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Friday, August 11, 2006

Pavel Filonov

Pavel Filonov (1908- 1941)

Pavel Filonov was born in Moscow. Early orphaned, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he began taking art lessons. From 1908 to 1910, he attended the Academy of Arts, but was expelled in 1910. In 1911, he came in contact with the Union of Youth and contributed to its exhibitions. Next year, he traveled to Italy and France. In 1913, Filonov designed the stage set for Vladimir Maiakovskii's play "Vladimir Maiakovskii:.A Tragedy", where the backdrop was painted in cubo-futurist style by both Iosif Shkolnik and Pavel Filonov. The backdrop depicts the modern city against whose alienating but exciting background the poet rebels.

Over the next two years, he worked as an illustrator of futurist booklets, published his transrational poem The Chant of Universal Flowering (Propoved' o porosli mirovoi), and started developing his artistic theories, the so-called Ideology of Analytical Art and the Principle of Madeness (see extracts below). In 1919, Filonov exhibited at the First State Free Exhibition of Works of Art in Petrograd. In 1923, he became a professor at the Academy of Arts and an associate of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk). In the same year, he published the "Declaration of Universal Flowering" in the journal Zhizn' Iskusstva. Two years later, the painter established the Collective of Masters of Analytical Art (known today as Filonov School). Because of continuing attacks and ostracism, Filonov's exhibition planned for 1929-30 at the Russian Museum did not open. In 1932, he contributed to the exhibition Artists of the RSFSSR Over the Last 15 Years. His life and creativity was cut short by the war. He died of pneumonia during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. In 1967, he had a posthumous exhibition in Novosibirsk.

Only in recent years Filonov's art received international recognition. The images produced by his mind contributed significantly to the intellectual growth of the avant-garde in Russia. His artistic character was founded upon some uncompromising ideals to which he was committed, as he demonstrated in the early years of his work by not accepting the ideology of the Academy of Art in St.Petersburg. Filonov left the academy in 1910 and chose to ignore the mainstream current of art to further develop his personal style. Through his art, Filonov sought to observe and understand the forces that comprise the human existence, both the internal and external factors. He aimed to achieve a systematic knowledge of the world and it's human inhabitants. Filonov's paintings were in effect not mere images with meaning; -- his work went beyond that -- they were manifestations of intellectual concepts, something derived from his theory and ideology. The viewer of the art was to observe a "projective intellect" within the imagery. "A picture suggests to the mind of its viewer a single conclusion, which cannot be translated into words."

After the 1917 revolution, Filonov worked to complete the development of his "analytical painting". The changes in the Russian society brought inspiration to the Futurist artists. Filonov dedicated much of his time and effort to artistic research and creativity, working on his paintings as much as 18 hours a day. In 1925, having found many followers and supporters for his style of expression, he founded a school in Petrograd, which was shut down by the government in 1928, together with all other private artistic and cultural organizations.

In "Ideology of Analytical Art" Filonov explains what he expects from his student artists (and, of course, from himself):

A work of art is any piece of work made with the maximum tension of analytical madeness [sdelannost' -- The word is Filonov's neologism, derived from the Russian verb "sdelat'," -- to make, to do. Used in its perfective form, the verb denotes the completion of action].

The only professional criterion for evaluating a piece of work is its madeness.

In their profession the artist and his disciple must love all that is "made well" and hate all that is "not made."

In analytical thought the process of study becomes an integral part of the creative process for the piece being made.

The more consciously and forcefully the artist works on his intellect, the stronger the effect the finished work has on the spectator.

Each brushstroke, each contact with the picture, is a precise recording through the material and in the material of the inner psychical process taking place in the artist, and the whole work is the entire recording of the intellect of the person who made it.

Art is the reflection through material or the record in material of the struggle for the formation of man's higher intellectual condition. Art's efficacity vis-a-vis the spectator is equal to this; i.e., it both makes him superior and summons him to become superior.

The artist-proletarian's obligation is not only to create works that answer the demands of today, but also to open the way to intellect into the distant future.

The artist-proletarian must act on the intellect of his comrade proletarians not only through what they can understand at their present stage of development.

