Below is an excerpt from “The Exquisite Suffering of Pavel Filonov,” a 92-page senior thesis published by the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. Completed for the honors history program, this brief biography follows curmudgeonly avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov, who pursued an individualistic philosophy of art-making in nascent Soviet and then Stalinist Russia. As one might imagine, this story ends bleakly. Impoverished and isolated from the Soviet art machine, Filonov died of starvation during the blockade of Leningrad in 1941, surrounded by his beloved paintings, most of which now reside in the sunless sprawling basements of St. Petersburg’s state museums. I painted reproductions of Filonov’s artworks while translating his diaries from the 1930s. With this project I sought to explore history through several lenses at once, history as it’s told by historians, as it was told in a diary, and as it is stored in image.
“…Pioneers of Constructivism saw the journey from figurative art to mechanical construction as a universal force, as irreversible as the Revolution itself. The material reality in Russia at this time pressured artists to create consciously useful objects. Grain acquisition during the war years caused a severe famine in the early 1920s and urban living conditions plummeted as workers looking for a better life flooded in to ill-equipped cities.
The extreme conditions of the time period prompted an extreme reformulation of aesthetics. The machine provided artists with a perfect model for both beauty and functionality. Rodchenko flew this banner when he said, “all new approaches to art arise from technology and engineering, and move towards organization and construction.” Though artists did not always research aesthetics with an immediate utilitarian aim, the ultimate goal was that such experimentation would eventually contribute to a utilitarian task (Lodder, 7). Industry and craft were supposed to be the salvation of the people, who bore the violence and uncertainty of Revolution with hopes that mechanization would eventually improve their lives.
The Constructivists confronted the suffering and deprivation inherent to Revolutionary times as something they could use science to understand and eliminate. Two-dimensional investigations provided a means to an end, namely constructions which could be of concrete usefulness. Instead of art mimicking reality, art had the power to transform life. This basic tenet made the artist an active force in the material world, and the Constructivists had little tolerance for the passivity they believed was inherent to figurative painting. Many artists redesigned everyday objects in a Constructivist manner, such as: textiles, clothing, furniture, and even dishware. Others applied the geometry of machines to architectural designs and other grand if impractical plans for everything from glass houses to flying machines. All of their designs were in essence meant to serve society in a tangible, objective way. Instead of reaffirming the status quo by representing it in their art, they made things that were supposed to build a brighter, more advanced future. But the socialist utopia that the Constructivists were attempting to build never came to pass, and the avant-garde movement lost its momentum by the time of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, when the Party began affirming its exclusive right to dictate aesthetics.
Instead of embracing technology and machines as the cure for human suffering in a socialist state, Filonov’s school of “Analytical Art” sought no such remedy. Instead, hard work and sacrifice were the chief means by which an ordinary person could become a “master-researcher-inventor.” He writes in “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art:”
“Man develops and perfects himself through study and through persistent work. And that’s all… Creativity, i.e. madeness, whatever is depicted in the painting, is, above all, the reflection and record (via material) of a struggle- the struggle for the development of a higher intellectual plane in man…”
Personal sacrifice and struggle are integral parts of Filonov’s ideology, and his life. He worked up to twenty hours a day and frequently reworked paintings and manuscripts for years, always finding something else that could be changed or enhanced. Filonov’s oeuvre of “biologically made paintings” are records of painstaking processes that took up countless hours of the artist’s life. He believed the success of an object to be directly correlated with the amount of time spent working on it, though that is not to say that Filonov believed a large time investment necessarily guaranteed a successful object. Vera Anikieva’s biography contains data about the specific amounts of time Filonov invested in making his paintings:
“Filonov’s very method of working <sic> demands a considerable expenditure of time for each work to be implemented. We can provide some data concerning the length of time spent of particular paintings: “Heads”- six months, “Feast of Kings”- six months, “People”- seven months, “Formula for the Proletariat”- six months, “Formula of the Cosmos”- one year… Filonov does not ascribe a self-sufficient meaning to the work of art…The painting, the process of work on it, the very aim of work represents for Filonov, the powerful idea of struggling for the new man, for the development of his advanced intellect, for a new culture.”
Through the visual presentation of his struggle, Filonov wanted to engage his audience’s intellect, and challenge them to think for themselves about the content of his pictures, even though it might be uncomfortable to do so. He allows that “the artist might consciously deceive or demoralize the viewer,” in order to activate the intellect of the latter. Instead of providing his audience with objects that enhanced their external surroundings, Filonov attempted to give viewers access to an internal world…
…Having condemned both the avant-garde and the rightist movements in art, Filonov pragmatically established his own collective in 1925, called the Masters of Analytical Art (MAA), also known as the Filonov School. It specialized in painting, illustration and theatre set design. At one point in the mid-twenties, MAA had over seventy members, all of whom worked on projects according to Filonov’s direction. During its early years, MAA benefited from the relative apathy of the Bolsheviks towards autonomous cultural groups. Filonov was a ready, if inflexible teacher, and his diaries show he enjoyed imparting wisdom and advice to inquiring young artists. His style was unique in that he did not dictate what his students should paint, or even exactly how they should paint it, but rather, he encouraged them to explore and analyze all different media, so long as their work was persistent and sincere. He meant for his ideology of Analytical Art to provide a universal system for creativity, and expected his students to implant their own specific tenets within the system during practical application. His approach was diametrically opposed to the rigid pedagogy developing within AKhRR and the Academy: “The Principle of Madeness, which provides the student with the truest media of operation, delivers him immediately and forever from pedagogical servility and makes him a master. It organizes a research initiative in him.” The ultimate goal of Filonov’s program was that his students would think independently, and discover their own personalized forms of analytical expression. As guidelines, Filonov suggested the members of MAA paint every kind of topic imaginable, impartially exploring things both beautiful and things utterly abject. The students could depict any themes they wished, provided they worked hard and stayed true their intuition. Filonov did not charge for his lessons, and never turned away a willing pupil, though he was not forgiving to those that abandoned MAA to join the Realist ranks. This happened with increasing frequency during 1929-30, when the controversy about Filonov’s exhibition at the Russian Museum was at its peak.
The group finally succumbed to political pressures in 1930 and the majority of students abandoned the school…”