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Ivan Bilibin, illustrator - his life and his art

Updated on February 25, 2014

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.

Short biography

Stage setting of The Golden Cockerel by Ivan Bilibin
Stage setting of The Golden Cockerel by Ivan Bilibin

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.

Illustration from the Tale of Igor
Illustration from the Tale of Igor

Life

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 Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Marya MorevnaTsar SaltanLittle fool IvanFirebirdBird woke him upMartin, the peasant's sonThe feather of the falconFrog princessVasily the unlucky
Marya Morevna
Marya Morevna
Tsar Saltan
Tsar Saltan
Little fool Ivan
Little fool Ivan
Firebird
Firebird
Bird woke him up
Bird woke him up
Martin, the peasant's son
Martin, the peasant's son
The feather of the falcon
The feather of the falcon
Frog princess
Frog princess
Vasily the unlucky
Vasily the unlucky

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!

Vasilisa

Note the skull in Vasilisa's hand
Note the skull in Vasilisa's hand

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 the Deathless in action
Koschei the Deathless in action

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.

Baba Yaga' hut
Baba Yaga' hut

Baba Yaga

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...

Baba Yaga in action
Baba Yaga in action

In opera

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:

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tsar Saltan at the windowTsar's departureTsaritsa and her son in the barrelIsland of BuyanFlight of the mosquito (this scene was deleted from final production)Merchants visit tsar SaltanChernomor and 33 heroes
Tsar Saltan at the window
Tsar Saltan at the window
Tsar's departure
Tsar's departure
Tsaritsa and her son in the barrel
Tsaritsa and her son in the barrel
Island of Buyan
Island of Buyan
Flight of the mosquito (this scene was deleted from final production)
Flight of the mosquito (this scene was deleted from final production)
Merchants visit tsar Saltan
Merchants visit tsar Saltan
Chernomor and 33 heroes
Chernomor and 33 heroes
Bilibin's illustration from Arabian Nights
Bilibin's illustration from Arabian Nights

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

Do you like presented art?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Melissa Miotke: Thank you!

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 

      4 years ago from Arizona

      This was my first introduction to his art but I'm impressed!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @aesta1: Thanks for your visit:)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I really enjoy visiting your lenses as you introduce me to a part of the world I have little knowledge of.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thanks:)

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      I love Biibin's art work and right away notice the borders and details that are amazing and glad that turned out to be a positive for him....its hard to believe that anyone would ever consider them unnecessary. That he was an attorney surprised me and have to wonder where he found the time since he was always doing commission work....another delightfully presented gallery by you

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Thanks for your visit!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Aunt-Mollie: Thanks!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @LiteraryMind: He really makes impression.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for introducing me to his art and Russian fairy tales. Excellent work!

    • profile image

      Aunt-Mollie 

      5 years ago

      I really enjoyed your article and the artwork tells a story. Captivating!

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Now that I see Bilibin's work, I think I have seen it and admired it before. I just never really knew whose work it was. He does have an impressive collection of work.

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