BORIS ARTZYBASHEFF (1899-1965) was a renowned illustrator, portraitist, poster-designer, and author of Russian/Ukrainian origin whose art is highly-regarded for its unique and innovative depiction of the power of the “machine age,” and for its ability to range from richly detailed and crisp realism to imaginatively conceived surrealism. Considered a superb draftsman and master of composition and design, his work has been favorably compared to that of Salvador Dali, Al Hirschfeld, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton.
Artzybasheff was born in Kharkov, Ukraine on May 25, 1899, the son of the famous Russian writer, Mikhail Artsybashev, who told him shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, “Get out of Russia, don’t sponge on my reputation, and change your name.” As stated in a letter written in 1959, the earliest influences on his art were Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the elder, and the Russian icons and miniatures which he saw at about the age of 12. The precise attention to detail which is the hallmark of all these sources can be readily detected in Artzybasheff’s mature work. He received his early formal art training at the prestigious Prince Tenishev School in St. Petersburg, where he studied for nine years. During this time he trained himself to imitate the works of Aubrey Beardsley, the illustrator of Yellow Book magazine.
Artzybasheff was studying law at the University of Kiev when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. He was drafted into the German-sponsored Ukrainian Army and forced to fight for a separatist Ukrainian Republic. When this army was defeated by the Communists, he deserted, and attempted to reach South Russia to join Czarist forces, but was captured by the Communists and sentenced to death by firing squad. Escaping, he joined the navy on a freighter bound for Ceylon, intending to jump ship at Vladivostok to rejoin the anti-Communist forces. His first chance to leave the ship, however, was in New York, where he decided to stay for a year until the conflict in his native land was over. In an autobiographical article entitled “The Purgatory,”, he wistfully recalled, “A year hence, when the Communists would be eradicated and Russia returned to normalcy, I would return and resume the life of culture, the United States having little to offer in the way of arts and music.” After an initial detention at Ellis Island, he entered Manhattan in the winter of 1920 with 14 cents in Turkish currency in his pocket. His earliest employment was cutting paper labels in a printing shop, where he was eventually promoted to designing beer and medicine bottles, but soon established a reputation for creative design, and was able to freelance his talents to the Russian Inn, where he executed a series of murals depicting Russian mythological subjects. The murals were a popular success, and received good critical notice from Guy Pene du Bois in the December, 1922 edition of International Studio magazine. This led to commissions as a stage-designer for the Ziegfeld Theatre and for Michael Fokine’s Russian Ballet. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1926 and married Elizabeth Snyder in 1930.
Artzybasheff’s career as a book illustrator was initiated in 1922 with the publication of Verotchka’s Tales, by Dimitri Mamin-Sibiriak, and The Undertaker’s Garland, by John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson. Other books he illustrated include Feats on the Fiord (1924), The Wonder Smith and his Son (1927), Creatures (by Padraic Colum, 1927), Three and the Moon (1929), Orpheus, Myths of the World(by Padraic Colum, 1930), Behind Moroccan Walls (1931), Mizra, Son of the Sword (1931), The Circus of Dr. Lao (by Charles G. Finney, a 1935 National Book Award winner), and Nansen (1940). He was also called upon to illustrate (or design the dust-jackets) of books by such notable authors as Raymond Chandler, Tagore, and Balzac, as well as editing and illustrating an edition of Aesop’s Fables. In 1928 Artzybasheff illustrated Gay-Neck, by Dhan Mukerji, which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s prestigious John Newbery Award, presented annually to the book adjudged to be the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature published the previous year. (The Wonder Smith and his Son and Nansen were runners-up for this award). Gay-Neck was also the recipient of an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (A.I.G.A.). Artzybasheff wrote his first book, Poor Shaydullah, in 1931, and in 1937 published Seven Simeons: A Russian Tale, which received a New York Herald-Tribune Spring Book Festival Award, as well as being a Newbery Honor Book Selection and Caldecott Honor Book. In sum, over the course of his career Artzybasheff designed, illustrated, or wrote over 50 books for publishers in both New York and Paris.
