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The innovative paper engineering of an overlooked Czech artist is currently filling the second floor gallery of the Grolier Club. The Upper East Side bibliophilic society opened an exhibition of pop-up books and other paper art by Vojtěch Kubašta last month, but for a long time the artist’s work couldn’t even get past the Iron Curtain.
Pop-Ups From Prague: A Centennial Celebration of the Graphic Artistry of Vojtech Kubašta (1914-1992) takes up the sitting room-style gallery with about 100 pieces of Kubašta’s work. All of it is from the collection of Ellen J. Rubin, aka the Popuplady, and ranges from dimensional souvenir scenes of Prague to elaborate children’s books where ships and spaceships pop-up across double page spreads.
Kubašta was born in Vienna and moved to Prague at a young age. He studied architecture, but just as he was graduating with his degree the Nazis invaded in 1938. He worked in illustration during the war, and continued to practice after the subsequent Soviet control. He never did practice architecture, yet his knowledge of structure and form is evident in the pop-up books, where even one stretch of paper becomes a whole tumultuous scene through bends and angled cuts.
Pop-up books may seem like common children’s entertainment now, but their history goes back centuries through book creation, where moving parts were incorporated into publications on astronomy, medicine, and other subjects. However, when Kubašta began they had faded out of popularity. The illustrator and graphic designer found a way to create vibrant expression while working for state-controlled companies in the 1960s and 70s, particularly Artia publishing, by working in at least 100 children’s books, advertising, greeting cards, and souvenirs. Throughout his work, there is an engaging joy for the possibilities for paper, where a sun blinks its eyes and smiles with the pull of a tab, or a whole polar scene with an airplane, animals, and snow unfolds from the flatness of a book. Even the “dragon” of Brno, a cryptozoological creature that supposedly terrorized the Czech city, makes an appearance (in actuality, the “dragon” is a crocodile now taxidermied in the town hall).
When an entrepreneur named Waldo Hunt tried to import the books in the 1960s to the United States, he was refused by the state-owned publishing house in Prague, so Hunt created his own incredibly influential Intervisual Books that drove the American pop-up book resurgence. Although it would still take a while for Kubašta’s work to make it over the Atlantic, he had already inspired the pop-up books generations of children would read.
Unfortunately, the books are static in their glass cases at the Grolier Club, as most book exhibitions are. However, in one corner of the gallery a video shows them in action with all their crisp drama. Below are more photographs of the pop-up books by Kubašta at the Grolier Club.
Pop-Ups From Prague: A Centennial Celebration of the Graphic Artistry of Vojtech Kubašta (1914-1992) runs through March 15 at the Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).