Migratory Birds: Illustrating Andersen's "Nightingale"

By Magaril, Mikhail | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Migratory Birds: Illustrating Andersen's "Nightingale"


Magaril, Mikhail, Marvels & Tales


I remember reading about a popular survey from the beginning of the twentieth century. Ehe question asked: what books would you take with you to a deserted island? If I were asked the same question, it would probably need to be phrased differently, more along the lines of: which books would you take with you if you were to move to a different country, one that spoke a different language, had a different culture and different traditions? When I moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, the Soviet government allowed only two pieces of luggage per person to be taken out of the country. Among the most important things I took with me was a book that I didn't even notice I had packed.

I'm sure many of us have books from our childhood that we think form many of the beliefs we hold on to throughout our lives. Hans Christian Andersen's Stories and Fairy Tales (Moscow, 1955) was my favorite. I could look at its illustrations for hours, and when I went to sleep at night I would even put it under my pillow. After some years passed and I grew older, I started to understand that each of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales held second meanings that were intended for adults. Ehis reminded me of those strange Chinese sculptures in the tsar's palace near St. Petersburg. Each sculpture consists of delicately cut ivory spheres, each one contained within another one that is smaller in diameter than the pervious sphere. Like these sculptures, Andersen's fairy tales held many layers of meaning for me.

Upon arriving in New York I was connected to the Center for Book Arts, where I continued to work as an apprentice for seven years. Ehough I had a master's degree from the Moscow Graphic Art School, I realized that I still had a lot to learn, especially in terms of physically making a book, including how to set type, print it, and make a binding. In the field of book art I believe it is preferable - though it may be very meticulous at times - to make everything by hand. Ehe work of a book artist can be compared to the work of an actor. Ehe actor is constantly haunted by each new role he accepts. Ehe role invades his thoughts and actions long after rehearsal is finished, because he is always working on perfecting that role. Ehe same is true of a book artist. When working on a new project, he constantly thinks about it and lives in it, gradually perceiving even the text of the book as his own creation. Ehe themes of my earlier book projects seemed to follow me as I began work on new endeavors. While working on my projects, I noticed that the image of birds seemed to appear in all of them. A few years ago I completed work on a book by Oscar Wilde titled "Ehe Happy Prince." In it, a swallow is one of the main characters. I again encounter a bird in Andersen's "Nightingale." If one adheres to the idea that an artist identifies him or herself with his projects, then I can be perceived as a bird that flies from continent to continent in a futile attempt at reaching the truth, or at least attempting to approach it.

In 1998 I founded my own publishing company called Summer Garden Editions, through which I was able to print books by some of my favorite authors from all over the world. From Russia I had Nikolay Gogol and Kharms, and from England, Oscar Wilde as well a book about Jewish traditions called "Ehe Feather Merchant." A few years later I began work on the now completed "Nightingale." Ehe first push I had toward making this project was a visual one. I remember looking at a lithography by Joan Miro and noticing the similarities between the form of his paintings and the form of Chinese calligraphy. I thought back to my favorite fairy tale - "Ehe Nightingale" - and was astonished at some connections I had previously missed. How did Soviet censors ever let this tale pass? I asked myself. Believe it or not, Russian censorship even influenced children's books. In Russia not a single word could be published without special permission from Glavlit (the (Russian acronym for Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs) .

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