Spirin’s Biography

Spirin’s Working Process

Corrections or additions?

This feature by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 27, 1998. All rights reserved.

From Russia: Gennady Spirin’s Watercolors

The dazzling delights of Princeton’s blossoming


are nowhere found in Russia’s middle zone, the region around Moscow

where artist Gennady Spirin spent his formative years. Arriving at

the new Firebird Gallery on Witherspoon Street, he says the beauty

of the day’s riot of purples, pinks, and magenta flowers is so


it’s "like purple beams to the eyes." Yet from a first glimpse

of Spirin’s marvelous watercolor paintings — packed with bejeweled

princes and princesses, courtiers and villains in tall hats and fur

coats, and a menagerie of graceful birds and wild creatures —

we can be assured that this artist has never lacked for visual


At the Firebird Gallery, itself named for the fabulous creature of

Russian folklore, Spirin stands surrounded by the framed originals

of his astonishing watercolors, which he discusses — in Russian

— with translation provided by gallery owner Tatiana Popova.


moved to Princeton with his family in 1991, yet still doesn’t think

his English is equal to the task; this proves true when the


becomes most spirited, turning on the intriguing issues of his career

in art.

Spirin and Popova met by total chance — as neighbors in Washington

Oaks, a residential development across from Jasna Polana off Route

206. Popova, who moved from Moscow in 1994, has a background in


and business and thought the award-winning children’s illustrator

should have more exposure for the unique works that become treasured

items on children’s bookshelves everywhere. She originally showed

Spirin’s works during the Christmas season, in rented space on Nassau

Street, and opened the doors of her Firebird Gallery in April.

At the gallery, two new projects by Spirin are in the spotlight. One

wall is lined with the watercolors that will be reproduced as plates

to his forthcoming children’s book, "The Crane Wife," one

of Japan’s most-loved folktales, to be published this fall by Harcourt


Also on exhibit is "Princeton University in the Spring," an

illustration commissioned by the Princeton Alumni Weekly for the cover

of its reunions issue. With views of the romanesque Alexander Hall

and historic Nassau Hall seen through a veil of leafless trees, Spirin

manages to bring a fairy-tale look to the familiar campus. A tiger

lounges nonchalantly on the lawn, and an orange and white striped

hot air balloon bearing the Princeton crest hovers overhead.

The new watercolors and the limited edition Princeton poster ($65)

will be featured at the gallery’s opening reception, Friday, May 29,

from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The show remains on view to July 12.

For "The Crane Wife," Spirin has illustrated

the story of the Japanese sail maker, Osamu, and his beautiful wife,

Yukiko, who has the magical talent of weaving the wind into her


sails. Mysterious natural spaces and beautiful long-necked white


that haunt the warp and weft of Yukiko’s loom, and a snowy seashore

landscape are all part of the picture cycle. Spirin’s lyrical


of the powerful tale of love, greed, and betrayal are a stylistic

departure for the illustrator of Russian and European tales.

"I know many cultures, but Japanese culture is new to me,"

says Spirin. His access to the culture came not through travel —

he has yet to visit Japan — but through a total immersion in its

rich graphic arts tradition, with particular interest in Japanese

medieval sources. He says Russian museum holdings in Asian art, which

he has known since his youth, are extensive, particularly those of

Moscow’s Museum of Eastern Art and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

The fact of his not having visited Japan, he believes, is liberating

in a way. It frees his imagination to interpret the folktale.

"Simply, it’s very interesting for me to switch to a completely

new subject in a completely new language of art," says Spirin,

with enthusiasm. Japanese art combines flat and three-dimensional

elements to convey the subjective idea of the story and the artist’s

specific point of view. "The general and the specific view must

be combined." Citing Aristotle’s precepts on the virtue of


a worthy tradition, Spirin says that by internalizing his sense of

the Japanese art tradition, he creates something new.

"This gives me a fairy-tale freedom to create," he says, a

feeling he illustrates with a comparison: "It’s like kasha


in the brain." He aims to be true to his models, but "the

self-expression of the artist should not be lost."

The amiable Spirin is short of stature, with lively eyes, and a wide

face embellished with a bushy, white-gray beard and mustache. Although

he’s said to deny it, the resemblance to his portrait of the Tsar

Saltan for his 1996 edition of Alexander Pushkin’s classic fairy tale

of that name is striking. That the Tsar in question is a good man,

and kind, yet trusting enough to be deceived by his wife’s wicked

and jealous sisters, only serves to confirm the resemblance.

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Spirin’s Biography

Spirin was born in the small town of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, outside Moscow,

on December 25, 1948. Neither of his parents had artistic interests,

but his grandmother was a vivid storyteller who left the boy with

many tales, from the Tsar Saltan to Gulliver. He has one brother who

works as a driver in Russia. Spirin’s artistic talent was identified

at an early age. At 11 he won a place in the highly-competitive


School of Fine Art in Moscow, a residential academy named for a famed

Russian artist and connected to the Russian Academy of Fine Art.

