Dmitrij Spiridonovič Bisti

*1925 in Sevastopol, USSR (now Ukraine)

† 1990 in Moscow, USSR (now Russia)

Dmitrij Spiridonovič Bisti, In the Land of Water Spirits, 1984, woodcut on Japan paper, each 15,00 x 20,00 cm (dimensions variable up to 16 x 23cm), Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen, loan of the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation © Dmitrij Spiridonovič Bisti / Photo: Simon Vogel

The 29 prints in this series in the museum’s collection are all funny creatures (a selection of 8 prints is shown in the exhibition). Creatures that sometimes appear humorous and mischievous, sometimes almost threatening, but always cartoonish. It is particularly striking how skilfully the Soviet graphic artist Dmitrij Spiridonovič Bisti (1925-1990) places the motifs on the sheet in order to always achieve a harmonious composition despite the open spaces. The often whimsical appearance of the figures, in combination with the strong black and white contrast, the clear contours and the minimalist flatness, may well be reminiscent of cartoons.

It is a fallacy, however, to regard the open spaces as empty, for these works are actually book illustrations. The pages are therefore designed to interact with a text block and as double pages. The fact that they also function as independent works speaks all the more for the engraver’s skill. The numbering and the choice of thin Japanese paper as the backing material show that these sheets were actually produced as such. Bisti is known to have preferred the technique of woodcut for his numerous illustrative works, which, despite modern developments, enjoyed greater popularity again in Russia from the mid-20th century onwards.

The 1927 story by the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), which is illustrated here, is originally titled Kappa (河童) – mythical creatures native to water, very well-known in Japan. However, the title in the Russian translation probably fell victim to the better understanding of the target audience and therefore became В стране водяных (translated again in German as Im Land der Wassergeister).

Akutagawa makes use of kappa to be able to put down on paper both a social satirical parody of Taishō-era Japan (1912-1926) and thoughts on his own life with a certain distance. He moves the action to the fictional land of the Kappa, which is visited by a psychiatric patient from Tokyo, and thus only indirectly addresses the living conditions of the ordinary Japanese population.

Although in popular belief the kappa are often associated with the Yōkai – in the broadest sense probably to be understood as a class of demons or ghosts – they are not malicious in nature but rather play the role of mischievous (but not entirely harmless) troublemakers who, for example, steal the farmers’ cucumbers from the fields – hence the name “kappa maki” for the popular cucumber sushi.

In the course of the 20th century, translations of the Akutagawa story and the kappa paintings by Ogawa Usen (1868-1938) in particular contributed to the fact that these creatures have now also found their way into pop culture and the collective visual memory in our latitudes. Think, for example, of the water demons of the same name in Harry Potter, various characters in the popular video game Animal Crossing or the successful Hollywood film Shape of Water (2017), which can certainly be understood as a more sophisticated glossy remake of the film Onna no kappa – Underwater love (2011).

At the same time, these woodcuts give us to consider that they were created in the repressive climate of the USSR, in which one as a commissioned illustrator of translations (i.e. someone else’s ideas) was presumably freer in one’s own work than many other artists. Thus, these prints, which at first glance seem simply funny and whimsical, combine a variety of themes: From woodcut as a historical method of book illustration and questions of formal aesthetic image composition, to Japanese mythology, to the ways in which motifs are disseminated through the most diverse artistic genres[1] and the (im)freedom of art in totalitarian systems.


[1] The narrative of the journey to the land of the water spirits is probably not merely coincidentally reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which is also well-known in Japan.