Tag Archives: fairy tale

Viktor Vasnetsov: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf

17 Oct

Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf, 1889

A brave Prince and a tired, frightened Princess are riding the grey wolf through the dark and mysterious Slavic woods where the trees grow so close together, their branches entwined, that not even a ray of moonlight can shine through, illuminate the darkness and make the journey less eerie for the Prince and the Princess. Shining yellows eyes are staring at the them from the heights. Strange whispers linger in the air… or is it just the wind, singing its lonesome song. “Worry not, my Princess, the journey won’t be long,” Ivan Tsarevich, the youngest and perhaps the bravest son of the King whispers to the Princess, but she is silent, too afraid to speak, but her attire speaks for itself; her jewellery is jangling, her heavy brocade dress rustling, her long wavy hair flying as if enchanted, for the wolf is riding through the forest with such an unearthly speed that his paws barely touch the leaf-littered and moss coated ground of the dark woods where a weak soul will not wander.

This dark, dreamy and romantic painting is a scene from a Russian fairy tale called “Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf” which was collected by a Russian Slavist and ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in “Russian Fairy Tales” (1855-1863), modeled after Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The fairy tale has a crazy and complicated plot, and, as with many fairy tales, there are different versions of it. The base of the fairy tale is that a King had a garden with a golden apple tree and every night one apple would go missing, and naturally he assumed it was the Firebird who stole them. I would assume the same! Only the Firebird would be wicked enough to do such a thing. The King had three sons; the oldest two tried to stay awake all night and catch the Firebird but fell asleep and failed, and then the third and the youngest son Ivan Tsarevich begged to try and the King finally permitted him. He stayed up all night and saw the bird, even nicked its red feather but failed to catch it.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Again, the two oldest sons ventured out bravely to find the Firebird, but quickly found themselves confused because they came to a stone that gave them three choices; the first path would bring the knight hunger and cold. The second path meant the knight would live, but his horse died. And whoever took the third would die, but his horse would live. They couldn’t decide what to chose, so they gave up and returned to their idle lives. Vasnetsov portrayed this moment in the fairy tales as well, in three versions in fact, and above is the one from 1882, possibly the most beautiful with vibrant colours and a beautifully captured atmosphere. Look how sinister the crossroad is, with the crows and skeletal remains of the previous knight who hath failed in his quest…. Lavender sky in the background is tinged with melancholy and the last rays of sun are casting a warm orange glow on the stone. Ivan Tsarevich took the second road and a wolf ate his horse. This is where the story gets bizarre, and complicated so I won’t go into the details. The wolf takes on the form of a horse, then of a princess… But in the end, Ivan Tsarevich returns to his kingdom with a Firebird and a Princess, but the jealous brothers kills him and slice his body into pieces. Later the Grey Wolf finds him and a water of death restores his body. And on the Wolf, Ivan Tsarevich rides back home and marries Princess Helen at last.

The moment of the fairy tale that Vasnetsov decided to portray, Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess riding the Grey Wolf, is a thrilling one because it is during that strange ride through the dark and mystic woods that Ivan and the Princess fall in love; look how his arms provide a shelter for her, and how her head is almost resting on his chest. Viktor Vasnetsov became famous for his folklore and fairy tale inspired paintings, which went well with the second wave of Romanticism that flooded Europe and inspired artists to find inspiration in folklore and fantasy. This isn’t the only fairy tale scene that Vasnetsov has painted, he painted many in fact, so it’s interesting to know that he began his career as a genre painter and was part of the Russian realist art group called Peredvizhniki, known in English as “The Wanderers” or “The Itinerants” who rebelled against the Academy’s strictness and narrow view of the world. Vasnetsov joined the Peredvizhniki colony while in Paris in 1876, and he became acquainted with Impressionism while there. Leaving the realism behind, Vasnetsov took an interest in painting fantasy and fairy tale motives and began working on the painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” in 1877, while in Paris, before returning to Moscow the same year.