Work on content is work on form and vice versa.

The more forcefully the form is expressed, the more forcefully the content is expressed.

Form is made by persistent line. Every line must be made.

Every atom must be made; the whole work must be made and adapted.

Think persistently and accurately over every atom of the work you are doing. Make every atom persistently and accurately.

Introduce persistently and accurately into every atom the color you have studied -- so that it enters the atom just as heat enters the body or so that it is linked organically with the form, just as in nature a flower's cellulose is linked with its color.

Painting is the colored conclusion of drawing.

Filonov's legacy is vast, but very few canvasses of his are accessible to the public. Almost no pictures of his are found in Western museums, and any piece of paper identified as a work of Filonov evokes wild enthusiasm at auctions. While Malevich is considered the trademark of the Russian avant-garde, Filonov is its strategic secret, an Atlantis sunk deep in the Russian Museum in St.Petersburg. Some fragments that have no reasonable explanation nor adequate price get to the surface occasionally.

We were hard put to break out of the habit of poverty

Pavel Filonov could answer Soviet questionnaires about his social origins with pride: he was a son of a wagon driver and a laundress. In search of a better lot his parents moved to Moscow from Ryazan with a bunch of kids and a 100-year-old granny. Pavel was born on December 27, 1882. When he was five his father, the breadwinner, died suddenly. His mother was consumptive. The boy of five was placed as a dancer in a chorus line in the local cafe where he honestly earned and brought home 9 roubles a month. In his free time he would help his sisters embroider towels and tablecloths for sale. Beauty clearly attracted him. Not him alone: his sister Yekaterina painted and Yevdokiya had a voice — it was predicted that she would become a singer. The children were close friends. In 1896, their mother died, and Pavel's sisters looked after him. Strict discipline and helping each other were a law in the family and helped it to stay afloat. In 1897, the eldest and beautiful sister Alexandra married a prosperous engineer and took the whole family along to St.Petersburg.

Pavel did not like his new bourgeois life: he refused to sleep on a mattress and threw it down on the floor, he would not wear "decent" clothes; at meals he would sit on the edge of the chair, and, to economise he never ate a full meal. He learned the professions of house painter and janitor: it could mean tarring sewer covers or designing elegant interiors. At least, handling paints was not distasteful to him, and provided an opportunity to earn some money.

It was clear to him from his earliest years that he was an artist. And that the only path in Russia to a career in art was through the Academy. So he began to storm the fortress of the Academy. It turned out to be hard and time-consuming.

Filonov failed the examinations three times in a row. The fourth time he was accepted out of sympathy for him (for his exceptional knowledge of anatomy). Soon, however, he was thrown out of the Temple of Arts: he would not listen to the instructors, did not befriend schoolmates, and would not bow to the patroness Great Princess Maria Nikolayevna.

Filonov was expelled "for corrupting his fellow students with his works". He appealed, was reinstated and then quit of his own free will: he had mastered all the classical knowledge. He felt he should look for answers to his questions elsewhere.

The charmed stranger

An educated youth must see the world. This view was widespread at the beginning of the century even in Russia. People without the necessary means were willing to walk or even crawl to touch "the holy stones".

According to his official biography, he went on a trip down the Volga (meaning visits to the monasteries on the Volga) during the years of 1905-07 revolution. It is hard to say what wisdom he learned from the holy fathers while young men of his age were fleeing from police prosecution, but he lived his life according to the behests of Russian ascetics: do not amass riches, do not pursue a career, and pass on to others what you have been able to comprehend.

In 1911 Filonov obtained a passport as a pilgrim. He went by boat down the Volga, then went to the Caucasus to visit Novy Aphon, from there to Constantinople to see St.Sophia, and then crossed the sea to Jerusalem. He left no journal of his travels, only a few sketches, but it is evident that the journey taught him more than the Academy.

People of other races, traces of ancient civilizations, the art of other epochs, and the inspiration of other religions. Pictures of an archaic and patriarchal life not distorted by "the age of iron" stirred him. He discovered that the slums and factories of big cities (he did not seem to notice the palaces) were not the only ornaments of the world.

