Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ivan Bilibin

Fabulous Winter, Ivan Bilibin
Although I've written about a pretty sizable number of Russian artists over the years, and learned a lot myself about Russian culture and the art it produces; I continue to have the feeling most people in the United States, and indeed, most of the rest of the world, know very little on the subject. A great part of that ignorance of Russian art can be laid at the feet of the Russians themselves, or more precisely, the Soviet Communist government which ruled them for some eighty years. A great deal of social, political, and cultural alienation can take place in eighty years. However, in all fairness, the blame for this lack of knowledge, and thus a lack of understanding of Russian art has another important source--the damned Russian language. As I've mentioned a few times before, I can handle a certain amount of French, Spanish, Italian, and some degree of German, but aside from two or three unimportant (insofar as art is concerned) words in Russian, the language, indeed its basic Cyrillic alphabet, is a total mystery to me. I've tried; really, I have. But, if I've been stymied by this obstinate linguistic barrier, how can others get their heads around the culture it seeks to communicate?

Illustration to the fairy tale Mariya Morevna, Ivan Bilibin.
In Slavic folklore, Koschei (the horseman above) is an archetypal
male villain, described mainly as abducting the hero's wife. None
of the existing tales actually describes his appearance, though in
book illustrations, cartoons, and movies, he is most
frequently seen as a very old and ugly-looking man.
That's not a rhetorical question. The answer actually lies within the problem itself. Despite the language, which stands between Russian art and the rest of the world, the art itself, each picture supposedly worth a thousand words, does not demand the same degree of translation as the words seeking to describe it. Ivan Bilibin, among other things, was a Russian illustrator, primarily of children's fairytales. Like the language and the alphabet, Russian children's folk lore is foreign to us. The Russians have never had their own equivalent of Walt Disney to spread their juvenile culture far and wide through movies and amusement parks. Thus, any comparison is quite unfair; but Ivan Bilibin may have been the closest the Russians ever came to such a cross-cultural bridge.

He was no Walt Disney, but nonetheless he is considered
one of the most outstanding illustrators Russia ever produced.
Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was born in 1876. He grew up in Tarkhovka, a suburb of St. Petersburg. About the time he turned twenty, Bilibin began his art studies at the Anton Ažbe Art School in Munich for a year or two. From there, he came back to St. Petersburg to study under Ilya Repin. After graduating in May 1900, Bilibin returned to Munich, where he completed his training with Anton Ažbe. Between 1902 and 1904 Bilibin travelled in the Russian North, where he became fascinated with old wooden architecture and Russian folklore. He published his drawings and watercolors in a monograph titled Folk Arts of the Russian North in 1904. Although Bilibin is considered to be an Art Nouveau artists, it's not hard to notice the influence of traditional Japanese prints in his work.

A Fella is a northern Asian peasant farmer.
In 1902 Bilibin married a former student, the painter Marija Tschembers. They had two sons; Alexander and Ivan. In 1912 he married again, another former student and art school graduate, Renée O'Konnel. In 1923 Bilibin married the painter Alexandra Schtschekatichina-Potozkaja (not a former student, this time), with whom he had a joint exhibition in Amsterdam in 1929. (See what I mean about the Russian language!)

The Tale of Igor's Campaign, Ivan Bilibin.
In the vibrant illustration (above), Bilibin depicts a scene from the epic medieval Slavic poem, The Tale of Igor's Campaign. The tale appears to be based on a failed raid conducted by Prince Igor Svyatoslavich (Prince of Novgorod-Seversk) against the Polovtsians living in the southern part of the Don River region in 1185. Christian and Pagan motifs are present throughout the tale, as are vivid descriptions of the natural environment and the role it plays in influencing human lives. A pervasive theme throughout the work is the need for unity among the warring Russian princes in the face of an ongoing threat from the Turkish East. This classic tale was adapted by Aleksandr Borodin into an Opera titled, Prince Igor.

Damsel and clear-Finist the Falcon,  circa 1899, Ivan Bilibin
In the years that followed, Bilibin made his entry into the newspaper and book graphics scene with a commission for the design of the magazine Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) in 1899. Designs for other magazines such as Шиповник (Dog Rose) followed. About the same time, Bilibin gained renown when he released his illustrations of Russian fairy tales. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, he drew revolutionary cartoons, especially for the magazine Жупелъ (Hobgoblin), which, in 1906, was banned. During the period, 1902 to 1904, Bilibin went to the ethnographic section of the museum of Alexander III to collect material and to photograph monuments of old village architecture in the Vologda, Archangelsk region, Tver; Skaja; Olonezkaja, and Petrozavodsk.

The Court at the time of Russkaya Pravda, 1909, Ivan Bilibin
Unlike an earlier revolt, the October Revolution, proved alien to Bilibin. He left Russia. After brief stints in Cairo and Alexandria, Bilibin settled in Paris in 1925. There he worked decorating private mansions and Orthodox churches. Though prosperous, Bilibin longed for his homeland. He apparently made peace with the Soviet government through his work decorating the Paris Soviet Embassy in 1936, allowing him to returned to Russia. He delivered lectures in the Soviet Academy of Arts until 1941. Bilibin died at the age of sixty-five during the WW II Siege of Leningrad. He was buried in a collective grave.

Tsar Saltan Eavesdropping, 1905, Ivan Bilibin (my favorite).

No comments:

Post a Comment