reasons to love russian book illustration: alexander alexeieff

This copy of Russian Fairy Tales with extraordinary illustrations by Alexandre Alexeieff (Александр Александрович) is a much loved and well-thumbed treasure from my bookshelves.

The book’s slipcase.

Alexeieff  was a stage designer as well as an illustrator, and perhaps this accounts for the creation in the Fairy Tales of a plausibly complete world with it’s own unique visual style. I can’t recall any other illustrations quite like these. I particularly like the half page images and vignettes, of which there are many. What’s so impressive about his approach is that it’s imaginative and yet leaves ample room  for the imagination of the reader, a crucial aspect I think of the best illustrated books. Some of the figures look as though they may have been influenced by the folk tradition of Russian toys, a notion not so far from my own process of creativity.

Alexeieff became a pioneer in the field of animatied film when in 1931, with his second wife Claire Parker, he developed the ‘pin-screen’, a technique by which thousands of adjustable pins in a panel are lit with raking light, and images are conjured by the shadows resulting from manipulating them to different heights. (The couple’s invention was the precursor of the toy pin-screens available in novelty shops, into which you can press your hand so that the shape of it appears sculpted by pin heads on the reverse.) Parker and Alexeieff’s pin-screen wrought effects of ravishingly atmospheric beauty, conjured out of light and shadow alone. Their calling card showcasing the technique was  the 1931 animated film  Night on the Bald Mountain set to the music of Mussorgsky.

You can view part of Parker and Alexeieff’s pin-screen animated version of Gogol’s The Nose HERE. Do bear in mind that everything you see is painstakingly made from the shadows of thousands of pins!

Alexander Alexeieff (1901 – 1982) Claire Parker (1910 – 1981)

12 thoughts on “reasons to love russian book illustration: alexander alexeieff

  1. Pingback: My Illustration Heroes. Part Two: Alexeieff, | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. I used to have some wooden Russian toys, and some of these very much remind me of them–stylized in a similar way. You certainly move back and forth between landscape and faux landscape, often involving toys, with great fluency, so I can see why you love these. Nick’s comments sounds right too… those crisp gingerbread-house molds…

    Wonderful post, Clive! I shall have to hop over and see “The Nose.” Enticing.

  3. In my opinion this is one of your best artlogs yet, and that’s saying something! This guy’s work is so multi-layered you could spend a lifetime on it. I only hope he was paid a decent amount for his efforts. Thanks, Clive, another stunner. Love, Flo x

    • I think that he was highly regarded in all his fields of endeavour. His animation work is venerated by those who know about such things. He didn’t cultivate the mainstream, knew what he wanted to create, went for it.

  4. There really is something about Russian illustrations, I have a few in my own collection, they are enchanting. I am delighted you share your collection with us.
    It is clear they have proven an inspiration to you but your own work is quite singular and distinct.
    As always,

    • Quite right Nick, gingerbread moulds. Well spotted. I like too the strangeness of the images. I can sense his animator’s creativity. His figures could spring to life in an instant, the little folk-art horses cantering off with a rocking-horse gait. Delightful.

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