A Russian Alphabet Book

I thought the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics was absolutely captivating last Friday: it’s always interesting to see how a country and a people perceive themselves in terms of their history, although this particular presentation was probably more official than popular. There was certainly a strong imperial focus, I thought, and a bit less emphasis on the 20th century–except for the big red train! There was a lot of effort and energy out there but actually my favorite part of the whole presentation was the very beginning: the introductory video that prepared us for the live whimsy to follow as well as the Cyrillic alphabet. This impressed me both in terms of pedagogy and aesthetics, and of course if you paid attention you were prepared for the out-of-(western) order parade of nations that followed. I quickly learned that the images in the video were based on the Alphabet in Pictures book of Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), a Russian artist, set and costume designer (most famously for the Ballets Russes), historic preservationist, and art historian who was the Curator of Painting at the Hermitage Museum from 1918 to 1925, after which he left Russia: the Stalinist era clearly didn’t suit this Renaissance man, who perhaps inspired the Sochi spectacular in more ways than one (and he was the great-uncle of actor Peter Ustinov)!

Benois’ ABC book was published in a lavish 1904 edition by a Russian art publisher; it encompasses 35 chromolithographic plates illustrating each letter with scenes and figures from traditional folkloric, religious, and historical sources. Each page is a whimsical work of art and you can see all the images here and here; I’m glad that it has been digitized but would really like to spend some time with a real volume. It’s highly collectible (the last copy I could find at auction went for nearly $10,000), and I bet that it’s appearance at Sochi will drive its price up even higher. Much more accessible is Benois’ Russian School of Painting (1916), with its sad (in retrospect–knowing what would soon be his fate) portrait of Tsar Nicholas II on the frontispiece and entire chapter devoted to history and folklore.

ABC Cover 2


ABC 3p

Abc Lastp

Digitized pages from Alexandre Benois’ Alphabet in Pictures, St. Petersburg: Expedition of State Papers, 1904.

The Alphabet book made me curious to see more of Benois’s work, and there is a lifetime of it! Watercolors, set designs, costumes, magazine illustrations. Apparently there was an 2006 exhibition at the Boston Public Library, which holds some of his papers, but he was not on my radar screen at that time. The paintings and sketches for sets and costumes evoke some of what we saw the other night, but the BIG HEADS must have come from somewhere else: Pushkin, perhaps?


ABC Nutcracker 1938

Pushkin 2

Alexandre Benois, Parade under Paul I, 1907, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Nutcracker Costume for La Scala, 1938, Victoria & Albert Museum; Illustration in Pushkin’s Lyudmila and Ruslan by Nikolai Kochergin (1897-1974).

5 responses to “A Russian Alphabet Book

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Very interesting. I haven’t watched much of the Olympics, but I’m intrigued with Benois’ images. Russia – its art, history, politics, etc., – has always fascinated me. As Churchill once said, its actions were “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and I’d say that still holds true today.

  • daseger

    As someone who was trained in the history of western Europe, I always thought Russia was the exotic other–very eastern.

  • markd60

    I picture you up there, writing this post on a cold cold day, and I think you are happy.
    Very interesting post, I like the last two pictures best.

  • JA

    Nice to see his work online, his art is amazing. In fact I saw this book recently when we visited a relative (my wife is a great grand daughter of Alexandre). I was most intrigued by the drawings themselves, but only recently began to understand some of the historical context behind them. He also co-authored Ravel’s Boléro, in addition to having done the stage designs. We (the family I should say) only recently discovered this. He was a true genius, I like to see his work appreciated!

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