In 1934 Artzybasheff was given a staff job with Time magazine. Initially his job was to execute a series of illustrations for a promotional advertisement for the magazine published in book form, Better than Scharazade. When the magazine’s cover format changed from photographs to paintings, Artzybasheff was one of the first artists commissioned. His first Time cover, appearing on June 16, 1941, wasa portrait of General Chen Cheng, Chiang Kai-shek’s favorite general. Before his death in 1965 Artzybasheff created more than 200 covers for Time, including portraits of Stalin, Hitler, Truman, Mao Tse Tung, and Ho Chi Minh. His extensive range was evident in his ability to combine realistic and finely detailed portraits with surreal backgrounds. Time managing editor Otto Fuerbringer said of him: “He was a front-rank portraitist with the uncanny ability of detecting a man’s character by minute study of his photograph. He preferred villains to heroes, but his accumulated portraits constitute a living gallery of movers and shakers of the past 30 years.” Artzybasheff also contributed work to both Fortune and Life magazines; a 1940 painting of his of a Japanese soldier standing before a large sculpted head of the Buddha was turned into a cover design for Fortune, and, despite the fact that his Time covers showcased his work to millions, it is perhaps the images he created for Life in the early forties that made the biggest impression on the American public. These animated images of the weapons of war demonstrate in a comic but sobering way how men can create monsters that are very real and deadly. His representations of the harbingers of pure evil were often drawn as serpents, reptiles, and flying prehistoric birds in the shape of swastikas, with Hitler and his minions portrayed as “Pied Pipers” of doom. Vehemently anti-Fascist, Artzybasheff also worked with the Psychological Warfare Branch of the State Department during the war years, as well as the Office of War Information (OWI), for which he produced War Bond posters in an effort to raise funds to help the government pay for the war. When asked for his thoughts on war and weaponry, Artzybasheff replied: “I try to shake this thought off: it may be that a healthy planet should have no more life upon it than a healthy dog has fleas; but what possesses the flea to concoct its own flea powder?”
Other compelling forms of published art created by Artzybasheff were his paintings and drawings of “mechanized humans.” These anthropomorphic images, bordering on the surreal, display a keen sense of how the machine works or what human task the machine was meant to replace. Artzybasheff endows his metamorphosed machines with wide-open, realistically drawn eyes, a technique which allows the expression of a full range of human emotions, and the consequent emergence of a silent humanity. Many of these pictures are included in his book, As I See (1954), of which Ernest W. Watson, in his review of the book in the January, 1951 issue of American Artist, wrote: “The pictures in this book are caricatures and cartoons of a sort. Yet, unlike cartoons, they are works of art, conceived and designed with the attitude of a painter of serious pictures. Many cartoonists in the heat of a compelling idea do not stop to create in that way. The idea is everything. Artzybasheff expends upon every picture all of the art skill he possesses. No detail is slighted.” In 1954, Mechanics Illustrated magazine profiled him with a cover story titled “When Machines Come to Life,” and his unparalleled ability to turn machines into living beings earned him the label, “Master of the Machine Age.”
After the war, Artzybasheff devoted himself primarily to commercial art, creating advertisements for many major corporations, including Xerox, Shell Oil, PanAm, Casco Power Tools, Parke-Davis, Scotch Tape, Alcoa Steamship Lines, and Parker Pens. In 1949 he created an Art Deco “Bermuda by Clipper” poster for Pan American Airlines, a piece that has come to be considered a stylish and elegant example of his color work and strong sense of design. The poster features a map of the island embellished with lilies, a passenger aircraft, and a mermaid. Artzybasheff is known to have visited the island twice, first in 1934 and again in 1955. During his 1955 visit he and his wife stayed at the Princess Hotel and Pink Beach Club.
Over the course of his career Artzybasheff attained membership in several prominent arts associations, including the Grolier Club, the Century Club, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (A.I.G.A.), and the Society of Illustrators (which exhibited his work).
Artzybasheff died on July 16, 1965 in Lyme, Connecticut. His archives reside at Syracuse University.
“It seems to me,” Artzybasheff once famously commented, “that there is very little human about men at times, except their shapes. However, since the scientists through many experiments on laboratory mice have proven that it is possible to accumulate enough experience to negotiate a simple maze, I have much hope for the future. We still have time to learn. After all, as a race, we are younger than mice.”
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