Index: Ukrainian Graphic Design

An Epic Burlesque: Kotlyarevsky’s Eneida

These plates are from an edition of Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s 1798 poem Eneida, a ribald retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid. Kotlyarevsky transposed Aeneas, the Trojans, and Greek mythology into the folklore of Ukrainian Cossacks. It is among the first major works written in Ukrainian, and is a cornerstone of Ukraine’s national literature. Wonderfully, it also defines the very notion of a burlesque – vulgarizing lofty notions like love, family, faith and battle, feigning seriousness in the face of absurdity, and is packed to the gills with slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, and, natch, healthy portions of friskiness…

This particular version, printed in 1969, in Kiev, Ukraine, is, simply stated, one of the most beautifully designed, illustrated, typeset and produced books I’ve ever seen. Sturdy and stout, clad in a satisfyingly course gray canvas, it opens onto a corker of a title page. From the swashbuckling script of the authors name, the elemental block-y-ness of the title, and the illustration of a muscular and languid Cossack/Trojan, it’s a bravura opening gesture. From there, graphically, the book never flags – block after block of typeset verse on heavy cream paper. But the heart of the book lies in the illustrations, by A. Bazylevych, whose style is a deft hybrid of wood block engravings, thick-lined expressive cartooning, and abstract color blocks.

My recollection of the book from childhood is profoundly visceral. I can recall my father reading vignettes that swirled thrillingly in a noggin already stuffed with mythological adventures. But it’s the illustrations that left an indelible impression. It’s a phantasmagoria of soldiers and sieges, gods and devils, maidens and crones, battles and scraps, feasts and revelries, a cosmos of melodrama. Looking at them again after a span of decades, my recollection is immediate and electric – what’s vital in art, in fiction, and in life seems to spring forth in an exuberant, lusty, unruly parade.