BORIS KONSTANTINOVICH BILINSKY
movie poster and stage designer
Almost forgotten nowadays, Boris Bilinsky was an artist recognized during his lifetime as a master of decor and costume. It can be read, for instance, in the journal Cinémagazine of 20 May 1927, that : “In the field of illustration, costume and posters, Boris Bilinsky rapidly held one of the best places in France.” He is quoted and photographed beside Alexandre Benois and Ivan Bilibine - they were called the three Bs - in the programmes that he illustrated with them, and which were published by the Opéra Russe à Paris at the beginning of the thirties.
Boris Konstantinovitch Bilinsky was born on 21 September 1900 in Bendery, Russia, near Odessa, where his father Konstantin, a senior military officer, was garrisoned. Young Boris was a cadet in a military school before going onto college. In 1920, after the White armies were defeated and his father was shot, he left Russia for Germany with his mother and his three sisters. In Berlin Boris went on studying scenografy and worked for several “Russian theatres”, in particular the cabaret Der Blaue Vogel (Blue Bird). In 1923, he moved to Paris, where he integrated naturally into the community of Russian émigrés. This group included Léon Bakst (1866-1924) with whom he studied painting. At the beginning of this period he continued working for the theatre (the Chauve-Souris of Nikita Balieff, and l’Arc-en-Ciel) making friends with Georges Annenkov and Simon Lissim. Bilinsky left theatre work for the cinema after meeting Ivan Mosjoukine, and in 1924 he started a rich and diversified career as a set, costume and movie poster designer in the Russian team of the Albatros studio in Montreuil. He returned to the design of theatre scenery in 1930, through the opera. The public has recently rediscovered the Albatros story and what role Bilinsky played in it, thanks to the exhibition held from October to December 1995 at the Musée de l’Histoire vivante in Montreuil, as well as to François Albera’s accompanying book, published by Cinémathèque française / Mazzotta in 1995.
It is possible to follow Bilinsky’s career in the European press as far back as 1921. First, in the newspapers of the Russian emigration, then in those of the French, German and Italian press, as he worked alternately in these three countries. Additional to this, Boris published articles explaining his personal conceptions on decor, costume design, and cinematographic poster composition.
In 1924, renewing and modernizing Bakst’s tradition, he drew costumes full of fancy for Jean Epstein’s film Le Lion des Mogols (Films Albatros). This work immediately attracted attention to him. He was also the designer of the poster for the film, subsequently winning a golden medal at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts.
In May 1928, the press announced that Bilinsky had just founded his own cinematographic advertising company in Paris, named Alboris. Between 1924 and 1927 he had already produced posters which were among the very first really modern cinema posters. More than twenty of these now form part of the collection of the Cinémathèque française. Moreover, he was recognized by the press of the time as « one of the best » and as « the most famous poster designer for cinema ». One of the four different posters he designed for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was sold for 122,000 French francs on 8th December 1989 in Paris at an Hôtel Drouot auction sale.
In 1930, Bilinsky started his collaboration with the Russian Opera. His decors and costumes for Rouslan and Ludmila, Glinka’s opera performed for the first time in France, made a hit even if they were sometimes criticized. From that time onwards, Boris Bilinsky would not stop working simultaneously for the cinema and the various ballets which succeeded to the Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Russian Opera of Paris, Russian ballets of Monte-Carlo, ballets of Olga Spessivtzeva, Bronislava Nijinska, etc.) In Paris in 1934 he created the ornamentation for the famous Russian cabaret Sheherazade rue de Liège.
In May 1937, in London, as part of the festivities held on the occasion of the crowning of the new sovereigns (George VI), the opera Pelléas and Melisande by Debussy was performed at the Covent Garden Royal Opera with decors and costumes created by Boris Bilinsky.
At the outbreak of the war, he presented himself to the authorities like many other Russian émigrés, but being aged 39 and a breadwinner, his enlistment in the French army was refused. Bilinsky then went and settled in Rome with his wife, who was of Italian nationality . All through the war, as far as is known, he worked only in Italy, specially for the production company Titanus film .
In 1946, during a stay in Paris with his wife for a film project, his disease broke out. He came back to Italy and died in Catania on 3 February 1948. Following his death, on 3 February 1956, the commune of Catania, on the initiative of a group of the artist’s friends, ordered the transfer of Bilinsky’s tomb to the “Alley of the illustrious people” within the cemetery. The sculptor Pietro Papallardo is the author of the bust surmounting it.
Numerous exhibitions of his drawings continued to be held in Italy (Capannina di Porfiri Gallery, Rome, 1955 ; Bowinkel Gallery, Capri, 1960), in the United States (Leonard Hutton Galleries, New-York, 1975) and in France (Mairie du 7e arrondissement, Paris, 1999). Many of Bilinsky’s works are today kept in museums in Paris (Bifi / Musée du Cinéma), the United States (Metropolitan Museum, Harvard Theatre Collection, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, McNay Art Museum, etc.), Jerusalem ( Israel Museum) and Canada (University of Calgary). More than 900 drawings have been indexed to date ; while more than 500 of these are part of the Bilinsky family collection, among them costume designs for comedians such as Ivan Mosjoukine, Jacqueline Delubac, Danielle Darrieux and Edwige Feuillère. Approximately 150 are not identified, and neither correspondence nor working notes have yet been found. All this material, as well as a great number of drawings and watercolours, disappeared when Bilinsky’s family came back to France in 1953. Many of them reappeared recently and will soon enter the collections of a modern art museum in Italy, after having briefly passed through a French auction sale in April 1993. The majority of Bilinsky’s drawings for ballet and opera were sold in 1969, then scattered, from the beginning of the seventies, by their purchaser. About ten of these still belong to the beautiful collection of Nikita D. Lobanov-Rostovsky which is regularly exhibited all over the world.
Very different from his professional productions is Bilinsky’s work on the Book of Apocalypse by Saint John. About thirty watercolors were produced during the war time. They actually convey tragedy and death feelings. Bilinsky wanted the very last issue (part of family’s collection) to be exhibited in Paris but he died before this project could be achieved.
If cinema was his work and painting a talent, then music was Bilinsky’s passion. His will to ally painting, music and cinema would be achieved through his research aiming at retranscribing some pieces of music in the form of coloured animated cartoons. He began this work at the end of the 1920’s but this, as Kipling says, is another story.
It should be noted that Bilinsky’s subsequent reputation, linked to the absence of reliable information sources over a period of more than fifty years, contributed to the spreading of a few mistruths with regards to his work. Such is the case with the Sheherazade decors. They are sometimes wrongly attributed to Bilinsky, whereas they were drawn by Ivan Loshakoff, another great figure of the decoration at Albatros. An anonymous poster for Metropolis has also been attributed to Bilinsky in the reference book Affiches de cinéma, trésors de la Bibliothèque nationale de France 1896-1960 (Stanislas Choko, Editions de l’Amateur 1995). The Bibliothèque nationale de France holds one of the four posters that Bilinsky drew for Metropolis, but this is very different. On the contrary, a stage setting collage model for the same film, used as a poster bearing Bilinsky’s signature, and moreover reproduced in the Berlin Zeitbilder of January 1928, is often wrongly attributed to Fritz Lang (cf. Dawn Ades, Photomontage, Thames and Hudson, London 1976).
A lot of information on Boris Bilinsky is still missing, especially covering the Italian period. Any information on this subject, such as press articles, drawing locations, biographic elements, etc., is welcome.
Illustrations © Adagp.