July 01, 2011

A Russo-German Libation

A Russo-German Libation

IVAN BILIBIN, best known for his beautiful illustrations of Russian fairy tales, was a member of the World of Art, a cosmopolitan group of St. Petersburg artists and philosophers centered around Sergei Diaghilev in the late nineteenth century. Bilibin also turned his talents to commercial purpose, as in this advertisement for New Bavaria beer. Here, as in much of his work, the artist was drawn to the idealized, highly ornamental style of Muscovy, the period in the late Middle Ages when Moscow was ascendant.

In this 1903 advertisement, Bilibin has stylized his letters to resemble those on medieval manuscripts. His division of the poster into two frames recalls the folk-art form of the lubok, whose informative text appeared below a central image. After winning high honors at the famous Nizhny Novgorod Fair in 1896,* New Bavaria beer was allowed to display the imperial double-headed eagle, which Bilibin has placed prominently in a cartouche at the poster’s center. Bilibin’s love of the Muscovite style elicits some irony when he casts the German-associated beer as deeply Russian. The barrel is surrounded by a king and boyars in long beards and brocaded caftans; the turreted walls of a medieval kremlin and Viking-style ships on the sea complete the picture of old Russia. Could this be a play on the so-called nemetskaya sloboda, the German quarter, where the rowdiest drinking in Moscow was said to occur (at least according to Adam Olearius, the German scholar who visited Moscow in the seventeenth century)?

Some medieval Russians considered hops to be the work of the devil, so great was the intoxication they produced (the word for hops, xmel, lies at the root of pokhmelye, or “hangover”). But Peter the Great’s love for beer was so strong that in 1718 he issued an ukaz to hospitals and the navy to brew beer “in the Dutch manner” as a restorative drink.

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