Ivan Bilibin’s Magical Fairy-tale World

BilibinRenowned artist Ivan Bilibin lived in a magical world of fairy tales, filled with Slavic mythological creatures.

The scary face of his old “babushka – witch” in the middle of the dark woods flying in wooden vessel always scared me when I was a child. Vassilisa the Beautiful was one of my favorite fairytales. The book had colorful illustrations. Each of them was unique, and every time I read one I discovered more and more fascinating details and something extraordinary. Even though they come from the same artist, there’s something distinctive in them that will make anyone think that they may have been illustrated by different artists.

Every child in Eastern Europe and Russia has seen these illustrations of Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), but many probably don’t know his name or his bio. If you grew up in Bulgaria and your parents read you fairytales, then Bilibin’s extraordinary illustrations of Baba Yaga, the Firebird, and Ivanushka are probably imprinted in your mind forever.

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Even today, I’m still captivated by the colors, especially the blue is one I’ll always associate with these Russian illustrations. The control of line and form, and supporting border art makes for wonderful full page art. I feel very fortunate in having a set of his illustrated books, post cards printed in Moscow.

Firebird and the Grey WolfI’d like to share some information about him that you might not know.

The artist was born in 1876 in the suburb of St. Petersburg as the son of a military doctor. After graduating in May 1900, he went to study in Munich, where he was trained by a few masters in Russian art. In 1899 he received a commission for designing a magazine for the Russian ‘World of Art’ artists’ association and soon became an active member.

Bilibin discovered his signature style while sojourning in the village of Yogna (400 kilometers from Moscow). There he a series of illustrations for Russian folk fairytales – Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf, which later defined his artistic style forever.

In 1899 he released his illustrations of the Russian fairy tales The Tale of Ivan the Tsar’s Son, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf, Vassilisa the Beautiful, and The Frog Princess. This gained him popularity. But his talent was in high demand beyond the publishing world. He was active in stage design for operas and ballets all over the world. In his career he also painted stage sets, for example for Ruslan and Ludmila or Nikolai Rimsky-Korkasovs The Golden Cockerel.

His life was fraught with challenges and after the October Revolution in 1917, Bilibin left Russia for a while. He moved to Egypt, where he earned his living by making frescos to decorate the homes of wealthy people, and he also studied ancient Egyptian art. The illustrations below demonstrate the influence of this period in his work.

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Finally in 1936, he returned to his home country, where he worked on illustrations for Tolstoy and mythology and history books. He died during the German Siege of Leningrad in 1942, starving within the city when he refused to leave.  

Today, Bilibin is mostly remembered as an illustrator of fairytales, but the artist created sketches for novels, too. Bilibin’s sketch of Peter the Great is for Alexei Tolstoy’s novel by the same name.

peter the great

Bilibin’s vivid imagination and talent are still inspiring artists and writers today.

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I’ve used some of his designs and images in the Spirits & Creatures books and also in my Redbubble shop where you can find a variety of unique designs for T-shirts, stickers, and more inspired by his art and mythology and fairytales. It’s a place where you can rediscover the magic of his art and Slavic and Eastern European mythology, get a gift or something to treat yourself.

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Source of Information: https://www.veranijveld.com/authors–illustrators/ivan-bilibin

Baba Yaga, Demon or Goddess?

In Bulgaria, March is a time for supernatural creatures to return to the human world from their winter residence in Dragon Village (Zmeykovo). Baba Yaga is one of the most well-known of these figures in Slavic folklore. “Baba” is a word that means “old woman” or “grandmother,” while “Yaga” comes from a word that possibly means “ill-tempered” or “quarrelsome,” as well as being derived from numerous other words, such as “illness,” “horror,” and “torment,” to name a few.

And she was indeed an ill-tempered old woman, and ugly, ugly, ugly. She has a crooked nose and iron teeth. The witch is skinny, with bones poking out.

If you haven’t heard about her, she’s a witch with a proclivity for eating children who wander onto her property. She lived in a hut that stands stilt-like on one or two chicken feet, and a fence of the bones of her victims surrounds her property. The witch doesn’t fly on a broom. Instead, you’ll see her in her mortar, using a pestle to guide her through the air.

Her hut, too, is a wonder to behold. It hops about, spinning, screeching, and moaning. When Baba Yaga wants it to stand still, she recites a special incantation.

Baba Yaga and Chicken Hut

While doing research on dragons, I discovered Baba Yaga has been compared to Hala, called a storm demon in some locations. Wherever she travels, she stirs up the wind.

But, Baba Yaga was also once a goddess of birth and death, the guardian of the fountains of life and death. Like nature, she is wild and untamable. She is the image of the matron of the family, one who no longer has to care for her own children. These women were knowledgeable in folk healing, and were thought to possess the power of life and death.

Baba Yaga can determine a person’s fate and represents the darker side of this wisdom. If her guest performs special tasks, without complaining, the witch will give the person magical gifts to help them as they tackle other adventures. If they complain, or ask too many questions, their fate is to end up in the witch’s oven. Even though she is known for her wisdom, she ages one year for each question she’s asked, so, yes, that can certainly put a damper on her willingness to help.

As time went on, she eventually became the hideous creature whose main desire was to devour children, rather than help bring them into this world.

Baba Yaga is one of our favorite characters in our Dragon Village middle-grade fantasy series. We’ve also collected so much more information about this fascinating personality that we’ll share in a future book about Folklore Witches in our Spirits & Creatures series. For now, though, we’ll leave you with some artists renditions of this famous witch: https://www.picuki.com/profile/bulgarianfolktales.