Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Ivan Bilibin

I thought I might do a little series of posts on here about some of my favourite illustrators and artists, and to begin I have chosen the Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin.  When I was a child, my parents bought me three thin stapled booklets of Russian folktales with the most beautiful Art Nouveau style illustrations.  I still have these booklets, although slightly worn now, and I still find the artwork rather wonderful.  The one I loved the most was the Alkonost, pictured above, which is a bird in Slavic mythology, a sort of good version of a Siren. 

Portrait of Bilibin in 1901 by Boris Kustodiev

Born in Tarkhovka, near St. Petersburg, in 1876, Bilibin was the son of a doctor. At age 19, he began studying art at the School of the Society for the Advancement of the Arts, and he remained there until moving to Munich in 1898 to study at a private studio.  On returning to St Petersburg the following year, he found another private studio, and there he was taught by Ilya Repin, whom he greatly admired.  

Illustration from "Vassilisa the Beautiful" 1899

It was while Bilibin was studying under Repin that he was commissioned by the Department for the Production of State Documents to illustrate a series of Russian folk stories.  Six booklets were published between 1901 and 1903, each one telling the story of a famous Russian folk tale.  They are: Fenist the Falcon, The Story of Tsarevich Ivan The Firebird and the the Grey Wolf, Vassilisa the Beautiful, Marya Morevna, The Frog Princess, and Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka and The White Duck.  (I have the first three booklets, but they are reprints from the 1970s).

 Illustration from "The Firebird", 1899

Bilibin also began designing for the stage at this time, creating sets and costumes for a production of Rimsy-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden in 1905, and The Golden Cockerel in 1909. Although he made a name for himself in Russia, he sought a new "exotic" location, and in 1920 he left Russia and moved to Egypt, where he lived for the next five years.  He married fellow artist Alexandra Shchekatikhina-Pototskaya in 1923, and a few years later the couple moved to Paris.

 Bilibin continued to produce illustrations, and to take commissions for stage and costume designs, particularly for operas. However, he missed his homeland, and in 1936 he returned to Russia.  He gave lectures at the Soviet Academy of Arts until 1941, when he died during the Siege of Leningrad.

Costume design for "A Warrior" for the ballet The Firebird, 1931

As far as I can tell, the illustrations were watercolour over pen and ink.  His earlier works are heavily Art Nouveau influenced, and also draw on traditional folk motifs from wood carvings, especially in the borders, while his later illustrations look more like Byzantine icons. 

 Illustration from "Marya Morevna" 1901

There is an interesting article by Jennie Renton discussing Bilibin's art at Textualities, and a more in-depth look at Bilibin's life and work here.  I also found this page, with full scans of three of the Russian folktale booklets.


  1. lovely post :-)

  2. I had the same books when I was growing up (and still have them!), they have always been very special to me. I still look for those thin beige coloured spines on the bookshelves at second-hand stores. I had Vassilisa the Beautiful with the hideous Baba Yaga and her fantastic house on chook legs and Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka (both 70's reprints also). My husband also had a few of these books as he was growing up (Fenist Falcon & Frog Princess). I am certain that the illustrations in Bilibin's books created my love of forests and mushrooms! I have an excellent book on Bilibin by Pan Books ISBN 0 330 26631 4, it details his life and art - highly recommended reading!

    1. Oh yes Clair, I have the beige ones too! They really are quite beautiful, I was so excited when we were driving through Germany when I was 10 and saw real forest that looked like they should have wolves and chicken-footed huts scampering around in them! Thanks for the book recommendation, it's really hard to find stuff about Bilibin in English. I'll have to see if I can find a copy on Abe books.

  3. Thank you, Piroska, for posting these wonderful illustrations by the brilliant Bilibin! You are right that he is scandalously under-appreciated in the west. Several pages back on google is a dismissive posting from the University of Brighton, sniffing that Bilibin was a product of the Russian arts & crafts movement and was imitative of Beardsley. Anybody who glances at Bilibin's prints above will see the fatuity of this; Beardsley's over-refined style is not even close; same goes for the static delicacy of Bilibin's rival Zworykin, who decorated an edition of Pushkin's The Golden Cockerel.