Vladimir Bobritsky, Children's Illustrator

A talk given by Rosalie Meyer
at Friends of Art, January 25, 1995
Muskegon, MI, Museum of Art

Our subject today is Vladimir Bobritsky, also known as Bobri. His entry in the Artists As Illustrators, an International Dictionary with Signatures and Monograms, 1800-Present, gives his signature in two ways, Bobritsky and Bobri.

Vladimir Bobritsky is an unfamiliar name. However, he was a contemporary illustrator, and I became interested in his work, the illustrations of children's books. When MMA had its exhibit of children's book illustrators I felt that here was another, a few decades earlier, painter and illustrator of that genre. The more I read and researched, the more varied I found that his works and interests were, so my chosen title of Vladimir Bobritsky, Childrens' Illustrator, because of his varied and fascinating career, could have more aptly been titled Vladimir Bobritsky, a Universal Man.

Bobri, as he signed his work and as he was known, was born the 13th of May in Kharkov, the Ukraine, in 1898. He was a member of a comfortable banking family, and told stories of a mother who drank only champagne, and a father who welcomed the gypsies that camped on family land. These early associations with gypsies and an influence on his later life and on his art. It was a family of culture and scholarship, and with these surroundings he acquired an adventuresome attit8uede toward life and art. He was a graduate of Kharkov Imperial Art School where he became interested in the theater and in early ikon painting, and he studied scenic design by apprenticeship at the State Dramatic Theater. At 17 he was designing sets for the great Dramatic Theater of Kharkov. Because of the turbulent events of the Revolution, he fled from Russia in 1917, leaving his homeland forever.

Bobri rarely discussed those circumstances that drove him from revolutionary Russia. His friends recalled tales of threats to his family, gutted estates and falsified passports. Some reported that he traveled with bands of gypsies, playing balalaika and 5-string guitar. What is known is that he made his way around the eastern shore of the Black Sea and passed safely into Turkey. He then supported himself designing sets and costumes for the Russian ballet in Istanbul; he produced movie posters, and painted ikons in a monastery. In Anatolia, Turkey, he engaged in archaeological work, and two sources stated that he made an important archeological discovery: in an abandoned Turkish mosque he made the important archeological discovery of a Byzantine mural.

He emigrated to New York in 1921. Once in New York, Bobri established himself as a fashion illustrator. At the peak of that career in the 1930's and 40's, he was a leading artist in New York's burgeoning advertising world. He worked on such prestigious accounts as Saks Fifth Avenue, and Hanes, and was a contributor to the New Yorker, the Vogue, and to Harper's Bazaar. His drawing style was bold, and at the same time elegant, with a technical refinement and use of space acquired in an European training. He would tackle a blank wall or canvas without pre-sketching, and would fill the allotted area with a scene that had proportion, significance, and supreme fitness.

I can see suggestions of Miro in some of his drawings; another picture will remind me of a Chagall. And when I saw the pins in the MMA gift shop of guitars by Picasso, my first thought was of Bobri. Because these artists were all of Central European backgrounds, and living in a similar time frame, the same influences existed for each, and the work of one affected the work of another. Was the guitar sketch by Bobri influenced by Picasso, or was it a coincidental development because bother were influenced by their European art training? This training took years, initiating a student into all phases of art. Remember, too, that the Bauhaus, a school of art and design, was created in Germany in 1916, and undoubtedly was a major influence on all students of art in Europe at that time. Bobri would have been 18 then, and into his art studies.

Another writer said that Bobri's work has the closest affinity to that of Degas and Constantin Guys, whose works were light-fingered and had sure-footed poise.

Many artists illustrate but never have their own writings of children's books published: they are artists, not writers; this does not affect the validity of their art. Tomie DePaola rewrites some tales, creates some of his own, or illustrates other known tales and stories, such as his children's' book of Bible stories. I will give credit to the authors of those books which I mention, some of whom are still writing today. I used the term contemporary in speaking of Bobri because he was born in the same year as my mother, and was still living and working until 1987. He was an artist of the twentieth century.