A doll copy of an original art “Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Grey Wolf” by Viktor Vasnetsov

I found a doll version of the painting and I thought it would be interesting to share it too because it is just wonderful! I love all the detailing on the Princess’s dress, her soft hair and tired face. And the Prince, looking in the distance, hoping he will succeed in his quest, slightly worried. They both look charming together on that wolf. But the wolf in the doll version though, he looks dead tired, drunk and worn out, not like the brave, determined and strong wolf in Vasnetsov’s painting. No, this is a Capitalist wolf who works nine to five and is in desperate need of a vacation.

The Princess and the Pea – Illustrations by Felicitas Kuhn

16 Jan

My fondest childhood memories are those tied to fairy tales and my mum reading them to me. Before I could decipher the letters, read the words and know their wondrous meanings, the evening was a magical time of the day when I sat in my mum’s lap and listened to her sweet voice bringing all the fairy tales and different characters to life. While she read, I would gaze at the illustrations mesmerised, soaking in every tiny detail. This is a situation similar to the one Syd Barrett sang about in the Pink Floyd’s song “Matilda Mother”:

“Oh Mother, tell me more
Why’d’ya have to leave me there
Hanging in my infant air
Waiting?
You only have to read the lines
They’re scribbly black and everything shines”

I loved Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty and anything to do with the princesses, but the fairy tale book that lingered in my memory was “The Princess and the Pea” illustrated by Felicitas Kuhn, an Austrian illustrator born on 3rd January 1926. Her illustrations are delightful and easily recognisable for their repetitive features; the characters all have round doll-like faces with rosy cheeks and large wide-set eyes, she uses vibrant colours and flat treatment of the surface with clear outlines, the background is often minimal so that the focus stays on the character. This particular edition of a well known fairy tale was published in 1971, and Kuhn’s illustrations are mostly from the sixties and seventies, although she continued working later on too. The beloved fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” was written by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and originally published in May 1835 in Copenhagen. Andersen’s fairy tale was disliked by the critics at first and deemed as too ‘chatty’ and ‘lacking morals’, and likewise, Kuhn’s illustrations, although popular in many countries, have received criticism as well for being too simple and cheesy.

I highly disagree with the critics! And I am right because I gazed at those illustration with the eyes of a child and adored them, and now that I am older I am able to recall the magic of her art and write about it in a way I couldn’t have before. I think her illustrations are perfect for children and their imagination because they are whimsical, the characters appear idealised and cute and are dressed in clothes that are only partly historically accurate but also very pleasing to look at, the castles look like the place that you would wish to live it, with dozens of pink towers and little windows. She often incorporated delicate flowers as details, and just look at the dreamy soft pink roses that bloom next to Prince’s feet in the second illustration. My favourite illustrations from this book are the one where the princess gets a sponge bath from the maids, the scene where she dines with the prince, the one where she is sitting mournfully on the top of all those mattresses and feather beds, and the last one with their tender close-eyed embrace over the little pea. How rosy are their cheeks and how sweet their smiling faces?

Here is Andersen’s very short fairy tale “The Real Princess” accompanied by Kuhn’s illustrations:

There was once a Prince who wished to marry a Princess; but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady; but there was always something wrong.

Princesses he found in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies. At last he returned to his palace quite cast down, because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife.

One evening a fearful tempest arose, it thundered and lightened, and the rain poured down from the sky in torrents: besides, it was as dark as pitch. All at once there was heard a violent knocking at the door, and the old King, the Prince’s father, went out himself to open it.

It was a Princess who was standing outside the door. What with the rain and the wind, she was in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body. She said she was a real Princess.

“Ah! we shall soon see that!” thought the old Queen-mother; however, she said not a word of what she was going to do; but went quietly into the bedroom, took all the bed-clothes off the bed, and put three little peas on the bedstead. She then laid twenty mattresses one upon another over the three peas, and put twenty feather beds over the mattresses.

 

Upon this bed the Princess was to pass the night.

The next morning she was asked how she had slept. “Oh, very badly indeed!” she replied. “I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue. It has hurt me so much!”

Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the three little peas through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling.

The Prince accordingly made her his wife; being now convinced that he had found a real Princess. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost.

Wasn’t this a lady of real delicacy?”