Postings on this blog have taken several different forms to date. There are quick responses to something that I read in the newspaper or magazine. There are holiday articles by Katja (she plans to continue those and also to write about Russian celebrities). There were my travel journal entries. And lastly there are longer and (hopefully) more interesting topics on Russian culture, history, or current events. On those topics, I try to do a bit of research first, and sometimes that research presents a different topic as well. And so it was that while putting together information on Russian Fairy tales, I've discovered Ivan Bilibin. I actually used two of his illustrations in my recent posting on mushroom-hunting.
Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) was a Russian artist, born in Tarkhovka near St Petersburg, a man of some privilege, son of a physician. Bilibin trained as an artist and a lawyer, but ultimately he became an illustrator of books. He appeared to work primarily (and painstakingly) in inks and watercolors, and incorporated much of the rich, wooded Russian landscape into his work. It is easy to see how his work lent itself to fairy tales.
His watercolors were admired by the "Department for the Production of State Documents" Serge Diaghilev and Alexander Benois and he was commissioned for a series of fairy tale books. Commissions for their journal followed and established Bilibin's career as an illustrator and set designer. 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, put the young Bilibin headlong into a career of illustration, set and costume design, teaching and mural painting. I was unable to find the Russian original version of these books; however, there are English translations and glicee reproductions of Mr. Bilibin's work available. The original books had identical covers, with only the titles in the center of the exterior cover changing from volume to volume. The interior drawings showed his increasing skills as both an artist and a storyteller. His work, particularly colors and attention to detail are remarkable considering he was only 24 years old when he did the drawings for Vasilisa the Beautiful.
During and after the fairy tale series, Bilibin worked primarily 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.In 1920 Bilibin settled in Egypt where he travelled, painted and worked for the Greek colony. In 1925 he relocated to Paris and worked extensively on set and costume designs for the theatre. During the 1930's he worked on illustrations for collections of both French and Russian folk-tales. With tension mounting in Europe, Ivan Bilibin returned to the Motherland in 1936 and to Leningrad. Three days after his arrival, he was appointed Professor of Graphic Art at the Leningrad Institute where he taught for the remainder of his life.
He died in February 1942 during the German blockade of Leningrad. 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 (knights) that he was working on during the last few years of his life. As can be seen in this volume, his design strengths were ever present including his trademark historically accurate costumes.