Boris Bilinsky was born in Odessa in 1900, but left Russia in 1920, escaping from the aftermath of the Revolution. He settled in Berlin where he was still able to collaborate with Russian theatres, but in 1923 he moved to Paris and worked with the Studio Albatros, a production company in Montreuil. Albatros had only been set up in 1922, but was soon to produce some of the most important masterpieces of early cinema, including Abel Gance’s mammoth Napoléon in 1927.
During this period Bilinsky designed numerous costumes for French cinema such as Jean Epstein’s Le lion de Mogols and a series of exquisite designs for Alexander Volkoff’s film Casanova.
For ten years Bilinsky produced designs for two or three films a year. Many of these films were not critical successes, but he did achieve lasting fame with his poster artwork created for Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film Metropolis. After the incredible success of this film (and his posters) Bilinsky set up his own company, cheekily called Alboris, to produce poster graphics.
Bilinsky’s body of theatre work is impressive, designing opera and ballet productions for the most important theatres in Paris and London. He collaborated with Bronislava Nijinska and Léonide Massine on several occasions. Bilinsky’s opera credits include Glinka’s Russian and Ludmila (1930) with choreography by Nijinska , which he designed for the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. They collaborated on a handful of projects together over the next couple of years, and during this period Bilinsky became sentimentally involved with the great Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. It is documented that he painted a miniature of her on ivory, which has sadly been lost.
At the Paris Exhibition in 1937 he was awarded a gold medal for his set designs, but his heart had already left Paris. The year before he had fallen in love with a Sicilian actress on a film set. They married, and when she was expecting their first child in 1939 they transferred to her family home in Catania, and in Italy he stayed.
During the war years the family was in Rome where Bilinsky designed many films, mostly for the famous Italian studio Titanus, starring the leading Italian actors of the time: Valentina Cortese, Isa Miranda, Massimo Girotti and Rossano Brazzi. However, Bilinsky continued working in the theatre designing plays and ballets for Rome and Milan.
It was in 1947 that he came to work at the Teatro alla Scala, designing the ballet Follie viennesi with music by Johann Strauss. The ballet featured two dancers with whom he’d worked before: Olga Amati and Ugo Dell’Ara.
The new monograph by Vittoria Crespi Morbio on Boris Bilinsky – part of the long catalogue of volumes published by the Amici della Scala on set and costume designers who have worked at the Milanese theatre – concentrates on the Follie viennesi, which was to be his last project. Crespi Morbio points out that the theatre gave him more liberty as an artist, and instead of creating a lifelike, film-set Vienna, he created the atmosphere of Vienna on the La Scala stage. Bilinsky used vivid chocolate-box colours in his designs, and round shapes in both scenery and costumes to echo the circular motion of a waltz.
The year of his début at La Scala was also the year that he discovered that he had cancer. Bilinsky died in Catania in 1948.
In 1956 his grave was moved in the Viale degli uomini illustri (Famous Men Avenue) in Catania’s cemetery.
Amici della Scala, via dei Giardini 18, 20121 Milan
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Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.