|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
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Most of us take a rather provincial view of Illustration and Art
History. We see a fairly circumscribed set of styles and
movements that can be traced fairly linearly from The Pre-Raphaelites,
through the Romantics and the Orientalists, with a few detours through
Vienna and Berlin, but quickly getting back on track with the great
English and French illustrators and moving directly across the Atlantic
to the Brandywine and beyond. The Impressionists, the Symbolists,
and the Arts Nouveau and Deco are interesting side-trips that add some
scenery to the journey, but the world and the World of Illustration was
and is a lot broader and more varied than we've been seeing.
Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) was a Russian artist, born in St. Petersburg,
somewhat isolated from the associations with traditional Russian art
found so strongly among the art community in Moscow. His first
inspirations came from Russian folk and fairy tales. After seeing
an exhibition by Victor Vasnetsov (of whom I know precisely nothing) in
1899, which included images and scenes from folk lore and opera, he was
drawn to the remoteness of the wildernesses of Old Russia that gave
rise to the legends. His watercolors from this trip were seen and
admired by the "Department for the Production of State Documents", and
he was commissioned to illustrate a series of books of fairy tales.
These books, including The Tale of Ivan the Tsar's Son, The Firebird
and the Grey Wolf, The Frog Princess, The Feather of Finist the Falcon,
Maria Morevna, The Little White Duck, and Vassilisa the Beautiful, propelled the young Bilibin headlong into a career of illustration, set and costume design, teaching and mural painting.
Bilibin's approach to these tales was guided by a strong sense of
place. The forests and mountains of Old Russia were predominant
players in images that often provided as many distractions as focal
points. He seemed anxious to incorporate traditional designs and
motifs, often as framing devices for illustrations that didn't require
them. Yet his solid depiction of the terrain and costumes made
his work recognizable and appealing, despite his youthful miscues. And,
most importantly, his ability to bring a sense of reality to a world of
ghosts and glowing skulls reinforced the notion that these stories
might really have happened and certainly heightened their appeal.
These books, with their identical covers, were still in print as
recently as 1976 (now why doesn't that sound so recent anymore?) and
are oft-requested items. The titles in the center of the cover
were the only modifications to a common design that was easily
recognizable. The interior drawings showed his increasing skills
as both an artist and a storyteller. These images from Vassilisa
the Beautiful are some of his earliest work from 1899. They're
remarkably mature for a 24-year-old and hint at the Art Nouveau
influences he relished.
By 1902, in The Little White Duck, these influences were incorporated
into the borders and the foliage of the image as seen in the image at
During and after the fairy tale series, Bilibin worked a lot in pen and ink for magazines, book covers, and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel
a reprise of the folk story in a combination of pen, ink and
watercolor. Several other folk and fairy tale projects were begun
over the coming years. He never really escaped from his early
reputation. He considered the mixture of fantasy, folk lore and
historical and geographical authenticity to be his milieu and seldom
ventured very far from it.
His style became more formal and he applied his vision to the sets and costumes of a series of operas, including The Golden Cockerel (1909), Askold's Grave (1912), Ruslan and Ludmila (1913), Sadko (1913,14)
and others. His reputation as a fantasist and his association
with Old Russian imagery served him well in this new career, as did his
many visits to the Crimea where he found continued inspiration and
flavor for his art.
He left Russia in 1920 for Egypt, where he set up a studio and lived
until 1925. He moved to Paris for the opening of the World
Exhibition. He had a one man show in Prague in 1926 and helped
stage an exhibition of Russian artists in Paris in 1927. He was,
by now, an accomplished and sought-after stage designer and helped
stage numerous ballets and operas in Paris, which had its own "Russian
Opera Season." Finally in 1931 he returned to the illustration of
Russian and Oriental fairy tales for a Parisian publisher.
He returned to Russia in 1936 where he died in February of 1942.
He was in Leningrad during the German blockade. He left several
unfinished projects, many of which can be partially seen in Sergei
Golynets' Ivan Bilibin co-published by Aurora and Abrams in 1982. One project was the illustrations for The Tale of the Capital City of Kiev and of the Russian Bogatyrs
that he was working on during the last few years of his life. As
can be seen, his design strengths were still present and the trademark
historically accurate accoutrements were everywhere.
It's worth looking up now and again from our, dare I say it again,
provincial, boundaries to examine the whole world of
illustration. Though Bilibin's work was not widely available in
America until the 1976 reprints by Goznak, it was received with respect
and appreciation. Golynets' book about him gave us even more to enjoy
and to marvel at. Today he's an artist with a growing following.
Written and © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., who granted permission for the use of the text.
Ivan Bilibin, Sergei Golynets, 1982 Aurora/Abrams
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