Sunday, October 26, 2008

Russian Illustrator: Ivan Bilibin and Folklore

Ivan Bilibin (1876 - 1942)

Ivan Bilibin was a Russian artist, painter, teacher, and set and costume designer. He was born in a small town near St. Petersburg, and was fascinated with Russian wooden architecture, folklore, and the "Old Russia" that created them. He was also a student of his time, and was influenced by Art Nouveau and traditional Japanese prints. He taught graphic art for ten years, and later was a lecturer at the Soviet Academy of Arts.

Born in Tarkhovka, near St. Petersburg, Ivan Bilibin was the son of a naval doctor and was schooled in St. Petersburg. He studied both art and law simultaneously from 1895 thru 1900, but it was his art that was to become the focus of his life. He studied under Ilya Repin, a famous realist painter and sculptor himself, who sent him to various art schools between 1898 and 1904. In 1899, Bilibin saw an art exhibition containing scenes and images of "Old Russia" through folklore and opera that really captured his imagination. He produced watercolors from the experience that garnered the attention of the Department for the Production of State Documents. At the age of 24 years old, he was asked to produce a set of illustrated Russian fairy tales. These included Vasilisa the Beautiful, Maria Morevna, The Frog Princess, The Firebird and The Grey Wolf. Bilibin gained renown for these books.

During 1902-1904, Bilibin traveled to the Russian North, where he developed an appreciation of old wooden architecture and further explored Russian folklore. In 1904, he documented his findings in a publication named Folk Arts of the Russian North. He was the set and costume designer for opera productions of The Golden Cockerel, Askold's Grave, Ruslan and Ludmila, Sadko and others. Between 1907 and 1917, he was a teacher of graphic art at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts.

The October Revolution in 1917 was enough to convince Bilibin to leave Russia, and he moved to Egypt for the next five years. He lived in Cairo and Alexandria where he set up a studio, and in 1925 he moved to Paris in time for the World Exhibition. There he was a very sought-after stage and costume designer for many plays, ballets, and operas. By 1931, he was returning to his roots and began illustrating Russian and Oriental folklore and stories.

In 1936, he returned to his beloved homeland and to St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad). From 1936 through 1941, Bilibin was a lecturer at the Soviet Academy of Arts. Bilibin was present in Leningrad from the start of World War II, and it was during the German blockade
when he died in 1942. Many projects were left unfinished at the time of his death.

Artwork (from top):
- The Red Horseman, from Vasilisa the Beautiful (folklore), 1899
- Tsar Saltan and merchants, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Pushkin), 1905
- Morozko (Father Frost), from Father Frost (folklore), 1932
- Ivan and the Firebird, from The Tale of Ivan the Tsar's Son, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf (folklore), 1899
- The Island Buyan, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Pushkin), 1905
- Vasilisa escaping Baba Yaga's chicken leg hut, from Vasilisa the Beautiful (folklore), 1899
- Baba Yaga, from Vasilisa the Beautiful (folklore), 1899
- Koschei, from The Death of Koschei the Deathless (folklore), ?
- cover of a 'skazki' (fairy tale) book, ?

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Image Sources:

Ivan Bilibin Wikipedia entry:
Ivan Bilibin Biography website:
Wikimedia Commons:

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Activity: What's Your Folklore?

Ivan Bilibin studied his culture's folklore and traditions and melded it with a modern visual language to create beautiful illustrations. Take a moment to think of your own cultural stories and folklore. How would you choose and apply a modern visual style to illustrate your culture's folklore?

- Student must describe or research folklore relevant to them. Think about who you are, and where you come from.

- Student must apply 'modern' (20th C. or newer) visual style or art movement to assist in storytelling of folklore for single panel illustration.

- Non-digital media; get those hands dirty making art! Piece is to be no smaller than 4x5" and no larger than 8.5x11". Can be black & white or in color... let your selection process guide your artistic process. Choose deliberately, but look forward to 'happy accidents.'


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