My Illustration Heroes. Part Two: Alexeieff

Above: Alexander Alexeieff illustration from Danilo the Luckless in Russian Fairy Tales

Alexander Alexeieff, as with Viera Bombová in my last Illustration Heroes post, is present on my list for a single book: Russian Fairy Tales, published in 1945 by Routledge. There are other books he illustrated, some of which I would give much to own. (I particularly love his illustrations for The Fall of the House of Usher.)

Above: from Two Ivans, Soldier’s Sons in Russian Fairy Tales

But it is the Fairy Tales that I have a copy of, a book that gives me endless pleasure and is the reason for the artist being on my ‘list’! Despite my esteem for him, I suspect that to most Artlog readers Alexeieff’s name and work will be unfamiliar, and so I’m dedicating this post exclusively to him.

Above: from Go I know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What in Russian Fairy Tales

My research yields no other book from the artist that uses the ‘style’ he adopted for the Russian Fairy Tales. While the images have a folk-art quality, and clearly draw on Russian visual traditions of illustration and toy-making, they also take a wonky spin through what feels like Surrealism, and with maybe even a nod to the Bauhaus.

Above: from The Cat, the Cock and the Fox in Russian Fairy Tales

Unique both to the artist and to the art of illustration, I wish only that Alexeieff had made more images like these, and more books to sit alongside the Fairy Tales. I want more of this sublime invention, because in it he created a complete and compelling world, a coherent universe that’s consistent throughout the book’s pages.

Above: from The Maiden Tsar in Russian Fairy Tales

It seethes with pattern-making. The cat in The Maiden Tsar, is marked with glowing yellow ellipses that mirror the rug on which it sits, as though the pattern has been absorbed into its fur. A cat/chameleon hybrid, contentedly cat-napping.

Above: from Ilya Muromets and the Dragon in Russian Fairy Tales

For the reader it’s rather like boarding a train, passing through a tunnel and arriving in a fully-realised and alternative country. Moreover it’s one I’d happily stay in. The limited colour of the illustrations is one of the books strengths, and the vibrancy of pink, blue and primrose against the paper, makes it glitter like sunlight through a prism.

Above: from Koshchey the Deathless in Russian Fairy Tales

By comparison to these scintillating images, the artist’s ‘drawn’ illustrations for Gogol seem restrained and wan. But in the Russian Fairy Tales he really lets rip, giving free-rein to his inspired interpretation of Russian folk-art, and we can ride his coat-tails through a kingdom of delights.

In some respects it’s for the pioneering animation technique of ‘pin-screen’ that the artist, and his creative collaborator Claire Parker are most celebrated. Pin-screen works on the same principle as replacement cel animation, except that instead of drawings on transparent film, steel pins are employed, stuck into a board and then raised or lowered to make images in large part conjured from their shadows. Each frame of film requires an adjustment of the pins. The screen constructed to make Alexeieff’s and Parker’s pioneering animated film, Night on the Bare Mountain, contained one million pins.

Still from the 1933 pin-screen animated film, Nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on the Bald Mountain) set to the music of Mussorgsky.

It sounds bonkers and must be agonisingly slow to accomplish. But the results are ravishingly atmospheric like no other animation technique I’ve seen, and it comes as no surprise that stills from Alexeieff’s and Parker’s films bear a striking resemblance to the aquatints Alexeieff produced both as stand-alone etchings, and as illustrations. However, the artist was forced to abandon etching when vapours from the nitric acid used to make them destroyed one of his lungs. After two years spent recovering in a sanatorium, Alexeieff turned instead to the medium of animation, the art that preoccupied him for the rest of his life.

Alexeieff Illustration for Les Nuits de Siberie

Here are some of Alexeieff’s aquatint illustrations for Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Beautiful work!

Part Three of Illustration Heroes coming soon.