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Pavel Filonov

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter, graphic artist and poet. He came from a working-class background; orphaned in childhood, he moved to St Petersburg, where he earned money through embroidery, house painting, restoring buildings and icons, and other tasks such as retouching photographs and making posters and wrappers for goods (a practical apprenticeship he never forgot). His interest in drawing and painting developed through copying, making portraits and the close study of human and animal anatomy. He entered the Academy of Arts, St Petersburg (1908) with difficulty but he left without graduating; his only important teacher was L. E. Dmitriyev-Kavkazsky (1849–1916), with whom he studied privately. Largely self-taught, he was a man of considerable intellectual powers.

Filonov’s earliest mature work dates from 1909–10, notably A Hero and his Fate (oil on canvas; St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.). Subsequently, partly for financial reasons, he generally painted in watercolour or oil on paper. He wandered extensively through Russia, the Near East and western Europe. From 1910 to 1914 he exhibited regularly with the Union of youth and he met and collaborated with the leaders of Russian literary Futurism, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksey Kruchonykh, but Filonov’s modernism was essentially his own. It was rooted in Russian folk and primitive art, in medieval Russian wall painting, in the linear manner of Dürer, the teeming imaginations of Bosch and Bruegel, the heightened, crowded realism of works by Vasily Surikov and Konstantin Savitsky and in the fragmented textures of the work of the Symbolist Mikhail Vrubel’.

In 1913 Filonov came to public attention as co-designer with I. Shkol’nik (1882–1926) of Mayakovsky’s play Vladimir Mayakovsky: Tragediya. During the four years until he was called up into the army (1916) Filonov was at the height of his powers, involved in a wide range of activities. His paintings were executed according to his principle of sdelannost’ (a neologism: ‘madeness’ or ‘craftedness’), which involved unremitting hard work on the art object leading to an extraordinarily detailed, crystalline, iridescent, apparently unstructured painterly texture (e.g. Workers, 1925); inspiration was discounted, craftsmanship exalted and the aim was the cognition of all qualities of the object, visible and invisible, down to its last atom. Filonov proclaimed his ideas in many manifestos, of which Sdelannyye kartiny (‘Made paintings’; 1914) was an early example. A second major principle, mirovoy rastsvet (‘universal flowering’), signalled a shift from his earlier apocalyptic, haunted manner, with its agonizingly flayed human figures, towards images of organic growth and radiance. In 1915 he published a long and extraordinarily obscure poetic work, Propeven’ o prorosli mirovoy (‘The chant of universal flowering’), with his own illustrations. This was highly praised by Khlebnikov, who incorporated Filonov memorably into his own prose work Ka (1916) as an artist ‘already at war, only a war to conquer time, not space’, and whose Izbornik stikhov, 1907–14 (‘Selected poems, 1907–14’; St Petersburg, 1914) was designed by Filonov. This is a landmark in modern book illustration, in which Filonov turned individual letters into pictograms and fused word and image into a primitive and modern synthesis. In the same year his austere drawings for the Futurist miscellany Rykayushchiy Parnas (‘Roaring Parnassus’) supposedly caused almost the entire edition to be confiscated for indecency.

Filonov welcomed the Revolution of 1917 and he was for a short time in charge of the ideological section of Ginkhuk. His lectures and proclamations became bellicose, as he battled equally against both academic and ‘proletarian’ art in support of his method, ‘analytic art’, which was to operate through ‘madeness’ in any of several modes (the primitive, the abstract, the hyper-real, often disconcertingly juxtaposed). Believing true art belonged to the people, Filonov no longer sold nor even signed his works and would not allow a one-man exhibition abroad nor the writing of a monograph about him; he lived a life of ascetic self-denial. Pupils began spontaneously to seek him out, and in 1925 he formalized the situation by establishing his ‘Collective of Masters of Analytic Art’, the Filonov school (Rus. Filonovtsy). This loosely knit group exhibited in 1927 and was commissioned to illustrate an ambitious edition of the Finnish epic Kalevala (pubd 1933), a complex undertaking by a team of 14 artists working collectively. Among them were Alisa Poret, M. D. Tsibasov and Tatyana Glebova. The Filonov school was a formative experience even for artists who subsequently reacted against it and was a significant phenomenon in Leningrad cultural life, influencing, among others, the poet N. Zabolotsky (1903–58).

Even before the Kalevala, however, the tide had turned against Filonov: a major retrospective exhibition was hung in the Russian Museum in Leningrad (1929–30) but never opened to the public; the press was hostile. From the early 1930s his position became precarious. Few works are datable to the last decade of his life, but neither his craftsmanship nor his sense of mission diminished. He died during the Siege of Leningrad (in which he was a fire-watcher). Despite his stature as a luminary of Russian Modernism, Filonov was reduced to a figure of myth. However, since the mid-1960s his work (mostly in St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.) has been gradually rediscovered and his writings published, and since the mid-1980s his work has been exhibited in Russia and elsewhere.

Robin Milner-Gulland
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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