Ivan Bilibin, illustrator - his life and his art
The master of Russian Fairy Tales
Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was famous illustrator and painter. As one of most popular graphic artists from the beginning of 20th century he also decorated churches, designed stage costumes and delivered lectures at the Art Academy.
Of all areas of his work the art history will best remember him for presentations of Vasilisa, Baba Yaga and other characters from Eastern European folklore. His Book of Russian Wonder Tales is one of classic collections of world culture.
(image: oil portrait by Boris Kustodiev, 1901, this image and all others on this page are Public Domain)
This is Bilibin's masterpiece
As very versatile graphic artist he made great impact in several artistic areas. But this is the place where his talent shines with brightest light.
Witty plots, strong characters and the feel of unique folklore of Eastern Europe is perfectly united with his sense of composition and his love to decorative elements.
If you are looking for something strong and imaginative but different than most famous fairy tales, collection of Russian folk tales is probably just right.
He was born in Tarkhova, small city near St. Petersburg in 1876. He loved drawing from his most tender years and studied at the Art School, but for his formation as an original artist there were probably at least three more important facts:
1. He lived in St. Petersburg, with only occasional contact with influential art from Moscow and with a lot of contact with local folklore.
2. He traveled a lot, mostly across Europe, but for about five years lived in Egypt too.
3. He met a lot of important artists who made huge impact on Bilibin as an artist who was always seeking for new knowledge and trying to incorporate it in unique fantastic style.
As many intelligent young men he was educated as lawyer, but when he got a diploma in 1900 his first artistic works were already published and well accepted. He practically never run out of commissions.
Bilibin improved his style year after year and turned one of his biggest weaknesses (too many details and unnecessary borders) from early creative years in his recognizable style.
After illustrating a series of Russian folk tales, he worked on Pushkin's works. Firstly as illustrator and after that as set and costume designer for operas made after his The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Tale of Tsar Saltan and others.
He married Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya in 1923 and continued to travel all over the Europe to learn, create and teach. He was loaded with unfinished projects when he died in 1942 as one of many victims of siege of Leningrad (the city is now named St. Petersburg again).
The GalleryClick thumbnail to view full-size
Let's take a moment at some other works
The average reader from the West is not familiar with the stories above. But closer look shows us many similarities between Russian folk heritage and classic fairy tales.
Marya Morevna, for instance, is based on the forbidden room element and highly resembles the tale of Bluebeard.
Firebird is Russian version of Golden Bird, we have interesting variations of Cinderella, Brother and sister (one of less known stories from the collection of brothers Grimm and Beauty and the Beast.
We shall note the Frog Princess which is not only a version of Frog King but also one more proof about abundance of powerful female characters typical for folklore in Eastern Europe.
In general Russian stories are especially interesting because of different, often fresh and surprising views on famous fables.
Let's meet some classic characters from Russian folk tales!
This is by far the most common lady's name in Russian folklore. If we can compare Vasilisa with a heroine in classic Western fairy tale we soon realize many ladies in trouble in for instance Grimms' Fairy Tales don't even have names.
Vasilisa can get into troubles too but she is never helpless. Her name is often expanded to Vasilisa the Wise or Vasilisa the Beautiful, because she is brave and smart and she often rescues her significant other!
Not exactly a typical fairy tale stereotype, huh?
Koschei The Deathless
Koschei is a popular villain in Russian fairy tales. His role is very similar to the Devil's in some of popular Western fairy tales.
Often called Koschei the Deathless he is a powerful magician and because of his immortality, sometimes resembles a vampire.
At first sight her role is the same as the role of the witch in many other popular collections.
But Baba Yaga, although cannibalistic like the witch in the tale of Hansel and Gretel and many other folk tales, is actually much more civilized. She is always curious about her visitors, she asks them about the news, themselves and often offers some kind of help to them.
In many cases she can actually serve as crucial helper with access to important information or possession of magical objects. If the hero wants her help, he (or she) has to prove he / she is worthy of her help.
Thus we can say the meeting with Baba Yaga should be treated more like an obstacle, testing and opportunity than simply a place to battle another opponent.
Even her hut, the place where confrontation with Baba Yaga occurs, differs from classic witches' huts. It is made of wood but stands on chicken (!) leg and often turns around its axis, so you never know where you'll find an entrance or exit.
Yaga Baba's transportation methods are pretty original too...
Thanks for his love to tradition, huge fantasy, some connections and great references after first commissions Bilibin was involved in stage, especially opera production for the most of his life. He designed sets on stage and costumes for productions by Rimski-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and other great composers. The image on the right comes from The Golden Cockerel and the gallery below we can see some scenes from Tsar Saltan:
Bilibin have spent several years in Paris and illustrated for French publishers too. We conclude our journey with another beautiful illustration, this time from 1001 Arabian Nights.
His main influences
- Anton Azbe, enigmatic Slovenian painter who thought him how to draw a figure and a pose
- Viktor Vasnetsov, who's exhibition inspired young Ivan to dig into folk tales and legends of Russia
- Ilya Repin, Russian painter in who's studio Bilibin made his first illustrations of fairy tales and earned first commissions
- Leon Bagst and Serge Diaghilov who helped him started his professional career
- Art Neuveau, international art style
- Renaissance woodcuts and Japanese art
- Some interesting facts about Virginia Frances Sterrett
You can compare Bilibin's illustrations with works signed by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett.
- Some interesting facts about Walter Crane
Don't hesitate to compare Bilibin's sense for detail with Walter Crane's approach to illustration.