The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Bilibin and Rimsky

Just for Doda, a little more Ivan Bilibin. Undoubtedly one of the great illustrators, he also found fame as a designer of sets and costumes, especially for operas. Russian operas are so often developed from folk and fairy tales, or at least thoroughly Russian subjects, and so this was an deal niche for him to explore. Of all Russian composers it was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who proved his perfect inspiration. Here a vintage Leningrad-published book all about the Kirov opera and ballet (now renamed the Mariinsky of St Petersburg)has some fascinating evidence of Bilibin's work in practise. The end papers are in fact based on Alexander Golovine's famous curtain at the exquisite theatre (Golovine preceeded Bilibin as set designer, collaborating with Korovin and Bakst). But the black and white photographs, poor though they are, show early productions of two Rimsky-Korsakov operas that Bilibin cast his spell over: Rimsky's masterpiece, Kitezh (my favourite opera)and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (see my earlier post on Bilibin). Just click to enlarge.

Even in these murky photos his brilliant ability to use space, his decorative obsessions, the order and structure of folk art and icons, all show through. If only I had a time machine...

The other little book is a real curio, a lovely biography of Rimsky-Korsakov, a misunderstood and much maligned composer of operatic fairy tales. I believe he is an under-rated genius, who isn't fashionably tormented like his colleagues Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but instead expressed himself quite differently, introsopectively and with splendid dignity. A devoted family man his tragedy was more private. He lost two beloved children in infancy and can it be entirely a coincedental that this most pantheistic of composers favoured stories of snowmaidens and water sprites who can never grow up and find love? Instead they perish, melt, become rivers or - at best (like the heroine Fevronya in Kitezh) - meet their lovers in the afterlife.

All of this inspired the greatest things from Bilibin, so it is quite appropriate that the little glued plate on the cover of the biography should be one of his drawings: a costume for a boyar from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.


  1. OOOOH ! Fabulous. Thanks so much James!

  2. You're welcome Doda. And there will be more in time, when I organise myself!!!

  3. Wow, how lovely.

    Your love of opera, as well as illustration/folk tales/books is evident and conveyed with much sensitivity.

  4. Ah! thanks Rachel. Well, it's a mission of mine, to open eyes and ears to the glories of our cultural heritage...