Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings
In 2018 artists Ravi Zupa and Arna Miller donated a screenprint entitled Started from the Bottom. I wondered, who is this small dog named Laika in the print? In 1957 Laika rose to fame as the first living creature to orbit the earth. She was a passenger aboard Sputnik 2, a follow up to the Soviet Union’s successful voyage of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Seen as a true patriot, sacrificing her life for the sake of knowledge and her country, her story is preserved in books, poetry, videos, postage stamps, and our screenprint. The anniversary of her death is November 3, this Friday.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet’s Sputnik 1 made its historic launch of a beach ball-sized unmanned satellite into the earth’s orbit. It ushered in the space age and a technological race between the U.S. and the USSR to send a human into space. In the process, both countries used animals to test the safety of their rocket designs; the US focused on primates and the USSR on dogs.
First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Krushchev planned Sputnik 2’s mission as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This gave scientists just under one month to redesign the satellite and fit it with a chamber for a small occupant.
The Soviets conducted a thorough search and multiple tests, including long periods in confined compartments, pressure changes, and exposure to loud noises, to reveal the dogs’ temperament and identify the best flight candidate. They focused on stray dogs for their perceived superior survival skills, self-reliant character, and ability to endure hunger and extreme weather. Females were more desirable for their small size.
Kudryavka (Little Curly), a three-year-old husky-spitz mix, was selected as the canine cosmonaut. When introduced to the public on the radio, she barked. She was affectionately known as Laika, meaning barker.
Scientists had not developed the technology to bring Laika and Sputnik 2 back home. Doctors placed various medical devices to monitor the dog’s beating heart, breathing, and movement. The capsule was equipped with only one meal and seven days’ worth of oxygen. Purportedly one of the physicians secretly gave her additional food before takeoff; another keeper brought her to his home to play.
The press celebrated Laika’s survival following the launch on November 3, 1957, and reported that she lived for days in orbit. The capsule orbited the earth over 2,500 times and burned upon reentry in April. In 2002, news emerged that Laika instead perished within hours into the flight after a cooling malfunction. Years later, senior scientist Oleg Gazenko expressed regret, stating that not enough information was learned to justify the sacrifice of the life of a dog.
Ravi Zupa is known for culling imagery from a range of sources, including mythology and religion from different cultures. Arna Miller creates animal prints with descriptive detail, settings, and style, reminiscent of works by John James Audubon. The duo has collaborated numerous times on prints, including a different design of Laika, subsequent Soviet space dogs Belka and Strelka, and one in which Zupa is dressed in a cosmonaut spacesuit.
In Started from the Bottom, above, Zupa and Miller portray Laika as a national hero; she looks up as a rocket speeds across the night sky, bearing the red and yellow colors of the Soviet flag. Laika’s naturalistic rendering is juxtaposed with the graphic clarity familiar to Soviet propaganda poster design. This similarity is seen in a comparison with the 1963 poster of Valentina Tereskhova, Glory to the First Woman Cosmonaut. The simple design elements in both works deliver a clear message of patriotism and progress.
Stylized rays of light radiate around Laika, and she is surrounded by an arc of roses. These elements bestow a feeling of sacredness, recalling the iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This imagery developed after the vision of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin of Mexico in 1531. Zupa has referenced her in his prints before, along with texts from the Common Catholic Prayers.
Want to see more prints and drawings? Stop by the FWMoA Print & Drawing Study Center 11am-3pm Tuesday-Friday or by appointment.