‘Pop-up Lady’ Ellen G. K. Rubin on the artistry of master Czech illustrator, paper engineer Vojtěch Kubašta

Ellen G. K. Rubin, photo: Archive of Ellen G.K.Rubin / Facebook

Vojtěch Kubašta may well be the most prolific illustrator and graphic artist in Czech history you haven’t heard of. But without a doubt, the trained architect and modern master of the pop-up book was among the most successful artists under communism. Kubašta’s books for children were translated into dozens of languages, with tens of millions sold abroad. Thousands are in the loving hands of New York-based book collector and curator Ellen G. K. Rubin, aka “The Pop-up Lady,” author of an exhibition on the paper engineer.

Ms Rubin, a co-founder of the Moveable Books Society and book collector for over thirty years, first came across a book by Kubašta while browsing in an antiques store near Phoenix, Arizona. It was his 1961 pop-up book Moko and Koko in the Jungle, which had been opened to a resplendent page teeming with banana trees and animal life.

Moko and Koko in the Jungle,  photo: repro Amazon

“I just fell in love with the colours, the movement, the story. And then right after that, from the fairy tale series, I found his Puss in Boots. And this is so funny to me because I said at the time, ‘Oh, I love this artist’, and I’d heard other collectors say, ‘I’m going to specialise in this artist and collect everything that they have done.’

“So, that’s what I said about Vojtěch Kubašta. Of course, that has laughed in my face for years – because one could never have everything that he has done because he had his finger in every pot.”

I saw from one of your video lectures that just putting together a Kubašta bibliography is quite a challenge because there were so many reprints, reissues and so on. Do you have an educated guess as to how many were sold, and in how many languages?

“I’m told that he had over 35 million books out in the world, in many, many languages – I think I counted 27 languages – and I continue to find them, in Chinese and Japanese, Korean... I don’t have one in Icelandic.

“I could look at my collection to see how many I have. There were millions of copies, which is why if you do a search on eBay they continually come up – and because people who owned them, saved them.”

Architect by education, illustrator by design

Born in Vienna at the onset of the First World War, Vojtěch Kubašta moved to Prague when Czechoslovakia gained its independence, and the city became dear to his heart and a focal point of his art. At his father’s insistence, he studied architecture and engineering at the Czech Technical University, though he had dreamt of becoming an artist since early childhood. Kubašta graduated university in 1938, soon before the German occupation began, and as fate (or perhaps destiny) would have it, would work on just one building before the Second World War set his career back on its original path.

Five years ago, Ms Rubin put together a representative exhibition called ‘Pop-Ups from Prague: A Centennial Celebration of the Graphic Artistry of Vojtěch Kubašta’, featuring about a hundred pieces from her ever-growing collection. It was displayed at New York’s celebrated Grolier Club, a haven for bibliophiles, and later at the national Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The exhibition and accompanying catalogue included sketches from Kubašta’s childhood, designs he made during the war – when to get past Nazi censors he focused on Christmas nativity scenes (crèches) and depictions of Old Prague – and samples of his ingenious paper engineering from the 1960s and ’70s, from books sold worldwide through Czechoslovakia’s state-run publishing house Artia.

Photo: Galerie Klementinum: 100× Vojtěch Kubašta

Known with affection as ‘The Pop-up Lady’, Ellen G. K. Rubin is an authority not just on Vojtěch Kubašta but on moveable books of all kinds. Among the earliest known examples, she says, are volvelles – wheels of paper with pointers or die-cut holes that reveal text or images underneath, from the 13th Century.

“For many, many years, we traced the first moveable to a Benedictine monk in England, Matthew Paris, who created a volvelle in about 1250 as a calendar so they could see when the Christian holidays would be coming year after year. And that, we believed, was the first volvelle and moveable.

“But I found in the last three years a book in Barnes & Noble – and this is my pitch for independent bookstores, or for brick-and-mortar bookstores one can browse! – in which was a 12th Century atlas that had a flap, and you had to open the flap to see the entire illustration.

“And my definition of moveable book is if you have to manipulate the book in order to understand the illustration or the story, it is a moveable paper object. So, this fit into my definition.

