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Ivan Bilibin – artist inspired by Russian fairy tales and Slavic folklore

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) was a Russian artist and illustrator largely inspired by Slavic mythology, Russian folklore and fairy tales. He also worked for theatre and opera, creating costumes and sceneries, and giving them his recognizable touch of fantasy.

Bilibin started art studies in Munich, where his tutor was Anton Azbe, realist painter of Slovenian origin. Then he returned to his native St. Petersbrug and continued studying under Ilya Repin, one of the highest valued Russian painters of 19th century. In pursuing inspiration, Bilibin traveled to Russian North – across Vologda, Olonets and Arkhangelsk Provinces – to make sketches and collect objects for the Alexander III Russian Museum. This travel deeply affected his style. He became very interested in traditional costumes, rustic scenery, mighty forests and old wooden architecture. He extensively illustrated Russian fairy tales, adopting many influences from French Art Nouveau, but giving them a folklore touch in a successful mixture of elements. Skulls, black horses, Russian witch “Baba Yaga” and black magician Koschei , in thick, scarcely lightened forests sometimes give a touch of dark and uncanny to his works. But, more often, his pictures are full of colors and so minutely ornamented that they remind of an Oriental love for abstract decoration. Eastern influences to his art did not come only from an Islamic sphere, since he was fascinated by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and paid homage to them in some of his works. For example, an illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Tale of the Tsar Saltan‘ (see below) from 1905 is a direct reference to ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa‘ made by Katsushika Hokusai in 1831.

iIlustration for Alexander Pushkin's 'Tale of the Tsar Saltan' 1905

He liked to represent fast movement, exciting scenes, with the drapes whirling, horses’ muscles tense in jump, their mares flowing, while heroes stand firm in their brave decisiveness. Fantastic creatures such as dragons and huge fish with glowing eyes, the firebird and other mythological animals such as Sirin and Alkonost, all found a way to his works. He belonged to the artistic group “Mir Isskustva” which gathered around the magazine of the same name. In 1917 he was elected Chairman of the group and continued leading it in Neo-Romantic style. This group was strongly opposed to the mass production which was brought by industrialization, and feared that the aesthetic criteria will degrade more and more in a society which begins to be led by machines. They tended to introduce art to every house and every aspect of daily life, in which the group was very similar to English Arts and Crafts, French Art Nouveau and other styles which shared the same fears at the turn of the century.

He was very prolific as a designer working for the stage happenings. He created sets and costumes for productions of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas The Snow Maiden, The Golden Cockerel and for Modest Mussorgsky’s musical drama Boris Godunov, in Russia, Paris, Prague and other European cities where Russian composers were valued and invited. After the October Revolution he spent many years outside Russia, living in Cairo, Alexandria (Egypt) and Paris, and traveling extensively with his second wife and former student Alexandra Shekatikhina-Pototskaya. Wherever he spent time, he would usually contribute to the objects of the Russian culture and diplomacy. Thus, he painted Orthodox Churches in Egypt, Paris, Prague and decorated Soviet Embassy in Paris. Constantly homesick and attached to his homeland, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1936. He lost his life tragically during the Siege of Leningrad in the World War II and ended up in a mass grave. In the gallery below you will find many of his works, mainly those which prove him as one of the finest representatives of the “Golden Age of Illustration”.

About the author

Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.