1919, Rojankovsky, then in Ukraine, was conscripted by the White Army to fight in the Russian Civil War. Pushed west into Poland by the advancing Red forces, Rojankovsky finished out the war in a Lvov detention camp, where he remained in exile after the war.   By the early 1920s he relocated to Poznan in western Poland, supporting himself as a graphic artist and designer, producing book covers, set designs, postcards depicting architecture in and around Poznan, fashion drawings, illustrations for magazines, cartoons, and children’s books.  His colorful, eclectic fusion of representational and modernist art fit the mood in Poznan, which was forward looking with the prospect of robust commercial development.  His work also embodies the complex relationship that existed between the avant-garde, graphic design, mass media, and advertising.

Cotsen 12139.

Rojankovsky illustrated five children’s books in Poland, but only Ewa Selzburg’s Renine Wierszyki was suitable for small children, with an image and short verse on each page.  For more on this author see Bookbird (1988/2) (1988).

The poetess and the artist were well-matched as collaborators.  Here is Reni, looking at a photograph of her mother, and “mother” to her doll sitting under the table.

Cotsen 12139, p.1.

On the next page, Reni’s godmother attends her baptism.  She is likened to a good witch, mixing folklore into ordinary reality.  Rojankovsky introduces an exaggerated first letter into the design which is picks up the first word in the first line of the poem – “A kto. . ?” Redundant to the verse, the large “A” attaches to the figure of Reni’s godmother.

Cotsen 12139, p. 2.

The iconic use of large letters attached to the images rather than the text is a running motif throughout the book’s layout and themes, which invites comparisons to the ABC genre, even though it is not actually an alphabet book. Similarly, the large “M” integrated into the sphere of a wizard who is bringing more children to Reni’s world, is neither in the scale of the figure nor that of the verse. It is a nonsensical structural element in the illustration because the large M does not refer to ‘wizard’, but only alliterates with the first letter of the first word in the first line – Moze [maybe].

Cotsen 12139, p. 4.

By making these large letters redundant and irrelevant to the text, Rojankovsky was playing with typography in ways that resonated with his contemporary and compatriot, El Lissitzky, who, along with Chagall and Issachar Ber Ryback belonged to the avant-garde Kultur-Lige in the 1910s, where they experimented with floating, disconnected, abstracted letters.

Cover title for El Lissitzky, “Chad Gadya” [Only a Kid]. (Kiev: Kultur-Lige, 1919) Cotsen

El Lissitzky would continue this experimentation when he went to Berlin in the early 1920s and met up with Kurt Schwitters,[i] who also was using letters in ways that were neither related to their role as signifiers of sounds or as carriers of meaning.  In this respect these books are diametrically opposed to ABC books in which the link between the sign and the sound(s) is presumed.  It is important to note here that Rojankovsky himself was in Berlin at the same time as El Lissitzky and he returned to Poznan only after the financial crash in 1923.

Cover design by Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz, and Theo. Doesburg for Die Scheuche. (Merz 14/5) (Hannover: Aposs-Verlag, 1925). Cotsen 3510.

Cotsen 3510.

Six of the twenty-one pages of Renine Wierszyki feature these giant letters, in no particular order.  As we turn the pages, we follow Reni through her day, cooking, climbing trees, playing with her cat, and eventually reading the pages of an ABC book. In yet another nonsensical moment, the poem informs us that the black letters and red numbers in Reni’s alphabet book must be learned quickly because the box in which the book comes might be appropriated for some other use. Rojankovsky’s illustrations send a mixed message: The simple, clear images in primary colors seem addressed to a child audience, whereas the text reveals deeply-held attitudes about children and sexuality (i.e., the story about a wizard delivering babies). Similarly, the gigantic, non-referential letters in the illustrations ironically subvert and challenge the correspondence between the letters of the alphabet and sounds and meaning.

Rojankovsky left Poland for Paris in 1925, joining the 100,000 other Russian migrants who fled the Soviet Union for Paris during the twenties.. With the hope that the Soviet experiment would be temporary, emigres established a Russian-language press, intent on keeping the culture and language alive in exile. The mood of these publications was nostalgic and conservative, dominated by images of peasants and fairy-tale characters.  Illustrating Russian-language periodicals in Paris — иллюстрированная россия [Illustrated Russia] and ухват [the grabber] — was how Rojankovsky began his career as a graphic artist in Paris.

In the Parisian expatriate Russian community, Rojankovsky rekindled his friendship with popular poet and satirist Sasha Chernyi, who asked him to illustrate his ABC verses.

Cover design for Cotsen 9209.

The first of three Russian-language children’s books Rojankovsky would illustrate for Chernyi , живая азбука [Living Alphabet] was his first actual ABC book and his first children’s  book produced during a nearly fifteen-year stay in Paris.Ideologically based in the preservationist impulses of a culture in exile, Zhivaia Azbuka’s pedagogy is focused more on teaching cultural continuity and less on early reading skills. The images are familiar, composed of scenes reminiscent of a bucolic, rural life. The page highlighting the letter “M” is exemplary:

Cotsen 9209, p. 19.

The humorous and banal scene takes place in a room that hints at a Russian home, perhaps even a dacha. The picture hanging on the wall reinforces this peasant theme, but also is an inside joke – it is the cover of the July 1926 issue of Illustrated Russia, the ice-cream man [мороженщикъ] in Russian peasant garb, in a Russian village, illustrated by Rojankovsky!

The linking of animals, particularly wild animals, and letters of the alphabet in Cyrillic and Latin is a convention that Rojankovsky would return to, but the use of the letters in this book is of note in comparison to those in the earlier Renine Wierszyki.

The first page features the letter “A,” which introduces both lines of the couplet –

Aстра в садик  [Asters in the garden]

Аист, вам пора поход!  [Stork, it’s time to go].

Cotsen 9209, p. 8.

Each subsequent page follows the same logic, a couplet in which the first letter of each line highlights the letter in question. Following both Rojankovsky’s penchant for illustrating animals and the more conservative imperatives of the Russian émigré community, the images are more representational than abstract. The featured letter is also much smaller than the giant letters in Renine Wierszyki, and are necessary to the text. It is the relationship of the letter to the text and to the initial word that the image references, and in this way it adheres to the logic of ABC books, which the large, disconnected letters in Renine Wierszyki subverted.

By 1927, Rojankovsky, his name now shortened to Rojan to appeal to French audiences, was entering the mainstream world of French graphic arts and publishing. Despite the chauvinistic and often hostile reception of the post-WWI art world to foreign influence, there was a world of opportunity in advertising and children’s picture book publishing, both of which elevate the role of the visual. Advertisments and picture books are modern forms informed by modernist concepts and they represented a radical social and conceptual shift towards a direct appeal to the imagination and emotion accomplished through the saturation of visual space.  Color was central to this visual space because of its raw emotional thrust implemented by optical means, as can be seen in the experiments of late-19th and early 20th century painters from Van Gogh, to the female avant-garde artists Sonia Delaunay and Alexandra Exter, to Matisse and the Fauvists, and to Wassily Kandinsky.  These artistic experiments were incorporated into the graphic and commercial arts in large part because those on the periphery of the art world found work in these emergent media, thus translating the avant-garde into popular culture.  Rojan found his way in this world and his style in his French and American advertising work was to be his introduction to the Parisian world of children’s book illustration, and ultimately to his career in America.

To be continued…


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