When the great philosopher king, Frank Farian of Boney M exclaimed, “Oh those Russians!” he was not, as once believed, referring to Rasputin and the court of the Romanov Czar, Nicholas II. Indeed, the source of his exuberance was the Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow, which spawned a number of great Russian artists, in particular Gennady Spirin, to whom this blog is directed.
Life in the Boreal Forest is Spirin’s latest masterpiece, and not only do I share Mr Farian’s love of Russian art, in Spirin’s case I take this infatuation to an even higher degree, and I say, without reservation, ‘I wanna bear his children’, as that other great 20th century exclaimer, Catherine O’Hara of SCTV, once stated (but not in reference to an illustrator.)
Distinctions between ‘illustration’ and ‘art’ are often made arbitrarily and unfairly. When I was in university, the word ‘illustration’ was used pejoratively, as if the skill and talent involved were of a lesser sort than those employed in the pursuit of ‘fine’ art.
Clearly, I was not among ‘my people.’
It is true that most picture book illustration lies squarely within the graphic arts genre, and I say this without judgment and with a great deal of affection. But there are a number of illustrators whose talent is so ‘fine’, their canvases belong in galleries alongside the art and artists we supposedly hold in such high esteem. In fact, I think some, perhaps most of the contemporary art in galleries should be turfed in favour of illustration. However, I have yet to be consulted on this issue.
Life in the Boreal Forest is one of the few non-fiction books that Gennady Spirin has illustrated, favouring instead the fairytales and folklore of Russia and Europe. It’s a pleasant surprise to see his formidable talent trained on the plant and animal life in the boreal regions of the world, which include Russia and Canada. Beavers have never looked so lovely. Or majestic. This Russian makes me proud to be Canadian.
Spirin paints in watercolour, but somehow manages to achieve the density and glow of oil. The birch, poplars, pines and berry-laden shrubbery provide a breathtaking and interactive background for the animal and bird portraiture. Bears, lynx, wolves, moose, and other northern forest dwellers are painted with such magnificence and heft, it’s as if the pages cannot contain them, and indeed, each illustration spans two pages. The painting of the bear eating raspberries is particularly striking, but then so is the hare, and the owl…and…well, everything. This book is a real stunner.
None of the paintings in Life in the Boreal Forest could be considered photorealistic. Rather, they occupy the space between the detail of Realism and weirdness of Symbolism (in particular, Gustave Moreau.) Spirin’s style is instantly recognizable, although the origins of this style perhaps not quite so obvious. Along with Moreau, I see a little Bruegel, especially in his figurative work, but regardless of his inspirations, the work of Gennady Spirin inhabits a fantastical world entirely of his own making.
That his paintings are in service to an idea, an imposed idea, is not a bad thing. They exist on their own as gorgeous works of art, and yet they also enrich and advance the ideas expressed in the book. The very definition of illustration, I’d say.
Life in the Boreal Forest is written by Brenda Guiberson. She does a fine job of relaying information about the boreal forest, including some timely messages about the environment. The boreal forest covers one third of the earth’s forest area, and reaches north across Alaska, Russia, Scandinavia and Canada. Arguably, the boreal forest provides as much oxygen to the planet as the rain forests of South America. Inarguably, it’s beginning to show the same signs of misuse. Sarah Palin may be able to see Russia from her kitchen window, but if she looks closely, she might also see an ecosystem in peril, and um…dinner, if an unfortunate moose happens to wander by. However, Guiberson keeps the mood light, and Life in the Boreal Forest is primarily a celebration. A handy list of government and environmental agencies (and websites) dedicated to the preservation of the boreal forest is included with the book.
Now residing in the US, Gennady Spirin is a highly celebrated and prolific artist, and I will be reviewing several more of his books in subsequent blogs. He does not appear to have a website, but book titles, prints, and examples of his paintings are readily available on the internet. However, by way of recommendation, I am particularly fond of Martha (Philomel, 2005) Gulliver’s Adventures in Lilliput (Philomel, 1993) and Little Mermaids and Ugly Ducklings (Chronicle Books, 2001)
Life in the Boreal Forest by Brenda Guiberson, illustrations by Gennady Spirin, published by Groundwood Books, 2009 ISBN: 978-0888999566
Can’t get enough boreal frogs? Frog Song by Brenda Guiberson, illustrations by Gennady Spirin, 2013