The story of Ivan Bilibin
How a partition cupboard got the world fascinated by the Russian fairy tales

1899. Young artist Ivan Bilibin is having a creative crisis.

A graduate of Faculty of Law, he did a course in arts in Munich and has for several years now been pursuing his creative passion under the guidance of Ilya Repin. His great teacher praises him for his talent and beautifully painted landscapes and genre scenes, but Bilibin is dissatisfied with how he paints…

His soul strives for something he doesn't know what.

Ivan Bilibin
One day Bilibin visits exhibition of Vasnetsov paintings. The moment he sets his eyes on The Warriors, he knows this is it, his vocation. This is what he wants to paint!
Bilibin gets down to making illustrations to two Russian fairy tales. He shows them to the State Printing Office and is placed the order to paint more for the upcoming volume of the Russian fairy tales. He is given four years for this work. Bilibin is excited. Here it is, his chance to make something big. He's got to show Russia and all nations the world of Russian folk tales! But, he needs some inspiration.
He sets out on a journey and spends 1902-1904 travelling around Northern Russia, exploring its wealth of heritage he finds in every village. Bilibin paints and takes photos of the local churches and chapels. He is amazed at their beauty but his greatest discovery – the northern rural hut – is ahead.

Once in Kenozero, he is invited into a house with something inside that leaves him speechless. What he sees is a big cupboard covered with beautiful paintings that serves as a space partition. The owner's wife, Yevdokia, opens the swing doors in its top section and Bilibin notices elegant dishware on its shelves. And then he is shown the secret side of the cupboard – the backside. It faces prilub, i.e. space for cooking and utensil storage. There are shelves on the backside, too, with normal tableware and household utensils. This cupboard is called zaborka and its main function is that of a space partition. What a smart invention!

Bilibin wants to see more. He spends his days calling at the houses of farmers, priests, tradesmen and merchants. Partition cupboards can be found in almost every hut in Minina, Fedosova, Spitsyna, Pershlakhta and Kositsyna!

"Who did you copy this style from?" he asks the local artisans.

And so, Bilibin learns that the style is old, that its elements were adopted from many different artisans in Kenozero and the Old Believers of Vyg, and that there was a road once that connected the area with the monastery and the old believers' realms in Chazhenga. Among them were many icon painters and floral artists, who were connoisseurs of Russian floral ornaments and painting patterns. It could be them who introduced the local artists to those lions, unicorns, paradise fruit and vases as themes for the partition cupboards. But it would be wrong to say the local artists copied them. What they did was transformation to create their own style known as Olonets painting. That was how those peculiar, quaint looking flowers and beasts penetrated rural huts and stables. As time went on, they ceased to look like beasts and began to look more like the domestic animals that lived on northern farmsteads. Some of the paintings on the partition cupboards were made by travelling artists from Kostroma.

... The years 1902, 1903 and 1904 see Bilibin's illustrations published by his commissioners in St. Petersburg, described by critics as adorable: novelty abounds in Bilibin's style. The volumes of the Russian folk tales, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, gain wide readership first among the educated people in Russia and then in many countries across the world. The impressive ornaments on terems (tower houses) by Bilibin are identical to those appearing in Kenozero huts and their partition cupboards.

The 20th century marked out a sterner destiny for the Russian folk paintings. Many were destroyed or painted over. Those that have survived are now exhibits in Kenozero National Park's museum Lukovo Podvorye – a collection of the painted furniture, the living legacy of Russian fairy tales, the carriers of the traditions introduced by icon painters of the Vyg, talented artisans of Kenozero, and great artist Ivan Bilibin.