Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Design for the Costume of Babarikha (the Matchmaker) in Rimsky-Korsakov's Opera 'Tsar Sultan', 1928
Watercolor and bodycolor with silver paint
43.0 x 28.7 cm
WA 1949.330

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was born outside St. Petersburg in 1876. He studied law at the University of St. Petersburg and subsequently was trained as an artist at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, then at Princess Maria Tenisheva’s Art School and finally completed his artstic training at the St. Petersberg Academy of the Arts in 1904.

Bilibin had a strong interest in Old Russia and in the medieval folklore that gave rise to legendary tales. His commitment to the history of Russia and the land did not go unnoticed and he was commissioned by the government Department for the Production of State Documents to illustrate a series of Russian folk documents. This series brought him to the attention of the newly formed World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) group of 1898 with whom he exhibited and would be elected chair in 1916. Bilibin’s ideals were in congruence with those of the other Russian artists of Mir Iskusstva including Léon Baxt, another artist included in the exhibiton.[i] Concious of contemporary Western European art, the group’s founding was launched with both a commitment to the renaissance of Russian art and avoiding foreign art trends while resisting being typed as natonalistic. The artists in the World of Art did not have a stylistic coherence per se, but were unified by their indiviualism and love for the decorative, embracing exoticism and color.[ii] 

Bilibin was deeply embedded in the the ideals of the World of Art, but he found acclaim working as an illustrator, where he could parlay his affinity for Russian folklore into commerical success. Illustrating several books for Russian author Alexander Pushkin, the union would turn into a posthumous long-time partnership for the author and illustrator. In 1904, Bilibin illustrated Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan, a medieval Russian fairytale. The same attention to vivid expanses of color and flat black outline characteristic of the Art Nouveau style he used in book illustrations, he then also devoted to Moscow theater productions of set and costume design.

Following the Revolution in 1917, Bilibin moved to the Crimea and then to Egypt where he could continue his theatrical designs. He was never far from the ideas of the Mir Iskusstva, which strove to synthesize the arts, so that the World of Art artists were as integral to the theater as were the composer, choreographer, and dancers.  In 1925, Bilbin moved to Paris where he could focus exclulsively on set and costume design. In Paris, Bilibin once again illustrated the Tale of Tsar Saltan, this time for Rimsky-Korsakov’s adaptation of the 1929 Opera of the Tale of Tsar Saltan for the Opéra privé de Paris’ at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.[iii]

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin’s 1928 watercolor and body color with silver paint costume design for ‘Babarikha’ the matchmaker from the Tale of Tsar Saltan opera is an exquisite example of the richnness of color and clarity of design he favored from his illustrations. This Barabrikha is a further exloration of the1904 Babarikha from the Pushkin Tale of Tsar Saltan book, but here Bilibin emphasizes the sumptuousnness and velvety richess of fabric he envisions for her costume. Remaining consistent to the Matchmaker’s facial expression in the orignal, this costume study, too, empasizes her distinct upturned bulbous nose and well-fed figure.  

The Tale of Tsar Saltan is one of fantasy, revenge and happiness ever after in a Russian medieval kingdom. Babarikha is the antagonist foil to Price Gvidon, who, upon giving Prince Gvidon false advice, is stung by the prince-turned-bumblebee three times: one on each eye and then on the mouth. Her character is an enigmatic one of simultaneous revulsion and allure and Bilibin has painted her as the overbearing, up-to-no-good, kindom troublemaker she was.  Her wrinkly and toothless frown and lashless small eyes possibly allude to her bee-stung fate.

Interestingly enough, Babarika the matchmaker, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Jon Tenniel’s illustration of the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.[iv] They share a portly body, piggish nose, wrinkled face, wide-hooped dress and falliable character. Barahrika’s heart-bouquet brocaded skirt and her elaborate head dress underscore these associations to the shrill Queen, which are plausible, given the popularity of Alice in Wonderland and Bilibin’s charm for fairytale.

Despite the opacity of her dress and the vividness of color, evidence of the hand of the artist is seen in this costume design both in a study for an alternative headress in the upper right corner, and in the center of the paper, where Bilibin  has inscribed his monogram, the 1928 date, and the title, Babarikha, all in Russian. 

Bilibin never ventured very far from his artistic millieu of folklore and Russian heritage. Following his stint in Paris, he returned home in 1936 to what had become Leningrad and taught at the Academy of the Arts which he had attended over thirty years earlier. Bilibin died in early 1942 during the German blockade of Leningrad.[v] 

[i] John Bowlt. Theater of reason, theater of desire : the art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst. Lugano. Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation. 1998.

[ii] J.E Bowlt. The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the ‘World of Art’ Group. Newtonville. 1979.

[iii] Larissa Salmina-Haskell. Russian Paintings and Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford. Ashmolean Museum. 1989.

[iv] Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland. New York. W. W. Norton. 1971.

[v] Kenneth Archer. The Grove Dictionary of Art Online. (Oxford University Press, Accessed December 12, 2003), <http://www.groveart.com>

Rochelle Behrens

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