Russia Literature Fairytales Fairytales in Russian Literature

Fairytales in Russian Literature

Many Russian and foreign writers have created fairytales, fantastic stories and legends in verse. Some writers devoted their entire oeuvres to fairytales. For others, they are nothing more than a fleeting episode in their careers. On some occasions, the fairytale text has guaranteed the writer’s place in history.

Although each work of fairytale literature is based on a folklore source, the degree of its transformation by the writer is always inherently individual. The fairytale sometimes serves merely as a vehicle for the author’s fantasy, distancing the heroes of the text from their prototypes. Fairytale literature is, nevertheless, governed by the same laws as folk tales. Good always triumphs over the forces of evil.

Russian writers were first drawn to folklore during the Romantic period. Romantic writers created their own fairytales and collected and published traditional legends. The most famous collections of folk tales were written in Germany by the Brothers Grimm.

One of the first Russian writers to address the fairytale genre was Vasily Zhukovsky. Alexander Pushkin started writing fairytales in the 1810s. The story of The Little Humpbacked Horse immortalised the name of Pyotr Yershov in Russian literature. The fairytales composed by Russian writers in the nineteenth century were generally intended for adult readers. Only later were they gradually written for children. In the twentieth century, fairytales were, for the first time, composed specially for children.

Alexei Afanasiev’s illustrations to Pyotr Yershov’s The Little Humpbacked Horse were exhibited at the editorial office of Chout magazine in 1899. Many of the drawings had been published in Chout throughout 1897 and 1898. Richart’s publishing house brought out three sets of postcards with reproductions of Afanasiev’s works. Although The Little Humpbacked Horse has been constantly reprinted in Russia and Alexei Afanasiev’s drawings have been unanimously voted the most outstanding illustrations, they have never been published in Russia in their entirety. The artist also illustrated Alexander Pushkin’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan and The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish.

Sergei Malyutin illustrated Alexander Pushkin’s poem Ruslan and Lyudmila in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He also illustrated most of the writer’s fairytales published by Anatoly Mamontov in celebration of the poet’s centenary in 1899. His series of works for The Tale of Tsar Saltan constitute a single entity of text and image, anticipating the later quests of the World of Art in book design. Sergei Malyutin illustrated Pushkin’s fairytales almost a decade later, creating new and original versions of his paintings.

Elena Polenova first illustrated Russian folk tales in the mid-1880s. The artist was not just well acquainted with traditional Russian fairytales; she herself collected toys and works of folklore. Her illustrations of the 1890s are based on the numerous sketches that she made during a trip to Kostroma Province. Polenova believed that children’s books should convey the poetry and aroma of Old Russia.

A student of Ivan Bilibin and one of the leading illustrators of the World of Art, Georgy Narbut enjoyed a series of successful collaborations with Joseph Knebel’s publishing house. Narbut created an entire cycle of children’s books with various styles of illustrations. His art reflects his interest in traditional folk toys and the influence of Japanese engravings. The order of work on such books was often unusual. In the case of Toys, for example, the illustrations were created before the text. Narbut believed that every little detail merited attention in a book. Like Alexander Benois, he regarded the book as a work of art. Narbut illustrated almost half the books shown by Joseph Knebel at the Weltausstellung für das gesamte Buchgewerbe und die graphischen Künste in Leipzig in 1914.

The art of Ivan Bilibin represents one of the most exciting chapters in the history of Russian books. Bilibin illustrated bylinas, traditional folk legends and the fairytales of Alexander Pushkin. His illustrations to Pushkin’s fairytales are now classics of Russian art. Bilibin united the traditions of folk prints and the principles of professional art, employing his knowledge of Old Russian art and the old way of life, acquired on his travels across northern Russia. The bright and rich tones of his drawings were highly rated by contemporaries, while the books that he illustrated were continuously reprinted in the proceeding decades.

