Illustrations for "The White Book", 1914, by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš (1877–1962)
In Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš’ illustrations for “The White Book” (Baltā grāmata) we have a unique and sophisticated depiction of the 19th century Latvian countryside, and one of the most poetic and stylistically consistent memoirs.
He wrote “The White Book” from 1914 to 1921, supplementing the stories from his childhood with illustrations that seem to imitate children’s drawings, thus helping the reader to look at the world from a child’s viewpoint. As Jaunsudrabiņš explained in a 1920 essay, what may look comical and improbable in his drawings are but the unvarnished, naïve truth. He felt that children understood how to depict nature much better than adults and the ideas of the latter about perspective and anatomy simply interfered with their pure way of looking. An accomplished painter, Jaunsudrabiņš defended his choice of method for the books that was largely directed at a young audience, by claiming that “a child needs a mere suggestion and not an illusion” in order to leave room for his or her imagination. While the first in Latvian art, Jaunsudrabiņš was hardly unique among his foreign contemporaries: children’s drawings served as a source of inspiration for modernists such as Pablo Picasso, Vassily Kandinsky, Gabriela Münter, Joan Miró, and others.
When the book came out, its illustrations drew much criticism: much of the public considered the style of the drawing shocking and unacceptable. The art critic Oļģerds Grosvalds (1884–1962) likened the illustrations to the works of the German comic book artist Wilhelm Busch (1832–1908): “only somewhat different and not with as great stress on humour”. He characterized the drawings as having “simple, almost naïve contours, lines and dots, completely casting aside such things as shadows and the plastic roundness of bodies”.
In 1925, the art historian Jānis Dombrovskis (1885–1953), on the other hand, praised “The White Book” as the highest achievement in Latvian children’s book illustration, emphasizing the deep understanding Jaunsudrabiņš had shown of children’s psyche. By showing everyday life in crystallized forms that would be understandable to children, he had created a witty visualization of the child’s view of the world. Today’s art critics likewise appreciate the delicate and idyllic primitivism of the drawings, rather than criticize it.
Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš was born in 1877 in a farmhand’s family in Nereta parish. He studied painting in private studios in Rīga (1899–1904), Munich (1905), and Berlin (1908–1909). While competent, his impressionistically realistic painting never reached the level of his literary achievement and the drawings for “The White Book”. At the end of the Second World War, Jaunsudrabiņš chose exile over collaboration with the Soviet communist regime. He died in 1962 in Germany but was reburied in his native Nereta in 1997.
Nereta has a street named after Jaunsudrabiņš and, more importantly, the house he was born in, “Riekstiņi“, is still standing and contains a memorial museum dedicated to this writer and artist.
The country house encircled by birch trees and the protagonist of “The White Book”, Jancis, were depicted on the 2014 five-euro collectors coin issued by the Bank of Latvia. Some of the originals of the illustrations for “The White Book” are a part of the collections of the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Museum of Literature, Theatre, and Music. The book itself is still much loved and has had many editions.
Pohomova, Elvija. Ilustrations for "The White Book" by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš – one of the first examples of primitivism in Latvia.
Jaunsudrabiņš, Jānis. (1914). Baltā grāmata: simts tēlojumu vārdos un līnijās. I. Rīga: Dzirciemnieku izdevums. (The White Book. I) (in Latvian)
Jaunsudrabiņš, Jānis. (1921). Baltā grāmata: simts tēlojumu vārdos un līnijās. II. Rīga: Valters un Rapa. (The White Book. II) (in Latvian)
Kristiāna Ābele on Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Kristiāna Ābele on Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Briede I. (1977). Rakstnieks un gleznotājs Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš: [par „Balto grāmatu”: rakstnieka Jāņa Jaunsudrabiņa 100. dzimšanas diena (1877-1962)]. Draugs, Nr. 8, 22.-23. lpp.
Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš. 1877. (1925). No: Jānis Dombrovskis. Latvju māksla: glezniecības, grafikas, tēlniecības un lietišķās mākslas attīstības vēsturisks apskats (79.-82. lpp.). Rīga: Valtera un Rapas akc. sabiedrības izdevums.
Pohomova, Elvija. (2015). Jāņa Jaunsudrabiņa ilustrācijas „Baltajai grāmatai” – viens no pirmajiem primitīvisma piemēriem Latvijā. Mākslas Vēsture un Teorija, Nr. 18, 66.-83. lpp.