Illustrating the free melody of Russian song
Ivan Bilibin was a painter, graphic artist, and stage designer. He studied in Munich and St. Petersburg (under I.E.Repin) and contributed to the magazine Mir Iskusstva (World of Art). Several of his stylized illustrations of Russian folk tales are shown on this page. The following description of Bilibin's work is from a 1926 issue of the Russian magazine Firebird, sent to The Home Forum by Marina Bliss.
BILIBIN is one of the most perfect modern Russian artists. He has always proved strict toward himself and toward his art and remained firm and clear in his style. He has exercised a deep influence upon many of his contemporaries and has formed a whole school of followers.
In the summer of 1899, Ivan Bilibin executed his first illustrations for the Russian popular tales: ``Ivan Tsarevich,'' ``Vasilissa the Beautiful,'' and ``Tsarevna the Frog.'' These youthful watercolor sketches set forth all the charm of his imagination. His penetration into the concealed and mysterious world of ancient Russia exhibited all the keen and deep charm of his coloring, and the incontestable mastery of his hand and line.
The artist has executed a good many of the most diverse works, but all of them reveal one genuine and loving thought: the beauty of Russian nature, Russian people, Russian soul, and Russian antiquity. His longing to have a unique style gives a clear and a perfect expression to the images that appear to the painter's mind. Whereas Repin and Sourikoff had chosen tragic epochs of history, Bilibin received a brighter and a lighter inheritance: the lovely and free melody of Russian song, the rich and deep radiance of the old ornament, the cool spaciousness of the northern sky, the rustling of the thick grass of our forests. These fancies, this poetry of many generations, were incarnated in the artist (mind that his forefathers were eminent and wealthy citizens of Kalooga, one of the oldest towns of Muscovite Russia). In his works we see the last smile and the last enchantment of old Russia.
The works of the artist are most varied: His first three tales were followed by the ``Feather of Fenist, the Bright Falcon,'' ``Maria Morevna'' and the ``White Duckling,'' the ``Volga,'' the ``Story of Tzar Saltan,'' and the ``Golden Cock.'' All these works formed the substance of the artist's numerous graphic creations: book-wrappers, illustrations, title-types, drawings for post cards, calendars, etc. A certain number of oil-painting and watercolor landscapes that have never been exhibited prove the artist to be a poet of Russian nature.
The artist has worked also for the stage. In 1908, he planned Russian costumes for Boris Godunov (Diaghilev's performances in Paris). In 1910, he staged a play by Sologoub, ``Honor and Vengeance,'' and, last, three great musical dramas: the ``Golden Cock'' for the opera house of Zimin in Moscow, ``Sadko,'' and ``Rouslan and Ludmila'' for the Popular House in Petersburg.
AMONG the artist's purely decorative works, let us mention the exceptionally magnificent decoration of the building of the State Bank in Nizhny Novgorod. But the artist's greatest success are his works for the book, his graphic art, his illustrations.
The artist's ancestors, his masters, are the engravers of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the first Russian image-painters; he learned his art in Russian ``incunabula,'' in popular pictures of a delightful and bright coloring, in the deep and soft colors of the old brocade, in the bright, sparkling coloring of tiles, in the perfect lightness and plenitude of the old ornament.
Suffice it to mention that Bilibin is the founder of a school of modern Russian graphic art. Many Russian artists who are working nowadays in different branches of book ornamentation have been educated on Bilibin's art. We should not forget, too, that during 10 years (1907-17) Bilibin directed the class of graphic art and composition at the School of the Society of Encouragement of Art in Petersburg.
THE last years form a special period in Bilibin's life. Having left Russia in 1920, the artist took up his abode in Egypt, first in Cairo, then in Alexandria, where a new world opened before him, the world of Oriental imagination, the true mother country of his art. It is now well known how much ancient Russian art owes to the East, how fully the northern countries were formerly nourished by Oriental inspiration, by Oriental mastery.
In Egypt, the artist was busy with different decorative works, the greater part of which are executed in Byzantine style; a large decorative panel for a dining room, an ikonostasis for a Greek church, frescoes for the Syrian cathedral in Cairo.
In the summer of 1924, the artist undertook a journey to Syria and Palestine and brought from there a series of excellent sunny landscapes and some very fine sketches of Arabs.
In August 1921, the artist left Alexandria and went to Paris; after so much wandering about in countries wonderful, although deprived of artistic atmosphere, a great desire overwhelmed him to return once more to the first source of modern art, to the city full of unique artistic wealth, to the town of real artistic competition. The artist wishes to return into the realm that belongs to him. Once more the living world of popular myth attracts him and again the magnificent land of legends, the valley of folklore, stretches before him.