December 13, 2019

Big Bold Cats by Artzybasheff

      Boris Artzybasheff (Russia/USA, 1899-1965) was an illustrator and graphic designer, and I recently came across a couple of books which he illustrated with wood engravings.  Today I have for you some of his depictions of Aesop’s fables, and more specifically, the ones I’ve chosen all happen to depict big cats.  Although wood engravings are usually used for more highly detailed images with fine texture everywhere, Artzybasheff’s are very bold, with lots of solid black and white.  However, you can see very fine cross-hatching in some places, such as this tiger’s face, and lots of quite thin lines.
        You can see that Artzybasheff gives his pictures lots of movement.  He uses boldly curving shapes, emanating lines of light, and dramatic angles to give this sense of animation.  Each of these pieces has a strong diagonal.  This double piece is especially clever for another reason, as well.  It’s actually the same block printed in two different orientations, so that either cat can be on top in the battle.  They make a sort of
yin-yang, although one in which the balance is violent rather than peaceful.  (For some time I have been mulling a piece that could be viewed in either direction, but I can’t figure out how that plays out in something framed and hung on the wall.  It’s easier to show both perspectives at once, as Artzybasheff has done on the page in this book.)
        Another common factor among all these pieces is the way Artzybasheff captures emotional attitudes, from the ferocity of the first tiger to this leopard’s wonderful arrogance, to the quizzical expression of the lion below.  The facial expressions are certainly a large part of it, with their various eyebrows and mouths, but Artzybasheff also makes masterful use of those same techniques of dynamic postures and lines of light and dark to emphasize the emotion.  The leopard’s attitude couldn’t be clearer - but the fox is quite mysterious.  What is he thinking, with his mask-like face and statue-like posture?
        Note, too, how Artzybasheff uses the background foliage to highlight and emphasize the movement of his main characters.  Leaves flicker behind the fierce tiger like black flame or smoke; they bow down below the regal leopard and form a canopy above his head.  Behind the lion and mouse, they offer wonderful texture and visual interest, and I love their whimsical shape and bark pattern - but I think it’s
not too much of a stretch to say that they are in keeping with the ambiguity of the lion’s response to the mouse.  What will happen next?

[Pictures: The Tiger and the Bulls, wood engraving by Boris Artzybasheff;
The Lion, the Tiger, and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Leopard and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Lion and the Mouse, wood engraving by Artzybasheff, all from Aesop’s Fables by Artzybasheff, 1933).]

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