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)