Alphabet in Pictures by Alexander Benois: Theatre in a Book
It was a revolutionary idea - to create an alphabet book illustrated with the very best in art and using the best production. Additionally, The Alphabet of Pictures had the good fortune to be accepted for publication almost immediately by the Office of preparation of State Documents and earned unanimous praise from the public, children and librarians. With time, The Alphabet of Pictures has come to be regarded as a landmark in the history of Russian children's literature. Alexander Benois, who wrote the text, designed the book's format and created the illustrations, is regarded today as a master of all three.
Undoubtedly, Benois drew his inspiration from his own children who were approaching school age and their first encounter with the alphabet. When his elder daughter Anna, nicknamed Atia, was between seven and eight, and the younger Elena (Lyolya) turned five, he set about to create for them - and all other children - an alphabet to his and their liking. Of course, his children were the first to see the pictures and he must have asked their opinions, listened to their ideas and basked in their pleasure and admiration. To keep himself and the children interested in the project, he decided to turn it into a theatrical experience.
Children love the theater, and the theater loves children. A year before The Alphabet in Pictures was conceived, the Benois parents took their children to the famous Mariinsky Theater to see Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet. This is Benois recollection of this event: "For a long time my wife and I had cherished a dream to take the girls to the theater. We noticed their insatiable fascination in fairy tales and picture books, of which we had plenty, and we had no doubt that they would enjoy going out to the theater. Let me confess that our desire to give them such a 'superpleasure' was in no small degree instigated by our own selfishness in anticipating this enormously pleasurable event"
The first theater outing was prepared for with appropriate dramatic solemnity. Although the theater was practically around the corner, a coach was sent for the girls; special white dresses with blue sashes were made for them, and matching white stockings and white shoes were purchased. Alexander Benois learned the libretto by heart to be able to comment on what was happening on stage from his seat behind the girls. They were seated in a box for everybody to see, with elegantly dressed parents and the governess, and English chocolates to treat the numerous friends who were expected to visit during intermission.
And the girls were beside themselves with excitement. The younger one even had a fever the next day. They spent their time playing theater, trying to reproduce what they had seen the previous night. Both children and parents remembered this wonderful night all their lives.
It goes without saying that, to lure the Benois girls into the alphabet project, The Alphabet in pictures had to be "theaterized". Thus, the artist became a director. The theatrical experience began with the book's cover and title page. The letter features a scene with trees in barrels outlining the wings. Owls, symbols of wisdom, perched on the branches of these trees, pouring out toys and other interesting things from the "horn of plenty." The owl, sitting in the center, hypnotizes us with its unblinking eyes, saying, "Literacy is light and illiteracy is darkness."
The opening "scene" shows three children discussing a book with pictures. One of the children is a blackamoor ("Arap" - in Russian), who is a main character.
And he is depicted, fully armed, in front of the curtain. In the border below this opening scene there are two aggressive alligators. The Arap is waiving a large dagger, and judging belligerent and illiterate. By the time we meet him again, on the last page, he has learned to write Russian, although he still has problems with spelling. Two still ignorant monkeys are already "burning incense" for him.
Beyond "A", the book begins, and as it does, the curtain opens on to a succession of theatrical scenes, The main goal of the artist seems to be to mix reality with fantasy, making the learning process one of satisfying curiosity.
Theater is the best setting for this mixture of performances in pictures. The letters of the alphabet are presented as fairy tale scenes with performers already familiar to children. Pictures are more effective than words to stir the child's imagination and encourage learning.
Alexander Benois depicts realistic book drops such as forests and fields, hills and valleys, seas and lakes under low grayish northern skies that are familiar to his children. Against this Russian-Finnish scenery his characters, fairy tale and non-fairy tale alike, walk, fly, fight and play. They came to the theater from everywhere. We are in the circus tent on the page, in a military parade on the next, playing hide and seek with Indians on yet another. When we reach "T" we see the trappings of the theater itself with beams of light focusing on a ballerina. In the forefront there is some comedia del art-like scene with a devil engulfed in sulfurous smoke emanation from a trap in the stage floor. Finally, in the orchestra pit we see the conductor, wild with enthusiasm before his blank-faced musicians.
Benois has taken the familiar scenes of every day and populated them with characters from his own childhood; readings of fairy tales such as devils and angels, monsters and dwarfs, beetles and bugs. There are dolls staring off stage, barbaric mice preparing to storm an ancient Egyptian fortress occupied by cats, high officials who resemble parrots, and generals proudly displaying their medals on their bulging breasts.
The magic ambiance of the theater with its special anticipation and excitement lures the young reader of this book from one enchanting scene to the next, sharpening his or her senses, all the while teaching him the letters of the alphabet. The letters are more easily memorized because of their associations with the beautifully and dramatically created scenes and characters.
The Alphabet in pictures was published in 1904, a time of flowering in the arts. Plays, ballet and opera might not have been available to all Russians, but a book reflecting the latest friends in these disciplines could be appreciated not only by the elite. An illustrated book for children expressing these same contemporary trends, a book using the sophisticated printing techniques of the time such as chromolithography, would be available to all.
The children's book introduced modernity to the masses. The Alphabet in pictures was not only a work of art; did not only serve to increase the child's aesthetic tastes, educate him, amuse him, but it set a striking example of modern interpretation of text by the very best in graphic art. The book introduced the new emotional, figurative, theatrical image of a word that was to replace the old literal, predictable, mirror images. It is of utmost importance than this phenomenon first appeared than educational material, material specifically designed for children, which had until then been largely devoid of any individual or personal characteristics. Russian picture books became a mode of artistic self-expression. The Book had become Art.