Hidden visions: Iconographies of alterity in Soviet bloc illustrations for The Lord of the Rings

— Joel Merriner, Associate Lecturer in Art History, University of Plymouth

Paper given 4 July 2021 at Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021: Sunday session № 1

Alterity can be described as the state of being different or other, however this rather simplistic definition belies the complex symbiosis of familiarity and Otherness which the term embodies. From a Tolkienian perspective, a form of East-West alterity is understood to have arisen from the geopolitical divide of the Cold War and its resulting influence on matters of translation. Because of the erroneous assumption of the Soviet Bloc censor that The Lord of the Rings constituted a veiled allegory of totalitarian east versus democratic west, prospective Eastern European Tolkien translators were impelled to create abridged or hybridised versions of the trilogy, works which today may appear at once familiar and yet alien to the western reader.

Unsurprisingly, this model of Soviet Bloc alterity also extended to encompass visual depictions of The Lord of the Rings, particularly those created by illustrators of 1980s translated editions from Russia and Poland. Decoding the diverse, often cryptic illustrations contained within these books requires an interpretive approach tailored towards the understanding of three types of visual alterity identifiable from the region; motif borrowing, original creation and a form of semiosis referred to as dislocation. This paper examines the work of a trio of illustrators whose images for The Lord of the Rings epitomise the second form of alterity, original creation, a phenomenon typified by the incorporation of iconographies (subject matter) new to Tolkien illustration. The illustrators in question are Jerzy Czerniawski (Poland), an individual who imbues his Middle-earth portraits with the enigmatic imagery of the Polish counter-culture poster; Gennady Kalinovsky (Russia) whose illuminated Cyrillic initials conjure Ringwraiths and Wargs and Sergei Iukhimov (Ukraine), whose Brutalist architectural settings form the sinister dwelling places of Barrow Wights, Balrogs, and Orcs. Through the study of their artwork, I will reveal hidden details about the visual language of freedom.

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date recorded 📅2021-08-16
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