118. Tsar Dadon meets the Shemakha Queen

Ivan Bilibin (1876–1942)
An illustration for Pushkin’s ‘The Tale of the Golden Cockerel’
Signed and dated lower-left, numbered 21 on verso
1906
Size: 23.3 × 30.2 cm
Watercolour, ink and gilding on paper

Having been brought up on Russian fairy tales, I can now see that my entire vision of life has been coloured by the extraordinary visual universe created by Bilibin to represent the magic of folklore and fairy tales. The Russian tradition in this area is so rich, so vibrant, that as a child you tend to see your situation as a sort of waiting-room until, like Ivan Tsarevich, you can get on your white horse and set off to do great things.

Trained by Ilya Repin, and later influenced by Japanese prints, Bilibin translated his fascination with Russian folklore into unforgettable images. His fame as an illustrator was already established by 1899, when he released his first collection of illustrations of Russian fairy tales. He drew revolutionary cartoons during the Revolution of 1905, and designed the sets for Rimsky-Korsakov’s first production of ‘The Golden Cockerel’.

He lived through turbulent times. Unhappy with the October Revolution, he left Russia, and after brief sojourns in Cairo and Alexandria settled in Paris in 1925. Like all Russians he was uncomfortable away from his homeland, and returned in 1936. He died during the siege of Leningrad and was buried in a collective grave. Nevertheless, for anyone who has fallen under the spell of his images, he has never died.

Pushkin wrote the tale in 1834, his last fairy tale in verse. It is based on a short story in Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, entitled ‘Legend of the Arabian Astrologer’. The final two verses – ‘Tale of sense, if not of truth!/Food for thought to honest youth’ – reveal the values Pushkin attributed to fairy tales.

Exhibited: Ivan Bilibine Exposition, Alexandria, December 1924, illustrated no. 21 in the catalogue.