“The book is at the University of Ghent, in Belgium. And I would love one day to travel to see it. I count it as the oldest we have found so far. I think the publishing date was 1130.”

Vojtěch Kubašta,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

In any case, it was many more centuries before these moveable books were made for children, right?

“Right. The first moveable books for children were in about 1750 with Robert Cerf, an English printer. There weren’t books for children in the 15th and 16th centuries – or maybe a few religious or moral tales.”

Knowing the history as deeply and widely as you do, what can you say about Vojtěch Kubašta – what he brought to the art form, the craft of paper engineering?

“Well, he drew upon his experience – he was trained as an architect and so understood the structure of building something. And also before he got into publishing, he worked for puppet theatres and created the sets.

“So, in his mind, he wanted these books to be puppet theatres – and, in fact, they are, because the paper engineer creates the puppets, and we the readers are the puppeteer – we make them move.”

“He started mostly in advertising, and introduced moveable elements into the advertising, and his paper engineering – and most paper engineers working today revere him – was very simple. It doesn’t have a lot of the bells and whistles like today. But because of his training, his artwork and theatre presentation, they are very dynamic.”

Photo: Galerie Klementinum: 100× Vojtěch Kubašta

I’m jumping around a little bit, but what did you learn about his early life? I know you now have some of Kubašta’s earliest sketches, from when he was 11 or 12 years old…

“Oh! When that sketchbook came to my home, I was expecting a single sketch. Very often, when I buy from a Czech dealer, [because of the language barrier] I’m not 100 percent sure what I’m getting. And I started to cry. It was such a precious thing I was entrusted with.

“I know his daughter, who lives in Canada, and she introduced me to Kubašta’s childhood friend, Jan Hird Pokorný, an architect who lived in New York. He left Prague in 1939 and became a world-renowned architect in renovating historic buildings. And he told me about Kubašta’s childhood, certainly his school years.

“They were among four architect students who called themselves the ‘Quardrifoliacs’ whose early symbol for their grouping was a four-leaf clover. Jan Pokorný’s father worked for the Škoda ironworks and they were building a hotel outside of Prague, which stands today, and one can visit it, rent a room, and see the work of these four architects.

Photo: repro Amazon

“And it was Pokorný who said that Kubašta was ‘born with a pencil in his hand’ – that he was always drawing and he was the fastest artist one could imagine. I know that is true and almost learned it the hard way because working with Dagmar, his daughter, she showed me how from one edition of a book to another, he changed the artwork!

“Now, you know producing artwork for a book is expensive. It’s time-consuming. Why would one change it, unless all the originals were lost? (And in one particular book it was, and he just copied it from one to the other.)

“But even his ‘Sleeping Beauty’ book, if you look at the cover, there two styles. In one, she has more cleavage than the other. Why would the cover be changed? It just wasn’t a problem for him. He dashed these things off! He was so quick with a pencil.

“The sketchbook – and I’m not sure I put those images online – some are quite sophisticated, especially for an 11-year-old, and very complete. And he annotated, dated and signed some of them. I mean, he knew where he was going – even though his father wanted him to be an architect.”

Kubašta the ‘greatest paper engineer of the 20th century’

Robert Sabuta,  photo: Zymeet,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Among those who also revere Vojtěch Kubašta’s work is the award-winning American illustrator and paper engineer Robert Sabuta, who discovered his work as a child. At an event organised by Ms Rubin on the 100th anniversary of the Czech artist’s birth, Sabuta spoke of the lasting impression made on him.

“The first pop-up book that I ever received that I really cherished was Kubašta’s ‘Cinderella’, and I specifically remember getting it. It was a birthday present and I remember how amazed I was that the artwork was so beautiful, it wasn’t stiff, it was accessible to me as a young person … it made the story come alive.

“I was amazed that these very simple pull-tabs not only showed motion but they conveyed emotions: people celebrating, people laughing, falling asleep or the lion chewing on the trainers’ heads. Those kinds of things really appealed to me as a child…

“So much of Kubašta’s engineering is done with single sheets of paper. For those who know my work, I’m a paper hog. My pop-up books have reams and reams of paper.