He had left home a master able to paint anything; he came back an artist knowing what to paint. His antagonism towards the industrial society became his artistic message, the city his personal foe. One of his first mature works was The Victor of the City. He would repeat that motif in countless works: giant human heads emerging from the technogenic chaos and overcoming it by tremendous willpower. Filonov joined the Bohemians of St.Petersburg in early 1910 and took a willing part in exhibitions of the avant-garde "Soyuz Molodykh" (Allliance of the Young). His colleagues treated him with cautious respect. The alliance included some brilliant artists: Matyushin, Guro, Kruchenykh, the Burlyuk brothers who came from Moscow on visits, Malevich and the young Mayakovsky who raised hell. But nobody exhibited as much professionalism. "Filonov does not talk much, he is withdrawn, extraordinarily proud and impatient", noted Kruchenykh. "He despises evasiveness". Despite their leftist phrases, the poets and artists of Soyuz seemed evasive to him (except Khlebnikov with whom he struck up a friendship). Young people from well-to-do families, they were full of enthusiasm and had high hopes for brilliant careers. Filonov scared them with his readiness to dissolve in anything "small". "Banished from their bodies, the souls of animals rushed into the man and settled in him. They've built animal cities in his heart".

Painted by Filonov, I am looking down
From the wall like a dead-tired horse.
He's painted so much pain
In the eyes of the horse's face,.

These lines belong to poet Velimir Khlebnikov about his portrait done by Filonov.

Drawing every atom

The East was not alone in seeking the wisdom of the world. The West did it, too. In 1912, some kindly person bought a painting of Filonov's, and he decided to spend the royalty on travels in France and Italy. Two hundred roubles (a factory worker's wage for six months) proved not to be very much. A large part of the way Filonov covered on foot, sleeping at night in hay stacks and barns, paying for his meals with his drawings (strange as it may seem, taverns bought them eagerly). He saw the Louvre but "didn't loose his head". He did not see the Sistine Chapel as he had lacked the two lire for the entrance fee. It is not known if he met any of the then gurus of the European avant-garde: Picasso, Matisse, Braque. After half a year he came back home fiercely hostile to the West's urban, mechanistic and imperialistic civilization. In 1912, Filonov was the first Russian artist to speak out against the French maitres in the treatise "The Canon and the Law".

Daring of that degree has to be understood. Bohemians were completely taken with Cubism. Picasso was a celestial while Filonov was a little known advocate of towns with all their troubles. Nevertheless, Filonov declared that "cubism has reached a dead-end because of its mechanistic fundamentals", that a picture, being a model of the world, must not follow a preconceived scheme. Like every living thing in nature it must grow from the particulars to the general. The "organism" against "mechanism": each point on a picture is alive, is capable of evolution and, like every living thing, is unbelievably complex. His pictures turn into pulsating and breathing crystals , knots and nets flowing into each other before the eyes of the onlookers (Filonov's fans used to say in the '60s that he was a forerunner of the principles of bionics; his admirers today point out the similarity of his "organic pictures" to the structures of the world- wide web). It has been observed that a very powerful magnification of Filonov's pictures does not affect their quality. On the contrary, it reveals more and more details invisible to the naked eye. He called it "the principle of making completely": with a very fine brush he would paint vast canvasses revelling in the "delight of hard work" and asserting that it is in selfless work that man bares his immortal soul. When he did it at last, he was convinced, the centre of the universe would shift to Russia that possesses "unforgettably wondrous temples, the art of craftsmen, and icons".

In a trench

Such primitive patriotism was not rare before the Great War. However, writing treatises differs from becoming a soldier. One of his avant-garde friends recalled asking Filonov if he would go to war. "As it is I'm waging a war already, but not for territory — for time. I am in a trench wrestling with the past for a shred of time." He was waging his war not only with the brush but also with a pen. He revealed the gift of a tongue-tied prophet. As if having touched the world's deepest antiquity that had gone into the subterranean fire... his words would emerge as a precious alloy that begot his book, Singing the World's Germination, wrote Matyushin in admiration.

