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Boris Artzybasheff: Illustrating Communism, Fascism and Capitalism

Boris Artzybasheff (1899 - 1965), Illustration from Charles G. Finney's book, 'The Circus of Dr. Lao', 1935

Boris Artzybasheff was born in Russia, and it’s no surprise when looking at his work that his earliest influences were Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the elder and the Russian icons and miniatures of his homeland.

He was studying law at the University of Kiev when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. He was drafted into the Ukrainian Army and forced to fight for a separatist Ukrainian Republic.  When his division was defeated by the Communists, he deserted, but was captured by the Communists and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Somehow he escaped and stowed away on a freighter bound for Sri Lanka, intending to jump ship at Vladivostok in order to rejoin the anti-Communist forces.  However, as fate would have it, his first chance to jump ship was in New York City. He arrived in Manhattan in the winter of 1920 with 14 cents in Turkish currency in his pocket and speaking absolutely no English. He was 21 years old.

He found a job cutting paper labels in a print shop and was soon promoted to designing beer and medicine bottles. He instantly became known for his creative design; he was an artistic chameleon, able to adapt and produce artwork in different styles and genres, from whimsical children’s books to lifelike portraits.

His career took off from there and soon he found himself illustrating for the major American magazines; Life, Fortune, and Time; between 1942 to 1966 he completed an impressive 219 Time covers.

Vehemently anti-Fascist, Artzybasheff produced a large body of political work depicting Hitler, Nazis and Communists as evil as he saw them. He also worked with the Psychological Warfare Branch of the US State Department during the war years, as well as the Office of War Information (OWI). His role was to produce War Bond posters in an effort to raise funds to help the government pay for the war.

After 1940, Artzybasheff devoted himself to commercial art, rendering advertisements for Xerox, Shell Oil, Pan Am, Casco Power Tools, Alcoa Steamship lines, Parke-Davis, Avco Manufacturing, Scotch Tape, Wickwire Spencer Steel Company, Vultee Aircraft, World Airways, and Parker Pens.

The two surreal pieces in our auction are lithographs produced for Charles G. Finney’s book, ‘The Circus of Dr. Lao’, published in 1935. The first piece features “A Lecture on Lusus Naturae” and was the cover art for the first edition of the book. The untitled devil throwing fireballs is an illustration from the inside pages. Both pieces showcase Artzybasheff’s trademark surrealist style.

Lot 42 – Boris Artzybasheff (1899 – 1965), A lecture on Lusus Naturae, (Illustration from Charles G. Finney’s book, ‘The Circus of Dr. Lao’, 1935)

February 20, 2018


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