“But with just a single sheet and a couple of pull-tabs, the worlds that he created in his books were as big as my world. And that, to me, is the true talent of a sophisticated of a paper engineer.”

 Lothar Meggendorfer: Breaking a shop window from The Tricks of Naughty Boys  (1900),  photo: CC0

Robert Sabuta has himself sold millions of children’s books, many of which made the New York Times bestsellers list. He is also a recipient of a several Moveable Books Society’s awards, named after German illustrator and cartoonist Lothar Meggendorfer. While he admires both artists, it seems clear where his heart lies.

“I think Kubašta was the greatest paper engineer of the 20th century. I think in the 19th century, it was Lothar Meggendorfer…

“Meggendorfer’s artwork was beautiful and humorous, the stories were funny, and the mechanisms were wonderful, although his characters were often caricatures, sometimes almost pushing the border of caricature.

“I think the difference with Kubašta is that, for the first time, I feel there was a perfect marriage of art and three dimensions just for children.

“Ellen spoke about Kubašta not talking down to children – and I think that is very true. The best pop-up books are where the two-dimensional art and three-dimensional art work together for the child within.”

From Tip + Top to Walt Disney

Photo: Archive of Ellen G. K. Rubin

British children got to know Kubašta as the author of a series of pop-up books featuring Tip and Top, two boys who built cars from scratch, had run-ins with dragons, and travelled to the Moon.

In the United States, he was virtually unknown until an enthralled advertising executive named Wally Hunt founded a company to publish them, called Graphics International, which he eventually sold to greeting cards giant Hallmark. Kubašta’s work proved enormously popular (pun intended), ushering in a golden era of moveable books in America.

Kubašta quickly caught the eye of Walt Disney studios, and though his work remained anonymous, he is the brains behind their three-dimensional versions of 101 Dalmatians, Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Jungle Book, among others. Ellen G. K. Rubin again:

“He was approached by Disney to turn their cartoons into a pop-up series – he actually once said to [his daughter] Dagmar that had he lived in another era, he would have been another Walt Disney – he had a strong marketing sense.

“But he wasn’t allowed to sign them, so his name doesn’t appear anywhere, and he also had to use the Disney artwork. They were looking for the paper engineering.”

Photo: Archive of Ellen G. K. Rubin

Back in Czechoslovakia, working from a home studio in Prague’s Smíchov district, where he kept a massive reference library, Vojtěch Kubašta did illustrations for every manner of advertiser and magazine over decades.

He also churned out series of folios of historic sites, such as Prague’s Klementinum, and panascopics, such as on the voyages of Columbus and Noah’s Ark, and his take on versions of Grimm’s fairy tales. I asked Ellen G. K. Rubin of all these, which does she count as her favourite.

“His Noah’s Ark book is a favourite of mine. It’s one of the only double-sided, 360 degree ones. Typical of him, when you look at the animals maintaining the ark, each one has a story. If you look at them interacting, as he presented them, you see from the antics that he had a great sense of humour.

“In the end paper, Noah is explaining what will happen with the flood, and each animal has a different expression. I mean, the man had the talent and the interest to individualise these things, which is very reminiscent of Lothar Meggendorfer, a turn of the 19th century genius of paper engineering.

Ellen G. K. Rubin,  photo: Archive of Ellen G. K. Rubin

“When I did the exhibition, though, one thing I wanted to focus on so as to make it not just about children’s pop-up books, to bring in a broader audience, was to stress how Kubašta never worked in a free society. He graduated in 1938, the year the Nazis came, followed closely [after the war] by the Communists. He died in 1992.

“When I give tours, people would ask what was his response [to these regimes]. With Dagmar’s help, I was able to show how he made subtle digs at the censors. There’s a poster that I own, which is the celebration of the fist ‘Five-Year Plan’. And in it. he creates something like the crèche, but instead of the manger, there’s an anvil, and instead of Joseph and Mary, you have two workers.

“And the signs that they’re carrying, and the disposition of the marchers of the celebration, were really against the Communist Party. There were other subtle things that he introduced – he didn’t come out publicly, or he would have had no livelihood. But he did get his subtle digs in.”