"Singing" did not keep him from being drafted, and in the autumn of 1916 Filonov, a private in a Navy Regiment of the Baltic Fleet, was sent to the Rumanian Front. After the February Revolution of 1917, the conscientious Marine was elected Chairman of the Soldiers' Congress in the town of Izmail and later served the revolution as Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Pridunaiski Area. It is not known what Filonov did to promote the proletarian dictatorship in Moldavia. We know only one thing: the prospect of a career in the Soviets held no attraction for him. Back in Petrograd (formerly St.Petersburg) in 1918 after the war was over, he handed the regimental colours to Comrade Podvoisky and resumed his work as an artist.

The nation was in a fever of renovation. In 1919, a vast "free exhibition" was opened right in the Winter Palace where artists of all trends showed their work without any panel of judges. (Apparently it was the idea of Larisa Reisner whose dream was to make St.Pete a "Naval Athens". "Filonov looks like an Ararat at the exhibition", wrote the caustic Shklovsky.

At a conference in February of 1919, it was decided to open the Museum of Artistic Culture (MAC) which would exhibit only contemporary "inventor's" art (the scientifically industrial phrase was in vogue with the avant-garde). At the same time, the objective was set to reform (in fact, to destroy) the Academy of Arts, a hotbed of conservatism. Filonov made up an outline of a course in "analytical art". He was offered a professorship. But he would accept it only on the condition that all the courses at the Academy would be taught using the "analytical method". Three times humble petitions were presented to him but Filonov was adamant . The Director handed down his verdict: "Filonov will come to the Academy only over my dead body".

By 1923, the victory of the new art seemed complete. Filonov wrote the declaration, "Entry into the New World Golden Age". At his suggestion the MAC was turned into a research organization named the State Institute of Art Culture. Kasimir Malevich was appointed its director. Filonov was to head the Department of General Ideology.

It is hard to say what it meant in practical terms because the institute he had set up kept him in that position for only two months. He was insufferable, of course. He knew the Truth, so no one's decision on any matter suited him. Any suggestion of his was actually an ultimatum, and in the social turmoil of that time very few were willing to obediently follow the self-proclaimed guru.

He called it persecution.

Family plays

Home life with him was no easier. When his beloved sister Evdokiya did not invite a charwoman to her wedding, Filonov refused to attend the dinner. He lived in her room, so while the celebrating was in full swing he sat painting, his face turned to the window.

Later he was given a room, a good one with two windows, in a house at 19, Karpovka Embankment. The first thing he did was to get rid of "everything that he had not bought with his own money. All that he had borrowed from his sisters" he either gave away or sold. He whitewashed the walls himself, and washed the floors every day.

A room in the same building was given to Yekaterina Serebryakova, an old revolutionary, who was a member of Narodnaya Volya. She knew a painter lived in the house, but did not know who. and after the death of her husband she went to him with the request to do her husband's portrait. Filonov did it and refused to take any money for it. So she offered to teach him English. In gratitude he painted her portrait...

Their marriage looked like this: since they lived in different rooms (by God! I do not know in what sense I used the word 'lived'), every morning they visited each other for a cup of tea. She was 20 years older (he was 40), and he called her daughter. He refused to dine in her room or accept anything of material value from her because he "did not even have 20 kopecks to bring an apple as a gift to his wife". For her birthday he painted a silk scarf that took him one and a half months working 16 hours a day to do.

One day Yekaterina Alexandrovna felt bad in the street (it must have been a stroke) She was brought to a hospital and was being put to a ward. Someone had located Filonov who raced to the hospital, took his wife away from the doctors and, having no money for a cab, carried her home in his arms across the whole city. He nursed her back to health and taught her to speak anew... When the city was blockaded by the Nazis, he would make her eat some of his rations. She outlived him by some five months. His sisters dragged two sleds to the Serafimovskoye cemetery: one with Filonov's body, the other with his wife who went along to pay her last respects.

Besides his wife and sisters there were some other close friends — his students. With the loss of his official status, Filonov became an informal guru for young artists seeking knowledge. He accepted them all, spending as much time as was needed with each of them. "Nobody had so many students as Filonov, from 40 to 70 at a time", recalls a contemporary.