His use of many mediums for illustrations is recognized when you view many of his works. Watercolor, tempera, and chalk were favorite mediums, as were pen and ink and pencil. Perhaps cut paper was used for a particular effect in particular illustrations.

Bobri's illustrations for children's books are in books which were published in the 40's and 50's, books still on the library shelves, some of which have become classics. Styles in illustrations for books for smaller children are done with simple backgrounds, non-distracting visuals, elements which children with their shorter attention spans can absorb at one sitting. Contrast this with style with the Waldo books so popular a year or two ago, with the hundreds of thousands of details which must be pored over for many minutes before finding the center of interest.

Boris and his Balalaika was written by Esphyr Slobodkina, also a Russian émigré. When doing the illustrations, surely the balalaika and other scenes in these drawings must have been based upon the memories of his associations with the gypsies in his childhood.

What Is Red? By Elizabeth Gottleib is a classic

Red is the color of may things
- apples and berries and warm glowing fires -

Johnny picks some violets
and hurries under a tree to wait for the rain to stop.

What is white? The snow is white. It falls from the winter skies and rests the earth until springtime makes it brown again.

So A Kiss Is Round by Blossom Budney, also a classic.

What is Round? The world is round. Did you see the moon last night? A ball is round for rolling or throwing.

The Whiskers of Ho Ho, by William Littlefield shows a variance in style from European to Chinese locale, but the folk art fanciful imagination creeps in, even in illustrations about China; do you see the hen on a nest, and a rabbit at his leisure, even in a pagoda?

What The Moon Is Like, by Franklyn Bramley, was printed in 1963, but is still considered current in children'' collections. Moon-going fashions have not changed to any degree! Notice the use of space, the positive spaces and negative spaces, and remember the concept that "less is more" the theory of the Bauhaus, experimental architecture and art school in Germany started in 1916.

Icebergs, by Roma Gans, illustrated by Bobri, is a wonderful non-fiction book for children, again a classic. If you are a reader, and a follower of children's literature, you recognize these authors, known for writing books for children.

Bobri illustrated a book entitled Let's Talk About God, by Dorthy Kripke. A challenging topic, you'll agree. It is a book which is non-denominational. You'll see no usage of religious symbols, only illustrations of basic concepts of God.

Our eyes can hear,
our eyes can see.
Our hands can touch; our tongues can taste.
God planned us very well.

She also wrote Let's Talk About Right and Wrong.

Our bodies and our minds can give
Us much of joy and pleasure,
If we use them wisely as
A very precious treasure.

Wisdom for today.

Charlotte Zolotow's Sleepy Book with its restful and soothing use of dark colors, wand the use of the restful qualities of nature, plants and animals, must have helped put many reluctant youngsters into slumberland.

The snowy crane sleeps standing
one long leg like a flower on its stem.

Crickets sleep in the long meadow grass
and look like the grass itself - they are so still.

Bobri's adventuresome spirit found him in Mexico, which became useful in illustrating The March Wind by Inez Rice, a story about hats which blew off the little boy's head, or about which stayed on.

Bobri's evenings as a young man in New York were spent in cafes with fellow émigrés, playing and listening to the guitar, and occasionally performing gypsy songs for tips. In the 30's, he and a handful of guitar aficionados gravitated to New York's only guitar shop. They reminisced about Segovia's Town Hall appearance in 1928, and their frustrations in the attempt to find a classical guitar teacher. This led to the organization of a classical guitar society, and eventually a meeting with Segovia. Bobri offered to paint his portait, and so began a long friendship between the two. Segovia had just begun to establish his career in the U.S. After a hiatus during World War II, the guitar society reconvened, and in the group were other prominent artists: Gregory d'Alessio, George Giusti, Antonio Petrocelli, and Bobri.

The sheer serendipity of the meeting of these heretofore unacquainted artists was so congenial, and their love of music so mutual, that they concocted the idea of starting a magazine dedicated to music and the guitar. So was born the Guitar Review, at times edited by Bobri, who at other times was its Art Director. Its beginnings were not modest: in 1950 it won the first of two Graphic Art Awards of Excellence.