During the 1960s Spirin spent seven years at the Surikov School


in figure painting and multi-figured composition in oils, and this

rigorous and exhaustive study is evident in his paintings today. The

turbulent times, which included the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,

brushed him only lightly. These were happy years, although friends

who were drafted into the army told him of their searing experiences.

In his final year at Surikov, his career took an unforeseen turn when

he suddenly developed a severe allergy to the oil medium, and could

no long enter the painting workshop. "I tried changing thinners,

I tried different paints, but nothing worked. I finally had to switch

to tempera," he says, adding that this accounts for his eventual

mastery of all the paint media.

Adding to his life changes at this time, Spirin caused

a scandal by declining his assured place at the prestigious Surikov

Academy, the post-graduate wing of his school, and applied instead

to Moscow’s Stroganoff Institute of Art. "I had been working at

Surikov already for seven years, I already knew and had worked with

all the professors there. I wanted new influences." He was also

attracted to the wider and more progressive curriculum at Stroganoff,

where he proceeded to study for five more years, graduating with a

diploma in painting. Following graduation he completed one year


military service. By this time he had married his wife, Raisa, and

the couple were parents of their first son, born in 1977. It was time

to earn some money.

Spirin’s first book illustration project was in 1980, completed under

contract for the Soviet Union’s leading (and only) children’s


He continued working with the company until 1984 when he went


By this time his protean work was becoming well known at home and


The family came to the United States at the invitation of two


Dial and Philomel. Although he might logically have made his home

in New York, he was much more attracted to the more rural lifestyle

of his childhood. And Princeton happened to be the home of his editor,

Ann Keay Beneduce, who was pleased to help the family get settled

here. Arriving with their two sons, now 21 and 15, the Spirins’ third

son was born in Princeton in 1993.

Top Of Page
Spirin’s Working Process

When Spirin turns to talking about the process of creating his


illustrations, many of which extend across two big storybook pages,

unencumbered by any text at all, his eyes begin to gleam — there’s

the air of the rebel in this artist who refuses to create preparatory

sketches. "Doing sketches is not interesting," he says.


you have a satisfactory sketch, you must do the same thing all over

again. I don’t want to repeat the same thing."

Working at home — he has never had a separate studio — his

rich and fantastical paintings are created on Arches watercolor paper

which he first wets down and stretches "as tight as a drum


He then leaves the paper to dry, its pebble surface now considerably

smoothed; and he applies his watercolors onto dry paper.

So there are no preparatory sketches. Spirin tackles his paper with

pencil in hand, drawing in his composition fully. Yet the artist who

insists on spontaneity won’t be bound by these lines either. For once

he starts to apply his paints, the pencil lines are obscured. And

he proceeds with enthusiasm and expressivity, unhampered by the idea

of painting within the pencil lines.

Here Spirin launches into an animated and extended speech in Russian,

which Popova strains to retain. "He says everything should


she says. "It’s an act of creation. And even though the pencil

drawing belongs to him, he wants to cover it and to do something


The illustrator of 30 story books, Spirin was awarded the Golden Apple

Award at the Biennale of Illustration in Bratislava in 1983 for


and Gnomes." Since 1992 he has won four gold medals from the


of Illustrators in New York for "Boots and the Glass


"The Children of Lir," "The Frog Princess," and


Tale of Tsar Saltan." And the New York Times has given its Best

of the Year designation to four others including "Gulliver’s


in 1993 and "The Sea King’s Daughter" in 1997.

One of Spirin’s most popular books in the United States is E.T.A.

Hoffmann’s "The Nutcracker," published by Stewart Tabori &

Chang, 1996. Seeing Spirin’s lively but slightly fearsome painting

of the Nutcracker doll, Saks Fifth Avenue commissioned its own, more

cheerful Nutcracker for its Christmas advertising campaign last year.

The image was used extensively in window and floor displays throughout

the New York store. This year the decorations will move to the Chicago


Returning to Spirin’s picture cycle for "The Crane Wife,"

the conversation turns again to its radical departure from his


style that so vividly evokes the pomp and mystery of medieval Russia

and Europe.

"The Japanese understand the world through graphics. Even their

written expression, their calligraphy, is graphic," says Spirin.

And because Russia is placed between Asia and the West, and home to

both cultures, he believes he’s in a good position to appreciate them.

Further, he notes that on a visit to the Louvre, he was struck by

a 15th-century Madonna by Jan van Eyck that looked as if it could

have been painted in Asia. He names other early Renaissance artists,

such as Pieter Brueghel (Hieronymus Bosch is also clearly an


for some of those conniving courtiers), who bring a decorative graphic

thrust to their compositions.

"Art is free to influence anyone, and the exchange can only be

mutually beneficial," says Spirin. The goal is a co-mingling of

styles, "but without losing one’s own identity."

— Nicole Plett

Gennady Spirin, The Firebird Gallery, 15


609-688-0775. Reception and unveiling of the Princeton University

Reunions poster. Free. Friday, May 29, 5:30 to 8 p.m.

Gallery hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by


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