Serge Tchekhonine belonged to the younger generation of the World of Art, those who joined the society in the 1910s and devoted a major part of their oeuvres to illustrating books. Serge Tchekhonine’s drawings for Elizaveta Polonskaya’s Guests and Kornei Chukovsky’s The Giant Roach and The Fifty Piglets in the 1920s contradict the artistic principles established by the masters of the World of Art. The elegant and refined heroes of his former works give way to caricatured and sometimes downright aggressive characters. Serge Tchekhonine still manages, however, to successfully resolve his main task of creating an independent book ensemble.

Although Marc Chagall worked much in the field of book art, he rarely illustrated fairytales. The nature of the artist’s talent would seem to be ideally suited to fairytale literature. In 1914 and 1915, Chagall illustrated the traditional Jewish fairytale The Tale of the Cockerel, The Little Goat and The Mouse, published in Vilna in 1917. The master’s laconic and expressive drawings are the perfect accompaniment to Der Nistor’s poetic text.

El Lissitzky worked episodically in the fairytale genre. Among his early works are a series of coloured lithographs for Chad Gadya. Nikolai Khardzhiev notes that “the artist subjected the stylistic elements of folk art to a modernist interpretation.” Lissitzky introduced the text into the space of the page as one of the elements of the artistic design.

Vladimir Lebedev created his first designs for children’s books in the early 1920s. In such works as The Adventures of Chuch-Lo, The Golden Egg and The Hare, The Cockerel and The Fox, Lebedev is both the designer and the author of the text. The artist rejected the principles of book design practised by the World of Art, proposing a new and unusual approach to book illustration. From 1925 onwards, he successfully collaborated with the poet Samuel Marshak. Marshak often wrote his texts in the knowledge that they would be illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev. The artist always attempted to make his works interesting and informative for his young readers.

A leading master of Soviet children’s books, Yury Vasnetsov illustrated his first works in the 1930s – Pyotr Yershov’s The Little Humpbacked Horse, Kornei Chukovsky’s The Tangle, Samuel Marshak’s Teremok and Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak’s Tales for Alyonushka. Vasnetsov later illustrated other fairytales by Kornei Chukovsky and created new versions of his earlier drawings. The artist remained faithful to the fairytale theme throughout his career, illustrating books and creating coloured engravings on the theme of Russian folk tales. Vasnetsov himself confessed that his fairytale heroes were born from his vivid childhood memories of works of folk art in the old Russian town of Vyatka, where the artist was born and grew up.

Vladimir Konashevich first illustrated children’s books in the late 1910s. Although his first experiences reflect the clear influence of the works of Serge Tchekhonine and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, the artist soon acquired his own personal style. Konashevich’s illustrations are noted for their delicate and expressive drawing and close adherence to the text. The artist lightly follows the author into the subject. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he particularly enjoyed illustrating the fairytales of Kornei Chukovsky and the poems of Samuel Marshak. Vladimir Konashevich believed that “the artist must make his way to the truth of the fairytale, to its genuine reality. Depicting the fantastic membrane of the fairytale, he must always bear in mind the real truth of the fairytale, leading the reader into it in much the same way as the fairytale does.”

Two similar themes stand out in the oeuvre of Tatyana Mavrina – Russian folk tales and Old Russian architecture. The whimsical architecture of the fairytales not only illustrated, but often also narrated by the artist, are the fruit of her journeys through old Russian towns. Her fairytale heroes seem to have jumped straight onto the pages of her books from gingerbread boards and the brightly decorated peasant utensils. These artistic principles lie at the heart of all the artist’s illustrations – and not just her representations of folk tales. Tatyana Mavrina was also inspired by the bright and festive tones of Russian folk art in her illustrations to the fairytales of Alexander Pushkin.

Yevgeny Charushin wrote the captions under drawings for children in the late 1920s. He then began to write and illustrate his own short stories about animals. The artist’s works combine his literary talent and natural gift as an animalist artist. Uniting truth and invention, the main heroes of his stories are animals and birds. Charushin’s knowledge of the habits and behaviour of fauna can be clearly seen in the outer appearances of his fairytale characters. In the 1940s and 1950s, he developed the fairytale theme in lithography.

Random articles