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Ivan Bilibin - "a direct successor of Russian national creativity"

16 August 2020

August 16 (4 old style) marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of Ivan Bilibin, a well-known book illustrator and theater artist who opened the world of fairy tales to readers and viewers.

The search for one's vocation, the desire to realize oneself precisely in creativity were reflected in the biography of the future artist. “Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was born in a small village near St. Petersburg in the family of a military doctor. In 1896 he graduated from high school with a silver medal, and in 1900 - a full legal course at St. Petersburg University. From the age of 19, Bilibin studied at the school of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, then in Munich, in the studio of Anton Ashbe, he was a student of Ilya Repin, under whose guidance he graduated from the Higher Art School of the Academy of Arts", - says the historical calendar "Ivan Bilibin – a singer of the Russian Life” (2015), issued by the Presidential Library on the occasion of the 140th anniversary of his birth. More information about the artist is available at the On This Day section on the institution's portal.

The Bilibins family dates back to the 17th century. The boy grew up in an intelligent family: his father was the chief physician at a naval hospital. His mother received a good education and was seriously engaged in music, his uncle is a teacher, author of textbooks on algebra and geometry. Ivan Bilibin received a gymnasium silver medal for his successes in the exact sciences, but already in the gymnasium he began to draw, and later recalled that he "always drew". His father was against professional painting, and at his insistence, the young man entered the Faculty of Law, but in his free time from lectures he wrote fairy tales and illustrated them himself.

In September 1898, returning to St. Petersburg from Munich after several months of classes in a private art studio of Anton Ashbe, Ivan Bilibin entered the St. Petersburg drawing school of Princess Maria Tenisheva and studied under the guidance of Ilya Repin. In the winter of the same year, he visited the exhibition of Viktor Vasnetsov and, impressed by his painting "Heroes", created watercolor illustrations for "The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf" and for "The Frog Princess". The best printing company of that time, the Expedition of Procurement of State Papers, became interested in them and ordered a young artist to illustrate the book of Russian folk tales. From 1899 to 1902, Bilibin wrote a series of illustrations for six fairy tales, and the published book made him famous.

It was then that the “Bilibin” style was formed and found fans and imitators. The Presidential Library’s portal features Bilibin's works such as "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" and "The Tale of the Golden Cockerel", as well as with such rare editions designed by him or with his participation as "Chronicle and obverse collection of the House of Romanov" prepared for the 300th anniversary of the reign of the dynasty, "Onega epics, recorded by A. F. Hilferding in the summer of 1871", "Pictures on Russian history, published under the general editorship [and explanatory text] of S. A. Knyazkov" and "Calendar of the Russian revolution".

Thanks to Bilibin's design, the book has become a work of art. Thin black contours of figures filled with watercolors, careful study of details, verified compositions, effective presentation of images, a combination of decorative and fine arts, folk motifs, craving for ornament - all these features of the artist's book illustrations delighted readers and were analyzed by art critics.

Since 1907, the artist's cooperation with theaters begins. He designed the medieval religious drama "The Action about Theophilus", then he was invited to Sergei Diaghilev's entreprise. Bilibin designed the costumes for the opera Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, which was staged at the Parisian Grand Opera. The performance glorified not only the singer Fyodor Chaliapin, but also the artist.

In 1908, Bilibin created sketches of scenery for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel”, designed the productions of “Sadko”, “Ruslan and Lyudmila”, and in 1910 painted costumes for the dancer Anna Pavlova for the ballet “The Pharaoh's Daughter”.

Simultaneously with his work in the theater, the artist continued to illustrate literary works. In 1910, the Expedition for Procurement of State Papers published “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel”. The entire series of sketches was immediately acquired by the State Tretyakov Gallery.

The unique "Bilibin" style was formed in the mainstream of realism, but it has the influence of Russian popular prints, Japanese prints, and Art Nouveau art.

Since the early 1900s, Bilibin collaborated with the magazine "World of Art", and in 1904, after the artist's trip to the Vologda and Arkhangelsk provinces, it was in this magazine that his article "Folk Art of the Russian North" appeared, which is now available in the electronic reading room of the Presidential Library...Many of the artist's thoughts expressed in it are still relevant today.

Not accepting the revolution of 1917, Ivan Bilibin went abroad. After settling in Cairo, he opened his own workshop, and in 1925 he moved to Paris. Since 1929, Bilibin returned to work as a theater artist, received orders from various theaters around the world. He did not abandon his work as a book illustrator, turning to foreign literature for the first time - "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen. In 1936, thanks to his acquaintance with the Soviet diplomat in France Vladimir Potemkin, the artist returned to his hometown, which was now called Leningrad. He taught at the All-Russian Academy of Arts, continued cooperation with theaters and the creation of illustrations for books.

Bilibin's personal exhibition in 1941 did not take place as the Great Patriotic War began. The artist refused to evacuate from besieged Leningrad and died of exhaustion on February 7, 1942. Ivan Bilibin is buried in the common grave of professors of the Academy of Arts at the Smolensk cemetery.