“Get out of Russia, don’t sponge on my reputation, and change your name.” These were words of advice offered by M.P. Artsybasev, a well known and respected Russian author, to his son Boris shortly before the first world war. Born in 1899, in Kharkov, Ukraine, the younger Artzybasheff did not leave Russia until 1919 after the Russian Revolution. After a long and often harrowing journey the young artist finally settled in New York City where he embarked on his career. His earliest employment was as an engraver designing labels for beer and medicine bottles, but Artzybasheff began doing free-lance work and soon established a reputation for creative design. Some of his early commissions included newspaper illustrations, stage designs for the Ziegfeld Theater and Michael Fokine’s Russian Ballet, and a mural for a 57th Street speakeasy.
Eventually Artzybasheff turned his attention to illustrating books for publishers in New York and Paris. In 1927 his book designs won him the first of many prestigious awards including best illustrated book from both the American Library Association (the John Newberry Award) and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Throughout his career Artzybasheff was commissioned to design more than thirty books and illustrate another twenty, including several children’s books.
Scratchboard, woodcut and wood engraving were popular media used by illustrators for book reproductions but presented challenges to both the artist and the publisher when color was desired. Artzybasheff adopted a technique that incorporated the use of transparent pyroxlin plastic as his matrix because it allowed sharp, precise line quality and easy registration of multiple blocks or colors. This process was used for several award-winning designs by Artzybasheff during the late 1920s and the 1930s.
In 1940 the editors of Fortune commissioned Artzybasheff to design a cover for the magazine. The artist had already created several colorful graphs and charts to illustrate articles in the magazine when he submitted a painting of a Japanese soldier standing before a large sculpted head of the Buddha. This cover art attracted the attention of Time magazine editors who were assembling a staff of illustrators to create their cover designs. 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.
Other compelling forms of Artzybasheff’s published art were his paintings and drawings of mechanized humans. These pictures, which often border on the surreal, display a keen sense of how the machine works or what human task the machine was mean t to replace. The image of animated weapons of war and tyranny that were created for Life magazine demonstrate how men can create monsters that are real and deadly. When asked about 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 well-kept dog has fleas; but what possesses the flea to concoct its own flea powder?” According to the editors of Life, Artzybasheff war machines “take a sardonic delight in their own powers of destruction.” Many of his anthropomorphic designs, along with numerous other illustrations, were published in his 1954 book, As I See.
Artzybasheff approached the creation of his paintings with an attention to detail and process that was similar to an engineer’s approach to designing a machined component. The precision of the planned design and his control over the methods and materials were extremely important to Artzybasheff. He kept extensive notes on his ideas, technique, and formulae for mixing gouache paints, and even notated his preparatory sketches, constantly making revisions and adaptations. Often, Atszybasheff would “build” his paintings, starting with detailed drawings (he called them “skeletons”) that were layered with “skins” of color to develop the final design of the paintings. Components or features were frequently designed separately then brought to the composition in their final form. The final result was a picture that displayed the unique and imaginative vision of an artist who was justifiably labeled the “Master of the Machine Age”.
Domenic J. Iacono