"A genuine work of art must mean many things" - The Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin

16 August 1876, the Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was born near St Petersburg.

"Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?" If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much.” (George MacDonald, "The Fantastic Imagination")

Ivan Bilibin: Vasilisa the Beautiful (1899)

Fairy tales once were a highly political affair. While these days only a few psyched up parents and their official mouthpieces debate the suitability of fairy tales for children, what with witches burned in the oven, minors carried off by horror figures, heads and other limbs getting cut off and what not, they were once ranked by politically motivated Romantics alongside of national epics and collected from Ireland and Norway to Germany, Czechia and Russia. Often enough, fairy tales were regarded as a tangible expression of one’s national identity, even if they follow certain supranational and –cultural patterns and use virtually the same imagery, at least across Eurasia. And while national epics and national fairy tales were published, first by those who were parts of the major European empires of the day or organised in scattered regionalism and soon enough by storytellers of Europe’s top nations, the Golden ages of children’s literature and illustration dawned upon the reading public from the 1850s onwards and marvels of tales and imagery became available that would shape childhoods as well as adults for generations. In Russia, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev followed the example of Pushkin who set his wits and genius to folk tales already during the 1820s and became the foremost figure in collecting fairy tales and published, inspired by the Brothers Grimm, his Narodnye russkie skazki, Russian Fairy Tales. Along with his own analysis of the stories, they became groundbreaking work for establishing the academic field of Slavonic Studies. On the aesthetic credit side, Afanasyev’s collections proved to be immensely influential as inspiration especially for Russian composers and fine artists, before and after the Revolution, even if their were given a new interpretation in the 1930s when a speech by Maksim Gorky himself provided a paradigm change and the stories were read under the auspices of Communism. Iurii Sokolov became head of the folklore section of the Union of Soviet Writers and the tales were still told, along with the accompanying iconic imaginations from the Golden Age of Illustration and one even returned to the Soviet Union, Ivan Bilibin, who had learned his trade at the feet of Ilya Repin early in the 20th century.  

Quite the ladies' man - Ivan Bilibin in 1901 (portrait by Boris Kustodiev)

Even though he was art academy-trained, Bilibin committed himself to illustrations and costume and stage designs and soon developed a distinctive own style, inspired by folklore, the Russian Revival and its remembrance of Russia’s Byzantine, Varangian and Slavic heritage along with Japanese woodprints. And became probably the finest and most influential illustrator of Pushkin’s and Afanasyev’s fairy tales. Designing the imagery of the staging of several of Mussorgsky’s and Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas and contributing artwork to Diaghilev’s Saisons Russes in Paris along with Léon Bakst who goaded each other in creating an enchantingly tangible realm of Russian folklore, Bilibin lived a rather eventful live, was married twice, first to an English painter, Mary Chambers, and then to the Franco-Irish porcelain artist Renée O’Connell until the Great War broke out and things became decidedly different for everyone. Bilibin had drawn political caricatures in the wake of the Russian Revolution and created the uncrowned double eagle as emblem for Kerensky’s Provisional Government of 1917, but sided with the Whites since he disagreed with the Communists and had to flee to Constantinople and finally to Egypt in 1920. He kept his head above the water with decorating churches and mansions of rich Greek merchants, married a third time, another porcelain artist, his former student Alexandra Schekatikhina-Pototskaya, and finally settled down in Paris in 1925. Working with the post-war Ballets Russes, decorating churches in Prague and Brno and creating illustrations for French and German publishers, Bilibin had quite established himself again. But he caught a bad case of homesickness when he was tasked with decorating the Soviet embassy in Paris under the auspices of Gorky and Sokolov in 1936. He returned back home to St Petersburg, now Leningrad, with his wife and had a last particularly productive phase with more stage designs and illustrating works of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy until the next Great War caught up with him. Ivan Bilibin died of hunger, along with more than 600,000 other civilians, during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942.

Ivan Bilibin: Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber (1940)

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