There were many desiring to learn, but the turnover was great, too. Some were scared off by the amount of time and effort called for by the principle of "making completely", other, more energetic, by the amazing sameness of the "analytical pictures". Filonov's atelier turned into a factory capable of turning out any amount of works of exceptional quality. At the great exhibition in 1927 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, the Filonov people displayed several dozen large — up to 5 metres — canvasses done by teamwork as if by one person's hand. They depicted the new life, the old life, tractors, Madonnas, capitalists, workers, the epic of the Great Change.

On a global scale

"Starting from 1923, he had no possibility to teach and write for the press due to all the slander... Filonov has been accused of engaging in underground revolutionary work in pictorial art... Furthermore, he does not accept orders, nor charge for his lessons, and has declined two offers to publish his monograph... He has not exhibited any paintings since 1923. He has declined offers to take part in exhibitions in Paris, America, Dresden, Venice. He has over 300 "made" pictures and drawings that would be a deciding factor on the Soviet, proletarian and global scale. He has decided to give them to the Soviet State thinking there could be an exhibition of them in cities in the Soviet Union and European centres, as well as a separate museum of analytical art".

This was what Filonov wrote about himself, and this was what actually took place. It is possible that a complete withdrawal from ideological and career battles saved his life: he was not an obstacle to anybody. On the contrary, people came to him begging, yet he acted as if he wasn't interested. When the Soviet government suggested an exhibition of his works in the Russian Museum in 1929, any posturing was out of the question.

The exhibition was assembled and reviewed by the art authorities, but something went wrong: a favourable article was taken out of the catalogue. A new supervisor had been appointed who did not recognize the value of the "analytical method"... Filonov was respected. Many people tried to lobby his exhibition including the big official Isaak Brodsky. Nothing helped. Filonov's opponents played a trump card — they suggested inviting factory workers to the museum. They were sure that the men would demand removing the "abracadabra". The people's experts, unexpectedly, expressed their opinion in very strong terms: "Filonov is a real treasure-house, such an artist should not be left without attention". "The broad masses should be made aware of him because this art is revolutionary", "The workers themselves can decipher Filonov's pictures", and even "Someone who took part in the war against Germany would understand". But this did not help either. For 18 months the exhibition was in the halls of restricted access, and then it was dismantled.

No stocks of either fat or money "From the first days of July, I lived on only tea, sugar and a kilo of bread a day. On the 29th... in the morning I baked the last muffin, getting ready, like many, many others, to live without food for nobody knows how long", Filonov recorded in his diary in 1935.

Frugal as he was he had to exist somehow. He would accept his sisters' help only if he could repay them. He would not accept anything at all from his wife. He never had holidays: no summerhouse or sanatorium for him. Having no money to buy canvass , he did oil paintings on paper (a very fragile and unreliable technique). For many years his room was unheated. Summer and winter, he wore cotton pants and a jacket that had faded after endless washings.

He refused a pension and the ration offered him by the Artists' Union because they were designated for a needy person while he insisted they be listed "for artistic achievements". He stubbornly refused contacts with Western critics and agents although sometimes they offered royal terms.

In the early 1930s, Filonov's workshop accepted a big order — they were to illustrate the Finnish epic "Kalevala". Apparently, he once again declined a fee. His brother-in-law, the director of the Anti-Religious Museum, got him a job: he was to paint a map of the Northern Hemisphere in St.Isaac's Cathedral under the Foucault's Pendilum. It must have been a misservice. Filonov did not paint a map but a giant "made picture", working nights for four months straight lying on the stone floor. He spent the money to buy the first suit that he ever had in his life. He did not put it on even once, he was buried in it. For Filonov the blockade started some ten years earlier than for others, and ended on December 3, 1941. He died quietly: he went to sleep and never woke up. His sister Evdokia did not dare abandon her brother's treasures and decided not to leave starving Leningrad. At last, in 1942, she took several bundles of Filonov's canvasses and drawings to the Russian Museum. Some of them were shown to the Russian public 40 years later.

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