Our story begins at the end of the nineteenth century with the fairytale illustrated by Sergey Malyutin which was revolutionary in terms of book illustration as it incorporated design into every aspect. The typography, illustrations and decorated wrappers all demonstrate the new style of Russian art which was emerging at the time based on folk motifs and Slavic traditions. Malyutin, who is most famous for creating the first ever Matryoshka dolls was the forerunner of book design as an art form and strongly influenced Bilibin and Benois.
After Malyutin had paved the way, book illustration in Russia flourished with more and more artists turning their hand to a previously overlooked discipline. One such example is Benois’ masterpiece Azbuka v Kartinakh (Alphabet in Pictures). Extremely scare one critic wrote, ‘has anyone who has had the rare privilege of holding it in his hands failed to notice a quickened heartbeat?’.
This exceptional example is inscribed to family friend and renowned art collector Issar Saulovich Gurvich-Issarov and is also finely bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe.
Egor NARBUT (illustrator); Hans Christian ANDERSEN
As demand for fine books grew, Joseph Knebel decided to open his own publishing house dedicated to fairytales and children’s books. He believed that ‘the child will quickly forget the content. But the illustration- its range of colours, its design - might forever leave a trace on the child’s soul’. His two favourite artists to collaborate with were Narbut and Mitrokhin. These two examples are from his ‘gift series’ which prioritised illustration and featured folktales from around the world. Benois said that each time a new book in the series was published it was as much of an event as a new art exhibit.
Of course, in this fruitful era of creativity it was not just book illustrators who gained notoriety but Russia’s dancers and performers who reached global fame. Nijinsky, the most legendary dancer of all time inspired French artists Jean Cocteau and Paul Iribe to produce this luxurious homage to the Ballets Russes’s most celebrated member. These wonderful illustrations portray him dancing in Scheherazade and Giselle.
The Ballets Russesis remembered for rebelling against centuries of tradition, and bringing Russian art to Europe and America.
This programme includes two ballets, The Rite of Spring and Jeux which marked the foundation of contemporary choreography. Neither were well received at the time but are now seen as significant moments in the history of 20th-century culture. The cover features a beautiful drawing of Ludmila Schollar, Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, a trio who Diaghilev referred to as ‘the fountain’.
The great impresario was one of many Russian artists who found a new home in the West as a result of the Revolution but émigré artists continued to look to their homeland for inspiration. The styles, conventions and literature of their past were transposed onto the page with a new found nostalgia. This edition of Boris Godounov illustrated by Shukhaev is inspired by icon painting traditions of the 16th-17th centuries and beautifully achieved in pochoir.