Bobri was both extravagant and a perfectionist, impractical and productive. Anthony Petrocelli said, "He was completely dedicated, and he expected the same from everyone else. He was after perfection - even if he only printed one copy." (The Guitar Review magazine, under his direction, was notoriously off-schedule.)

His studio on East 50th Street in New York City, was a gathering place of artists and musicians through the 60's. A talented group of émigrés and New Yorkers carved their own world, complete with a culture of art and music, from the city landscape. It was, artist Terry d'Alessio said, "bohemian in the best sense of the word".

A marriage of the Society to New York night life was consummated in 1948 when Bobri volunteered to design Spanish murals for an elegant new restaurant, La Zambra. Under Bobri's direction, artists from the Society covered the walls with stylized Spanish bullfight scenes. In exchange, the society earned free use of the restaurant for its weekly meetings.

An occasional participant at these meetings was Segovia, and other luminaries, such as blues singer Josh Sandburg. Bobri, who presided at these events, was a tall somewhat austere figure in a dark suit and shoelace tie. "He liked to have a lot of people around him," artist George Giusti recalled. "While everyone talked, he said nothing - yet you felt his great personality." Pertocelli said, "He always spoke on a high plane." Music and art were his subjects.

He designed huge Christmas cards each year, and put them into large ribboned boxes, and had them delivered to his friends in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Perhaps some of these Christmas card designs were among those gifts.

Feeling in him a "Russian soul," Bobri's closest friends remain mystified by the man. "He was not the kind to divulge his secrets," said Petrucelli, who spent many years at the drawing board with Bobri. His good friend, Rose Augustine, said "When you got to any depth, he was an unknown quantity, somehow inscrutable, full of imagination, a strange and mysterious person." One publication called him "impresario of illustrators". What I have called a quality of folk art in his work, another has entitled a galaxy of exotic vignettes.

Bobri was a member of the New York Art Director's club and the Society of Illustrators. Among his many awards for outstanding art work was the gold medal for special merit by the Art Director's club. He illustrated 20 books, and received 2 awards for his work on children's books. He was perhaps most proud of his book of pastel drawings of Mexico, Taxco, with an introduction by Segovia.

Bobri's first marriage ended in divorce. A second marriage was to Margaret Garcia, but he had no children.

In the music field he designed jacket covers for the Segovia records. His book, The Segovia Technique, was reissued in 1990. These slides are of pages from that book.

In the autumn of 1986, a fire broke out in the home of Bobri and Margaret, in Rosendale, NY . They got out of the house, but Bobri dashed back to salvage something and lost his life. The first that took his life consumed the house he designed, built and lived in for almost half a century; his drawings, his paintings, and letters; his collection of music; his favorite chair set before the music stand; his collection of guitars, each one of noble lineage; a house full of priceless memorabilia all gone, as if a Viking funeral pyre of ancient times and been arranged.

Some items had been packaged, but were left in the rubble for several years, only to be discovered later and salvaged. Slides have been made of that collection of original drawings, some of which have been shown to you today. Smoke has left its shadows around the edges of the pages. Mold, too, became an enemy of the artwork. Note of those rescued drawings were oil paintings, most were watercolor paintings, and may used children as the focal point. Paper is a more fragile base for painting, and many of these works of art are barely salvageable.

The Guitar Review of winter 1987, has been an excellent source for this paper, and their editorial on the tragic loss stated, "In the midst of our inability to accept so great a loss, we are seduced by a possible validity in the old Viking philosophy: the belief that the helmsman and his pyre are sent resurrected into the unknown, to sail the sea of eternity. May we hope it's true that our dear friend Bobri has indeed embarked on that mythical journey, still in possession of all he took with him."

Talk with slides given at Friends of Art
Muskegon Museum of Art, January 25, 1995
© 1995, Rosalie Meyer

Sources include:

The Guitar Review, winter 1987

"Design and Paper" No. 22, edited by P.K.Thomajan
Marquardt & Company, Inc., NY

Artists as Illustrators, an International Dictionary with signatures and Monograms, 1800-Present

Illustrators of Children's Books


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