Nikolái Vasílievich Ilín (Nizhni Nòvgorod, Russia, 1894 - Moscow, 1954) is a pioneer of graphic art in Russia. His contribution to the field of editorial design is virtually unknown beyond Russia's borders.
In his native country he enjoyed popularity and prestige in his later years, where he held the post of artistic director at the State Publishing House of Literature in the Soviet Union. However, his early achievements, very directly related to the avant-garde, have not been sufficiently recognised. This exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía shows a selection of his work from his childhood drawings made in 1909 to the designs produced in important editions during his Moscovite stage of the Thirties.
Nikolái Ilín trains at the Faculty of Architecture at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Moscow and in 1916 he is awarded his Painter-Architect diploma. Wounded in the First World War he returns to his hometown, where in 1922, he begins his work in the publishing house Nizhpoligraf. The title of this exhibition, I know something about covers and fonts, is Ilín’s response to the editorial director when asked what a painter is doing at a printing press. This initial scepticism is quickly forgotten because of Ilin’s hard work which helps him move up the ladder in the company until he becomes deputy director of technical finish of graphic prints. During this period he designs around a thousand books, diplomas, calendars and miscellaneous graphics. He learned from master typesetters, those who make the drafts that result in a final print, the details of the trade, and was a pioneer in the birth of the technique known in Russia as Aksidentsia. It was because of this that he was given great acclaim. His good work earned him international awards in Paris, Monza and Leipzig.
In his compositions, Ilín alternated classic style with constructivist or suprematist inspiration demonstrating his innovative spirit in the discipline of graphic design. His technique, a mix of xylography and goldsmithery, remain unknown to his successors. His unique style, ever closer to the new German-Moscow typography orientation and which has influences of avant-garde Solomon Telingater among others, reached its peak in the late twenties.
During his time in Moscow he works for major publishing houses including those that belonging to the OGPU, the future KGB, where Ilín extensively develops the "Soviet empire" style in bulky volumes luxuriously bound and ornate. An example of this can be seen at this exhibition, contrasting with his first brochures.
A total of eighty-five pieces, including books, magazines, covers, drawings and Chinese ink pieces along with some documentary photographs reflect Ilín’s importance during the Thirties through to the Fifties in Russian graphic design.
This exhibition coincides at the Museo Reina Sofia with another exhibition El libro ruso de vanguardia 1919-1934 which includes work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York from artists such as Mijail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Maiakovski, Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Alexandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky and provides a broader context to comfortably value Ilín’s legacy.