Ivan Bilibin – Master Illustrator of Russian Folklore and Mythology
Kickstarting Sci-Fi-O-Rama has me busy researching once more, sites are bookmarked and images saved. Occasionally though, something pops up that’s just too special not feature straightway, such as the art of Ivan Bilibin.
Ivan Bilibin (1876 – 1942) was a Russian graphic artist and stage/costume designer most famous today for his stylised take on Russian Folklore and Medieval art. His work bears strong Art Nouveau characteristics, similar in vein to that of Aubrey Beardsley. Though in truth the influence stems more from their shared passion for 19th-Century Japanese block prints.
Above: ‘Tsaritsa Militritsa’
Born in Tarkhovka (near St Petersburg) Bilibin showed much artistic promise as a youngster and went on to study in both Munich and St Petersburg under the tutorage of Anton Ažbe and Ilya Repin respectively. While studying under Repin, he was commissioned by the (then tsarist) Department for the Production of State Documents to illustrate a series of Russian Folk Stories. These would be published in six large format paperback volumes, bringing him praise and recognition from the newly formed ‘World of Art’ group (Mir Istkusstva). Commissions for that circle were to follow, allowing Bilbin to cement his path to a career as an Illustrator.
Also of importance during his early career are the two years Bilbin spent travelling the Russian north exploring his love for old wooden architecture and the Russian folklore he was fast becoming synonymous with. These travels he documented in the monograph ‘Folk Arts of the Russian North’ (1904).
From 1904 onwards Bilibin became involved with theatre production, working as a designer of both backdrops and costume. His contribution to Diaghilev’s production of the play “Boris Godunov” would bring him world acclaim, whilst his designs for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” in 1908 would see him elevated to a true master of his field.
Disillusioned with 1917 post-revolution Russia Bilbin left the motherland to live in first Cairo and then Paris. However, with tensions rising across Europe he returned to his native Saint Petersberg in 1936 (now Leningrad) where he was appointed Professor of Graphic Art at the Leningrad Institute. Here he would lecture for the remainder of his days.
Ivan Bilibin was married three times and had two children from his first marriage. He died of starvation on February 7th, 1942, during the first winter of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, having chosen to remain rather than be evacuated.
Some selected imagery and notes:
Above: ‘The Island of Buyan‘ (1905) Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan’
According to Slavic mythology, Buyan is a mysterious island with the ability to reveal or hide itself using tidal flow. It’s said to be the home of three brothers – the Northern, Western and Eastern Winds – and also to the solar goddess Zoryas.
Debate still rages today whether Buyan was simply a magical otherworld like perhaps Atlantis, or whether it is, in fact, derived from the Slavic name for a real place, most likely Rügen on the Eastern German Baltic coast.
Above: ‘The Tsars son and the Frog’ (1930) Illustration for fairytale of ‘The Frog Princess’
What noticeable across all of Bilibin’s artwork is not just how lovingly he describes character and costume, but also how well he captures the Russian wilderness. Demonstrated here with the evergreen gloom and marshy underfoot of Russia’s endless boreal forests.
Above: ‘Archangel Michael’ (1919)
A slightly more stylised portrait here. Archangel Michael stands poised with a cruel looking sword and Eastern Orthodox Shield, love the leggings.
Above: ‘Dobrynya Nikitch rescues Princess Zabava from Zmey Gorynych‘ (1941)
The decapitated Zmey Gorynych, a famous 3-headed Slavic dragon, slain by the heroic bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitch. A bogatyr is the Russian equivalent of a wandering, chivalrous knight.
Above: Illustration for the ‘Tale of Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf’ (1899). It really is astonishing how easily Bilibin was able to capture mood and character so perfectly.
Above: ‘The Firebird and The Gray Wolf’ (1900)
Another demonstration of just how vividly Bilibin was able to capture the beauty of the Russian landscape. I love the way mare’s mane and tail floats on the wind.
Above: Costume design for the drama of Lope de Vega’s “Fuente Ovejuna” (1911)
The perfect example of Bilibin’s adeptness for costume design, stunning.
Above: Costume design for the Opera “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin (1929)
Above: Vologda girl in holiday dress (1905)
Above: Illustration for the poem ‘The Tale of the Golden Cockerel’ by Alexander Pushkin. A glimpse of Bilibin’s more graphic edge here.
Above: A wooden Eastern Orthodox Church with the snowy Russian wilderness beyond.
So there you have but a tiny sampler of the Illustrative work of Ivan Bilibin. To get a rapid overview with 245 Images try wikiart.org/en/ivan-bilibin. One thing I have noticed when researching his beautiful work is that quality of scans seems to vary greatly, some heavy JPG compression evidently not doing the art justice.
I feel like I’ve really only scratched the surface here, so expect more from Bilbin in the future, thanks for reading.